Thursday, June 14, 2012

Mountains, Burros and the Mojave

Monday June 11, 2012

We did the mileage tally and we had only lost about 10 miles a day by loafing on Sunday. It felt good and the blog was back on track. We now need to travel 135 miles a day on average to get to the end of the road and have a day left to dub around and get ready to fly out Friday the 15th.  Early in the trip we started the day with no firm endpoint for the day. In the northern states even on rural 66 we were never far from an interstate exit that would have at least one motel to stay at. As we got into the desert states there were some significant gaps where there were no options for many miles. We also had a time or two where we snagged on of the last rooms in the area.  Considering those 2 situations we had taken to identifying end of day options if not actually booking a room before hitting the road. When we looked at where our departure from Kingman would take us we were sort of surprised that we would have either another short day of driving or a long haul. In the end, the only real choice as to drive on to Barstow California, 228 miles away.  As a day of driving this is nothing special but when touring and sightseeing it can be quite another story. Fortunately we didn’t have any cities to get snarled up in and no other big stops were in sight.

We were rolling out of Kingman by 8:30, about an hour earlier than usual. The road led us into McConnico where as we left the city of Kingman behind a desert valley opened up in front of us. This section of 66 is designated as a National Back Country Byway. There was a kiosk with information and suggestions for making the 42 mile trip through desert and the Black Mountains. There were scattered communities of people in travel trailers or beat up mobile homes. There did seem to be some mining activity. We got some nice pictures of mountains with pronounced peaks, wild flowers and a small wind farm.

In Cool Springs we stopped to visit Cool Springs Cabins. There aren’t really any cabins, just souvenirs and a few convenience items you may want before heading into the mountains. Lorna did get a few trinkets including a hunk of RT 66 pavement with a certificate of authenticity. This place was built in 1926 but the stone filling station / store had crumbled away to almost nothing. Hollywood recreated it as a prop for the movie Universal Soldier. Afterwards the present owners set to rebuilding the place once more, to its original state. Much of the work was done by a fellow from Maine that went down and decided to stay. It’s a nice place on the edge of the road in the valley. Outside there are the usual vintage gasoline signs and glass jar punps. The owner tells us that they have the model for Tow Mater the tow truck in Cars but the owner would not sign a contract with Pixar so they don’t have official credit. That leaves the door open for the claim 4 Women on the Route had back in Kansas.

Down the road we passed Ed’s Camp, home of the Kactus Café, all abandoned. From there we began to wind our, way up to Sitgeaves Pass. The road was narrow and paved with the traditional route 66 guardrails, usually none. In a few areas there were posts and cables but for the most you got it right or else. The climb was easy, never needing to leave Drive. The bigger challenge for me was watching around the blind corners. Trying to crane my neck around the “A” pillar while turning to the left meant taking my eyes of the road, so I just went slow. We stopped about 3 times at turnouts to get pictures and to let an occasional local on a mission fly ahead. Lorna didn’t think much of the experience as she more often than not was on the cliff edge side of the road. Of course if we went over we’d be together but I suppose that’s scant comfort. When we made it to the summit pass at 3550 feet we set up for some timed photos to commemorate the climb. There were still some stout pipe railings around the summit to protect people in the days when there was an ice cream stand up there. The trip down was pretty easy with the usual tight turns. Dropping to 1st or 2nd gear did most of the braking. We got more good pictures of the mountains and desert plants.

What came next sort of blew my mind. Some of the signs and Lorna had mentioned running into burros but the next scene was totally unexpected. As we drove down into the valley with the mountainsides closing in we rounded a bend and a village began to emerge. We knew we had arrived somewhere and as it turned out Lorna knew more about this than I did. The scene was out of an old western with both sides of the winding street lined with aging sun faded storefronts, raised wood sidewalks with cover for shade, a burros milling about. We got one of the last free parking spaces before the village and got out to explore.It was like walking into a movie set.

As it turns out this was an old gold mining town that 66 ended up running right through. This must have been on heck of a bottle neck.  The gold mining eventually ended in the 1940’s, a more expeditious route diverted the traffic in the 50’s and by the 60’s the place was virtually abandoned. In recent years with the international interest in 66 it has boomed into a tourist stop with plenty of gift shops, eateries and snack stops, all with that rustic, always been here feel, no neon, no glitz. It’s like walking into a real life “Six Gun City”. On some weekends they even have shootout reenactments.  Many other weekends are busy with car rallies, bikers and the 4th of July fry an egg on the sidewalk contest. They expected 105F the day we visited.

We did the usual wandering around collecting a few souvenirs and the inevitable Route 66/Oatman/Burro T shirt. Lorna got nipped in the leg  by a curios burro who left a patch of donkey snott behind.  It was a fun place to visit, something I never expected to find outside of a theme park. After an hour or so knew it was time to get going, we still had a big day of driving ahead of us.

The road wound gently through old trails where we found an local memorial to Korean war veterans up on a rocky ridge. There as a lot more loose rock here perhaps disturbed by the mining work of long ago.

In Golden Shores the diner had burned. Talking to a local it sounded like a gas explosion while the owner was staring the place up one day last year. The fatal event put an end to what he called one good greasy cheeseburger. However on this guy’s garage we did find the Route 66 mural inspired by and dedicated to Bob Waldmire.  Remember Bob? We toured his school bus turned home/studio/RT 66 information center back in Pontiac, Illinois. More and more things like this seem to be knitting together. If you’re driving through the mural is on the blind side of a beige and red former service station with a Phillips 66 sign. The place is fenced in but the owner was welcoming.

Topock was the last we would see of Arizona. Here and back in Golden Shores we began to signs of campgrounds and boating on the Colorado River. We were leaving the desert behind but the landscape was still largely barren, complete with tumble weed.

Arizona Spit us out on to the interstate for lack of surviving Route 66 and delivered us to Needles California. Here we found many signs of 66 including our lunch stop at the Burger Hut. The patty was probably the thinnest I have ever seen with paper thin crisp edges. It was good eats on a picnic table under the awning. The place was doing a steady business for our after 1:00 arrival. Needles has many murals around town so this folk art renaissance does extend in to California. It is also home to one of the last surviving Harvey House structures. This handsome structure is fenced in gutted and said to be under restoration.

There is plenty you can read about the Harvey Houses but in short they were grand hotel & restaurant operations built to serve the railway traffic. They became especially known for their Harvey Girls, well bred, educated, white, conservatively uniformed, ladies with a 10:00 curfew. They served to bring a sense of civility to the travelers’ existence. While many did end up finding husbands these were reputable operations. The structures including this one were often grand rambling stone or masonry building more in the style of a courthouse or grand hotel, an amazing legacy.

Beyond the murals and Harvey House were a potpourri of vintage motels like the 66, Sage, Ranch Road resort Motel LeBrun Relax Inn and Needles Inn plus a nice old theater building still in use. About ½ of the Motels were dormant.

Needles sent us out into the Sahara Desert where we stopped at the Sahara Oasis, a convenience store / filling station. We needed a pit stop and this place was cool with pools of water, fountains and pink flamingos. The road led us to Essex, a desert ghost town.

In Essex we found the remains of the Wayside Market with the circular sign frame just empty loop. The building is all white with no discernible lettering. The small stone Post Office is closed and replaced with about 3 dozen outdoor lock boxes like you see for trailer parks. The old stone well that travelers would use for fresh water is now dry but remains at the roadside. The Essex Café is standing by, Good Food, Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner – Air Conditioned. Behind most of these desert buildings you can see elevated water tanks for apparently self sufficient water systems. The Café is now closed, the pump island devoid of pumps and only the framing of the canopy remains.

Across the road stands a white weathering clapboard building. The elements are slowly peeling the roof away. On the front at the far right STUDIO can still be read. Another one to research latter.

Essex is also the start of the folk wall. On the north side of the road running to Amboy, about 50 feet from the pavement runs a sand & gravel berm, perhaps the desert equivalent to a snow fence. People have taken to creating art or at least leaving their mark generally with local stones arranged on the slope but some have used bottles, painted stones or what looks like marble chips. This runs for many miles and is a desert version of the murals seen in the towns.

Danby has a broken down service station that is in descript save a mural painted on the front wall. Out in the open is a turnout for a former picnic area that included tables and shade canopies in the day when travelers used this road. A panorama of text panels tells of Route 66, the former picnic area, the desert and its inhabitants. You can still see the footings that anchored the tables and canopies. As I stood there the air was calm and I heard silence, complete total silence like I don’t remember hearing in a long time. The temperature was running around 108F and it was hot but comfortable, at least for small sight seeing excursions

In Chambles stands an old store, Soda Pop, Food, Ice, Snacks And Beef are lettered. A big CHAMBLES sign has been erected in front so you know where you are. A historic marker across the street tells the history.  Further down the road is the Road runner Restaurant and adjacent filling station. They offered fountain service and it says it’s in East Amboy It’s all boarded up now but the towering sign and giant roadrunner at the apex is a sight. The station is marked as “Official Garage”. Did that mean something in the day? We have seen a few real roadrunners on the trip, no Beep Beeps though.

In Amboy we passed the school. A significant building now abandoned, testament to what must have once been here. Just past the school is Roy’s Motel & Café as the sign says. A restaurateur has bought this place and is slowly reviving it. The filling station pumps are back in service and the store and fountain have been fixed up quite nicely. Walking into the place is like a time warp with a long fountain running most of the width of the place. There isn’t much happening for lack of traffic, a few snack and souvenir items are on sale but food’s not being served. Unfortunately a hired hand was tending shop and he was more interested in his daytime TV show. It would have been fun to meet the owner who must has a passion for this project.

We wandered next door to see what was happening with the motel section. It looked pretty nice from the road but it seems that the desert conditions are quite kind to buildings. Up close it was aging and somewhat weathered, not freshly painted as I may have guessed. The rooms were emptied but intact. One was left with the door open. A lot of work will be needed if they are ever again to be occupied but there is hope.

The mind blower was the office building up in front. The building had a full width glass lobby with a a residence out back. The roof line projected far beyond the front ending in a point providing plenty of sun shade. The inside is an amazing time capsule and should be memorialized. An Orange counter sits on a beige carpet. The counter has lamps I would expect from 1960, old copies of McCall’s and Time magazine are in a rack. Plastic apples are waiting in the coffee table basket that sits in front of a bug cushy tan couch. Against the back wall sits a 1950’s HI-FI with at least 5 feet of wooden cabinet with the turn table open. This probably was for back ground music when the adjacent grand piano wasn’t being played. Lest this sound austere a colorful carousel pony is front and center in the window. Through the door is a dining room with table service for 5 set in the blue floral wall papered room. All of this is sitting behind glass with light dust like they left it when they closed the doors years ago.  Restrooms are in a plumbed outbuilding though it looked like the motel rooms were also equipped. Camping may have been offered.

Out back is a smaller vacant building with a windsock that seemed to be frozen half filled, pointing south. Across the street is a white church with a weather toppled steeple.

Down the road was something we had seen coming for some time. These vast desert spaces play some weird tricks with your mind and sense of distance. Things seem close but you just don’t seem to get closer as you drive on and on. Eventually we came to the turn-off for the Amboy Crater. It is a volcanic cone that last erupted about 500 years ago. The 250 tall crater can be climbed but in the 108F heat we thought better though it was tempting. The access road is paved and rolls organically with the terrain as it tries to blend in with the ground and lava field. From the big parking lot the leads a trail to the mentioned crater climb and another to a viewing area under a canopy on a rise. We went up to the viewing area looked at the crater, took some pictures including Lorna posing with the crater, another first for her, and me too.  If you want to make a day of it there are restrooms and picnic canopies down by the parking lot. It was a nice, unattended, free stop courtesy of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The trip from Amboy to Ludlow brought us from isolation back to the side of the interstate. Being on an exit a few businesses have survived here. The Ludlow Café, a white block building is closed. Between the café and I-40 stands a big high in the sky sign and arrow shows where they tried to lure interstate drivers in for a bite to eat. The sign panel is blown away with the frame and arrow left to tell the story.

Next door a filling station with a long canopy jutting out and up is stripped down, fenced in and being used by someone as a storage lot. A fairly new truck stood near some fresh looking wooden crates.

Next was a repair garage building. The 2 bay structure has lost its roof but the lettering on the walls offers 24 hour towing, welding, Generators, Regulators, Water Pumps and Fuel Pumps. Just the list of specialties  makes me think of the family with the struggling jalopy trying to make it to the west coast.

 Across the street is a green building with a vacant round rimmed sign by the road. If someone told me it was a general store I’d probably believe it. Off to the side a white building says Post Office to me but who knows. One more vacant filling station with Ludlow Tire lettered in the window completes the scene on the east end of the exit.

Across the road the road is the Ludlow 66 Café, an odd sort of building with a lot of 1950’s touches. We were getting hungry but the few cars in and out of the lot just couldn’t convince us to trust the place.  In the first quarter of the 20th century Ludlow had something of a boom supplying borax. A rail line was extended to the town but the whole thing crashed by the 40’s and was torn up. A plaque and some model rail equipment in front of the Café commemorate this period. Another plaque commemorates project CARRYALL. This involved underground nuclear tests designed to clear mountain passes for I-40 and rail lines through the Bristol Mountains near Ludlow.

Still another dormant service station with 2, 1950’s trucks under the canopy lies between the Café and the Ludlow Motel which appears to still be tidy and operating. Across the street is a modern convenience store / filling station where we got a snack to tide us over. All things considered this little place had a lot to say.

Newberry springs had more surprises. An Old Whiting Brothers service station was fenced in. They were a big player in the fuel business on 66. The fading yellow shield is still visible on the sign atop the canopy. On the façade of the building large fading lettering suggests an eatery may have operated. It’s not all visible but the pictures do show. Tony’s, Italian And American, Dish. The way the canopy obscures some of the lettering makes me think this was prior to the filling station use of the building and paint chalking is revealing history. In any case 3 little old gas pimps still stand on the island. Sitting benches are in front of the air conditioned building. It’s all retired behind a security fence. I seem to be seeing much more fencing around these places in California. Perhaps they have tighter control over derelict properties. I’d like to think they are trying to preserve history but it’s probably public safety. I have observed in prior states that these places do become crash pads.

Just down the road is a retired 3 unit motel with an attached home. The name is gone from the sign but for $125,00. OBO it on 3-1/2 acres could be yours. I have no idea how old the sign is but I bet they’d take less if there is even a remaining owner of record.

A little farther in Newberry springs we came to the Bagdad Café made famous in the 1988 movie of that name. At the time it was the Sidewinder Café but in 1995 they changed the name to capitalize on the movie fame. They’re open from 7-7 and were just short of that so passed on going in at closing time. Through the windows I could see that chairs were already up on the tables. It earned a Hampton Landmark sign. We had spotted the old side of the original Bagdad Café back in the desert, now marked by a foundation remnant and a big lone tree.

This got us into Barstow, our home for the night. This is a railway town where the Santa Fe has a big presence. Around the 1920’s the main street was actually moved back to make more room for the rail yards. This may account for a long stretch of the street that has a very consistent appearance. We checked into the room and Lorna noticed a pair of wrapped earplugs on the night stand. Wondering if these were standard room equipment or left behind I just had to ask the desk clerk about them. It turns out they do provide them since some customers are concerned about the nearby trains, we slept soundly sans plugs. Driving through town I began to see why Johnny Carson used to pick on Barstow. Dinner options were slim pickings but a small Denny’s chicken salad hit the spot. More will follow on Barstow tomorrow when we get to look around.

It was a memorable day on the road, from crossing the Black Mountains, to Oatman’s burros to the desert ghost towns and natural wonders it all played out at a nice pace and puts us on schedule to complete this journey as planned.

Tomorrow morning we will decide where to stay for the rest of the trip. We should get to the end of the trail on the Santa Monica Pier on Wednesday. Thursday is set aside to do odds and ends and get ready to fly out Friday morning.

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