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oute 66 is as much a state of mind as it is a road. Driving the road eastward, one can almost see the ghosts of westward bound traffic, long forgotten faces gazing across the desert, eager with the anticipation of seeing the gleaming Pacific Ocean at the end of their long difficult journey. Cultures have always incorporated spiritual journeys into their fabric, from vision quests and walkabouts, to quests and pilgrimages. Modern America has Route 66. That’s why people come from around the world to make this journey. The Route 66 experience isn’t really about cracked asphalt and getting to a precise physical destination. Oh, it’s about going somewhere all right, but somewhere as much inside of ourselves as geographically. It’s a journey that combines a bit of time travel with a spirit of community that, while it sometimes doesn’t look like much from the outside, has a lot to teach America, and the world. It’s about lonely beautiful vistas, the art of the passing of time, and a deep love of life and travel. It’s about who you meet on a landscape where we’re all strangers and yet we’re all oddly familiar. Route 66 is deeply and uniquely American, connecting the traveler with even older routes across this land, that speak to cultures and histories going back long, long ago into times where myth and history intersect. Perhaps more than anything, Route 66 is not really a road, but rather a 2,400 mile long community. Folks who live and work along the Mother Road don’t just identify as being Americans or from one of the eight states the road crosses. They identify with the road, and many seem to acknowledge their relationship with it is as much a spiritual calling as anything else. Sure, they could live somewhere else. But the road needs them. And I suspect many of them need the road. 32 The Sun Runner – February/March 2013
I believe every American should make this journey—the complete Route 66 passage—at least once in their life. I’ve driven bits and pieces and fairly long stretches of the road over the years, but after this trip, I feel the need to drive eastward from Chicago, letting America roll out all around me, on the way to that distant glittering Pacific Ocean a world away. Jim Conkle and I get in the spirit for a road trip at our Route 66 starting point at the California Route 66 Museum in Victorville, above. The best part of the Route 66 experience is the people you meet. I got off to a good start as Jim introduced me to the museum’s staff, it’s vice president, Betty Halbe, and Sharon Foster., below.
here is no better companion for traveling the Mother Road than James Monroe Conkle. Jim has traveled the length of America’s Main Street more than 200 times, and is to many folks along the way, Mr. Route 66. Jim, now in his youthful seventies, first came across Route 66 in 1949 with his family. Something about the experience stuck with him. Since then, he has traveled this highway in nearly every mode possible, from hitchhiking to leading international tours, including a Chinese Cadillac dealers expedition. Every trip is unique, and he says he always meets someone new and learns something new each time he sets out on the road. Since 2002, Jim has worked full time on the preservation, restoration, and promotion of Route 66. He sees how all these efforts interconnect for the benefit of the road and its communities. He has worked with state, national, and international associations, tour operators, and government agencies, all on behalf of the Mother Road. With Jim as a spokesman and marketing consultant for Hampton Inn/Hilton Hotels, the international hospitality giant received the 2003 Public Relations Society of America’s Silver Anvil award, the 2004 Smithsonian Award for Preservation, and the 2006 Presidential Preserve America Award. The founder, CEO, and Chairman of the Board of Preservation of Historic Roads and Corridors, and the Route 66
Jim Conkle enjoys our visit with folk artist and desert cultural treasure, Elmer Long, at Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch near Helendale, left. Jim was the impetus behind these Route 66 Roadside Attraction signs that line Route 66 from Chicago to California as part of the Hampton Hotels Save-A-Landmark program, above.
Preservation Foundation, and the Highway 99 Alliance, Jim has been a consultant to the electric vehicle industry, Senator Dianne Feinstein, the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management, the San Bernardino Convention and Visitor’s Bureau Rendezvous, and even the Palm Springs Follies. He has published the Route 66 Pulse newspaper, which he hopes to begin publishing again soon. He took part in the opening of the new California Route 66 Museum in Victorville while working for the Automobile Club of Southern California. He has served on the museum’s board of directors since 1997. He is a member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Historic Roads, a Tread Lightly Master Trainer, and served as co-chair and host of the Will Rogers Awards (2005-2010), among numerous other events and initiatives on behalf of Route 66. Jim is the perfect guide for our travels down Route 66 as not only does he know most everything about the road and its history, but he also knows dang near everybody along the road, and regularly demonstrates “the Route 66 handshake”—an enthusiastic hug for those we encounter on our journey. Watching Jim in action during our travels, I got the distinct impression the honors he has received in his life that he treasures the most are the smiles, handshakes, and hugs he gets from friends old and new, out along the road.
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he California Route 66 Museum proved to be an excellent starting point for my trip on Route 66, from Victorville to Kingman, Arizona. My guide on this road trip, Jim Conkle, has been on the museum’s board of directors since 1997, and the museum offers a glimpse into what Americans have called the Mother Road, the Main Street of America, the Glory Road, the Will Rogers Highway, and the Road of Dreams, with a focus on the 286 miles of Route 66 that pass through California. There are the memories of Mahan’s Half Acre with its Hula Girl, the Green Spot Motel’s neon sign, a room filled with the history of Victorville, twin arrows, pedal cars, vintage cars, signs, ration cards from World War II, probably the best outhouse to get your picture taken in, and an enormous collection of Route 66 memorabilia. In addition, the museum’s gift shop is a great place to find guidebooks and maps on Route 66, as well as the occasional “must have” road trip shirt. There are occasional classic car shows held near the museum in Old Town Victorville, and other special events celebrating life on the road. While traffic roars about a half mile away on Interstate 15, headed for Barstow and Las Vegas, Jim and I depart on Route 66, taking the road less traveled—and far more interesting. As we head past the historic Desert Motors auto dealership, under I-15, we head toward Oro Grande and Helendale. As we depart Victorville, Emma Jean’s “Holland Burger” Cafe serves early customers for lunch. Solid good road food for hungry travelers! Then we cross a 1932 old steel truss bridge across the Mojave River, and it’s time to roll through Oro Grande. Most of the town’s buildings along Route 66, many historic, are long shuttered, but there is some good antique hunting here, and Cross Eyed Cow Pizza serves up some of the best food you can find on the California stretch of Route 66. Check out the 1920s diner booths from the Corona Railroad Station and the bi-plane wing bar. Try The Unlucky Cow pizza, Pope Chicken Alfredo III, or Poncho Villa. Pay no attention to the restaurant’s website that says it isn’t open yet. It is. Travelers are nothing new to Oro Grande. Footprints from 5,000 years ago were left in the mud near the river. Later, prospectors in the 1840s found gold along the river, leading to the founding of the oldest and richest mining district in this area, and the gold mine of the same name. The crumbling ruins of the Mohawk gas station and mini-market bear witness to another time when there was regular and unleaded gas, both priced under $2 a gallon. We pass old motels and the underpass where some folks incorrectly believe singer Sammy Davis, Jr. lost his eye. Then we head by the Iron Hog Restaurant & Saloon, which at one time hosted a performance by Johnny Cash. Roy Rogers dropped by, and the Hog can be seen in the movies Easy Rider and Erin Brockovich. 34 The Sun Runner – February/March 2013
Not far down the road you can take a left down a short dirt road to an enormous ostrich ranch, the O.K. Corral Ostrich Farms. Jim tells me about the late owner of the ranch, Doug Osborne, being gored by one of these beasts as the herd begins to gather near us. They don’t look so much like they want to be fed, as they think we are prey. Jim relates the story of how Doug became taken with raising these vaguely homicidal looking giant birds that clearly still bear some dinosaur DNA in their marrow. He battled arsenic poisoning in the water, and went on to sell their meat, eggs, and ostrich jerky across the country, appearing on the TV shows Dirty Jobs, Modern Marvels, and with Jay Leno. Not long after recovering from his injuries, Doug suffered a massive heart attack and died this past year. The family continues to raise ostriches, though whether this is the biggest ostrich farm in the country is up for discussion as there is another enormous ostrich farm along Route 66 in Newberry Springs, east of Barstow. Nearby is the Roy Rogers Double R Bar Ranch, but the best attraction Helendale ever had to offer is no longer. If you ever went here though, you’d never forget it. Even at this early point in our road trip, I am beginning to understand the layers of stories that make up this highway. At one time, Exotic World was a brief side trip off Route 66, taking you into a film noirish world where aging stripper, Dixie Evans, the “Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque” ran a museum of exotic dance history on the site of a goat farm. Trailers were filled with memorbilia from the immortals—Tempest Storm, Chesty Morgan, Candy Barr, Blaze Starr, Lily St. Cyr (Rocky Horror fans should remember Lily), Sally Rand, Jayne Mansfield, Gypsy Rose Lee, and Exotic World’s first hostess with the mostest, The Bazoom Girl, Jennie Lee. Exotic World hosted what was probably the best annual event in the desert—the Miss Exotic World Pageant—for 16 years. But when Charlie Arroyo, Jennie Lee’s widower and owner of the ranch died in 2006, and after reported harassment from uptight locals and San Bernardino County’s Department of Discouraging Genius and Innovation, Dixie Lee and company sold the collection to some New York investors, and packed up every last tassel and pastie and took it all to Las Vegas where it now exists as the Burlesque Hall of Fame where it just isn’t the same, lost in a sea of, well... Vegas. Miles Mahan’s Half Acre roadside attraction, also known as Hulaville, for obvious reasons, was an outdoor folk art Route 66 icon near Hesperia. With the site buldozed, artifacts from Hulaville are preserved at the California Route 66 Museum in Victorville, along with other Mother Road paraphenalia. Warning! Man-eating ostriches lurk near Helendale, above.. February/March 2013 – The Sun Runner 35
The Miss Exotic World Pageant in Helendale was one of the desert’s best events before it slunk off to Vegas. We sent none other than Shawn Mafia off to meet with Dixie Evans and write about Exotic World. They apparently hit it off pretty well.
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But all is not lost, for there lives yet a man who is a veteran of the Marine Corps, just like Jim Conkle, a native Californian, and a real desert treasure: Elmer Long. Elmer grew up on the dirt roads of Manhattan Beach. Yeah, that was a while ago. His father took the family out in the desert exploring remote and crumbling ghost towns, and collecting cool stuff got into his veins. When his father died, Elmer inherited his collection of bottles and found objects. In 2000, Elmer decided to do something with his inheritance. Now, Elmer’s two acres along Route 66 have become the Bottle Tree Ranch, a popular stop for thousands of people traveling the Mother Road from all around the world. The Bottle Tree Ranch is raw and colorful Americana. It is folk art of the caliber that could only be created by someone who doesn’t really think of himself as an artist. He just makes things. Fascinating things. The bottle trees may have taken root when the inspiration of Miles Mahan’s Hulaville met Elmer’s inheritance, but the Bottle Tree Ranch has evolved and become a work of genius in its own right. The multi-colored bottles catch the desert’s sunlight, while kinetic pieces move with the wind, set off with everything from a rusted toy pedal car to a boat, and road signs evoking a connection with Route 66. Standing in this colorful forest, Jim and Elmer talk like old friends, with Elmer discussing his plans for how the Bottle Tree Ranch will continue after his eventual death. One of his sons, who may not know it yet, has been tapped as the likely successor here at the ranch. I hope whatever the plans may be, they work, as it would be wonderful to have the ranch continue to delight those on the road long into the future. This two-lane strip of oft-neglected blacktop is beginning to meld past, present, and even the future, as Jim and I say our goodbyes to this soft spoken, highly intelligent, and creative desert treasure and head on our way. We pass by abandoned buildings that all have a story to tell as they return to the desert, slowly but surely. We stop at one location where Jim notes the near destruction of what had been housing for the local teacher. Some of these buildings date back to the 1920s before Route 66 was paved through this area. Then there is Sagebrush Annie’s, the real stone-built one, not the faux Western one thrown up next door. Sagebrush Annie was a real character who ran the Sage Brush Inn, a refuge along the road that had a reputation in the 1930s for being pretty wild, and a brothel to boot. Prohibition didn’t mean squat out here along the Sagebrush Route. I think back to 1914 and the great auto race across the desert with racing legend Barney Oldfield driving his No.5 Stutz. Back then, the National Old Trails Highway, the precursor to Route 66, was just about nonexistent through this stretch of desert. But Barney helped bring attention to two things: the automobile and the desert. By 1920, it was reported that the use of burros, horses, and wagons had almost disappeared from the desert. The automobile was here to stay, though a trip from San Bernardino to Needles was still a three-day ordeal. Past the memories of Elva’s Malt Shop, Potapov’s Service Station, the White Orange Cafe where Gene Kelly caught hell for putting his feet up on a chair, we stop at Molly Brown’s Country Cafe for some satisfying road food and friendly service, and then arrive in Hodge, a place devoid of much of anything. Jim tells me at one time Hodge had many millionaires living here, presumably for their health. They appear to be long gone. We roll by The Two 66 Sixes Ranch, and the old Dunes motel before cruising into Barstow. I pick on Barstow a lot, but that’s because they often seem to have given up on the town. Almost everything Barstow is
While Elmer Long’s Bottle Tree Ranch looks like it has been alongside Route 66 forever, it’s really a fairly recent newcomer, inspired in part by the now-vanished Hulaville. Elmer is a true desert cultural treasure, having transformed his two acres of land into an astounding folk art forest, filled with color, movement, and Americana. Thousands of visitors from around the world stop in every year to walk among the bottle trees and take it all in. The lucky ones get to meet Elmer. If you’re traveling between Victorville and Barstow, take Route 66 instead of the freeway. You’ll be glad you did. And when you stop by the Bottle Tree Ranch, please give our regards to Elmer if you see him, and thank him for keeping the spirit of Route 66 alive and healthy.
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Barstow’s Harvey House railroad station, Casa del Desierto, at night, above. Trains roll through Barstow at all hours of the day and night, as they have for many years, below. Poorky’s dishes up road food for roadies on the go, below. Barstow offers roadies classic accommodations along Route 66, bottom.
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about a burger and bathroom on the way to and from Vegas. And that’s it. I even contacted their chamber of commerce about this story and received absolutely no response whatsoever. Someone told me there’s a chamber tourism committee. No there’s not. Nobody in Barstow seems to know jack-all about tourism, nor do they care. Meanwhile, as in so many desert towns, the hotels sit half-empty and the community struggles. This magazine offers them free promotional tools and they still sit and drool on themselves. Go figure. But that’s another story, and an annoying one at that, for those few of us who do work to promote desert tourism. In the meantime, take my word for it that Barstow is a worthwhile town to explore, whether it knows it or not. For a wonderful introduction to the town, you’ve got art and asteroids up at the Desert Discovery Center, and a great community resource in the Mojave River Valley Museum. Not far off of Route 66 is a true desert classic, the Harvey House Casa del Desierto, Barstow’s beautiful old train station. The Route 66 Mother Road Museum is here (another great Route 66 museum), as is the W.A.R.M.—the Western America Railroad Museum. If you plan your trip in advance, see if you can stop overnight here and catch one of Bill Cook’s great Haunted Barstow tours. They’re the real thing, and lots of fun. Skip Calico Ghost Town unless you’ve got little kids and extra time. Between San Bernardino County’s uninspired management of the town as a county park, and some of the crusty and unresponsive owners of attractions and businesses in the town, Calico, a place I grew up loving, has gotten pretty lame. I’m sure some folks will disagree, but I’ve heard from plenty of people who are far more critical than I am. Besides, we’ll take you to a lively ghost town that’s more fun than Calico on this trip. The Main Street Murals in and around Route 66 are well worth visiting as they incorporate both art and history of the area. But we’re continuing on our way, past the old El Rancho Motel, built of railroad ties torn up from the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad (Bob Moore, a friend and another Route 66 author and authority, warns travelers from staying here). If you’re looking for road food in the true nature of Route 66, check out Poorky’s right on Main Street/Route 66 in downtown Barstow. It’s to go only, with southern fried catfish, hot links, shrimp po boys, chicken & waffles, and more. Need to harden those arteries? Try the Bacon Buried Hot Link Sandwich. Fantastic! Be prepared to wait though. They’re a family run operation and sometimes there just aren’t enough family members to keep up with demand. If you need a place to picnic after getting food here, try the tables outside the Desert Discovery Center nearby. Heading out of Barstow, we roll reluctantly onto Interstate 40 heading east. Route 66 runs smack dab through the Marine base at the east end of town and since 9/11, the Marines have restricted access, effectively halting travel along Route 66. But soon we’re off the interstate again, and we head into Daggett, a sleepy old mining town with a lot of historic buildings. Check out the “ski lodge roof” home along old Route 66. It has been a visitors center and later was home to Alice Richards Salisbury, the Mojave Desert’s poet laureate. It’s now someone’s home, so don’t go knocking and looking for poets. Not far off Route 66 is the Stone Hotel and the Desert Market. The hotel was built possibly as early as the 1860s, and hosted visitors ranging from Death Valley Scotty and Wyatt Earp to John Muir and Borax Smith. Now only ghosts remain here, awaiting a restoration of this impressive building that will probably never come. Outside of town is the old California Inspection Station
(this one replaced the older station used in the 1939 film version of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath). Jim tells me a story about building an alliance to preserve this inspection station and turn it into a Route 66 visitors center. It’s a great idea and could be quite popular, but the Federal Aviation Administration nixed the plan because of the nearby airport and some overzealous ideas about aviation security after 9/11. The Newberry Springs area is deceptive in that you can blow through it without ever knowing just how interesting the community is here. Of course, for bilm buffs there is the Bagdad Cafe, or rather the cafe used in the 1987 movie of that name. Lots of folks stop here, and while I’m not sure what it means, nearly everyone who eats here pans the place unless they’re French. A lot of roadies recommend stopping for a photo and then moving on. If you have time, drop by the Newberry Springs Chamber of Commerce and immerse yourself in their self-guided tour of the area. Discover Big Al’s Pistachio Plant, the Dutch Dorrance Adobe, the many lakes of Newberry Springs, including those used for water skiing tournaments (honest), the ranch where all the chickens were raised only to be fried for customers at Knotts Berry Farm (Walter Knott once lived in Newberry Springs), and, right along Route 66, the long and winding conveyor belt that brings rocks from a quarry high in the Newberry Mountains down to a roadside crushing and grading facility. This incredibly long conveyor belt is powered by electricity, but interestingly, as the weight of the rocks heading downhill takes over, the electric motors become generators and the power is sold to Southern California Edison. The stretch from east of Newberry Springs to Ludlow is pretty rough, but quite scenic. You’ll notice a distinctly volcanic presence with the Pisgah Crater nearby, and you’ll see more evidence of volcanic activity through Amboy (and north of there if you visit the Mojave National Preserve). Ludlow is mostly a ghost town these days, but you can get gas here if you didn’t fill up in Barstow. The food at the new Ludlow Cafe is decent and there is a basic motel here. From Ludlow, Route 66 dips to the south. There are fewer signs of life along the road, with some of it, like the oncebustling town of Bagdad (the site of the real Bagdad Cafe) almost entirely erased from existence. Once, more than 500 people lived here. Now, almost nothing remains. But soon, one of my favorite California Route 66 destinations comes into view to the east: Amboy Crater. This cinder cone volcano dates back approximately 6,000 years, with its last eruption coming as late as 500 years ago. The Amboy Crater National Natural Landmark is a great place to picnic, enjoy spring wildflowers, hike into the crater of a volcano (you don’t have to climb the rim—there’s an easy path
A California Inspection Station stands abandoned near Daggett, above. The inspections weren’t just for agricultural purposes, but during the Depression, they helped discourage destitute migrants from coming to the “Golden” State. A long conveyor belt hauls rock from the Newberry Mountains down to a crushing and road grading facility along Route 66, below. The electric motor gets the rocks started on their journey, then the momentum of the rocks heading downhill generates electricity.
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The Amboy Crater in bloom, top; and one of its friendly residents, above. Roy’s in Amboy, no longer with motel or cafe. You can still enjoy a stop though. There are snacks and gas available on this stretch of Route 66.
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inside to the west), and look for chuckwallas and rattlesnakes. Back in the heyday of Route 66, Amboy Crater enjoyed a brief “eruption” of notoriety when a group of young men who were hauling old tires to the dump piled the tires inside the crater and set them on fire. As black smoke rose from the crater, word of the volcanic eruption spread along the Mother Road. The crater has been rather placid ever since. Not far to the east of the Amboy Crater lies the “town” of Amboy. If I recall correctly, our family once stayed at the motel here, now closed. You can still get gas (not cheap) and snacks at Roy’s Motel and Cafe in Amboy, and it has basic restroom facilities and vending machines. But Roy’s, opened by Roy Crowl in 1938, no longer offers travelers accommodations or a hot meal. Once Roy teamed up with his son-in-law, Herman “Buster” Burris, and Amboy was a popular stop along the Mojave stretch of Route 66. But today, while its Mid-Century Modern Googie architecture still makes for an interesting photo, Amboy awaits its rebirth, one it probably isn’t going to get from current owner and fast-food chicken (Juan Pollo) businessman, Albert Okura, who owns the entire town, except for the school. There was hope of Okura pumping new life into the town as he stated he wanted to restore it. But like so many big plans in the desert, the challenges of potable water, building codes, and reality, seem to have set in. I stood by, overhearing a conversation between Okura and one of our advertising representatives when we contacted Okura about advertising in The Real Route 62 Guide to the Joshua Tree Gateway Communities in the fall of 2012. It was a courtesy call as we were including Amboy and Amboy Crater in the guide. It was also an eye-opener. I listened, biting my tongue, as Okura seemed to attempt to argue with our representative. No tourists come to Amboy from Los Angeles, was the apparent gist of one comment made. Then Okura seemed like he said something along the lines of not wanting to be in a visitors guide for Joshua Tree because that area is just a bunch of tweakers anyway. Having heard his apparent negativity towards both tourists and desert locals, I no longer hold any hope for Okura’s restoration of Amboy. He can go grill up some chicken, something he does well. Maybe someone else will bring Amboy back. If you do stop in Amboy, note that the folks who run Roy’s on a daily basis are quite friendly, even if they are wearing a holstered gun. Out on this stretch of road, there isn’t exactly a lot of police back-up if you call 911, so sometimes you’ll see someone carrying. A little touch of the Old West... Walk around Amboy and while you’re taking your photos, think about all the times you may have seen Amboy in the movies. The Hitcher and Kalifornia were filmed here, as well as Live Evil. Uh, now that I think about it, maybe the reason management sometimes carries guns is that they’ve watched too many of the movies shot here. Motoring east out of Amboy, the mining operations spread out on Bristol Dry Lake to the south where chloride is extracted from the lake bed. There’s a newer improvised shoe and bra tree not too far east of town if you’ve got extra underwear or shoes, and the turnoff for Kelbaker Road, heading north to Interstate 40 and the Mojave National Preserve. Then there’s the old Roadrunner’s Retreat with its iconic sign, what’s left of Chambless, the road down to Cadiz where a coalition of mostly Orange County water districts plan to drain the acquifer dry so their lawns can grow green while the desert’s wildlife slowly dies. Past Cadiz Summit, and Danby, and Essex we roll past the names and doodles made with stones along the north side of Route 66. The neglected ruins along the way remind me of the tran-
sience of our existence as entire towns vanish in less than a century. All it took to make them disappear was the creation of an interstate highway. Then I think of other desert towns like Mojave and Boron, where CalTrans has built bypasses around them for Highway 58 and I wonder how long they’ll survive. In Essex, there are two options for continuing on to Needles, the 1931 alignment of Route 66, which takes you onto Interstate 40 into Needles, or the original route for Route 66 which takes you into Goffs and then on to Needles. Given the choice between interstate highway and a town that has become a center for historical preservation of the eastern Mojave Desert, we choose the Goffs route. Goffs got its start in 1883 as a siding at the top of the hill for the Southern Pacific Railway. Then, a decade later, the Nevada Southern ran a short line into Goffs from the north. In 1914, a school for the children of railroad employees was dedicated, and when diesel engines no longer needed Goffs, Route 66 kept the town going for a time. But by the end of 1931, the shorter alignment of Route 66 to Essex spelled the end of Goffs. Its school closed in 1937. Desert warfare training, a popular sport in the Mojave, brought upwards of 10,000 troops to the Goffs area during World War II, with the old schoolhouse pressed into service as an improvised cafe. Things may have gone poorly for the old schoolhouse, and for Goffs as well. In fact, it could have followed towns like Bagdad into oblivion but for one incredible man (another Marine Corps veteran): Dennis Casebier. Dennis is my kind of historian. He’s on point and immersed in the history of the east Mojave. He’s been gathering historical materials about the Mojave Desert since 1954, and with the help of a dedicated group of volunteers and supporters, he has accomplished so much that I sometimes awaken at 3 a.m. feeling guilty and lazy for sleeping. Now, with the Mojave Desert Heritage & Cultural Association, Dennis and the likes of Executive Director Hugh Brown, whom is also awaiting our arrival, Goffs has become the best historical resource in the desert. Here you can find 10,000 volumes about the desert, 110,000 or so historical photos, 6,000 maps, and 1,300 recorded oral histories. It is, to someone like me, a paradise, a treasure trove of knowledge about the Mojave Road, Route 66, the railroads, mining, ranching, the military, and life in the east Mojave. Dennis sums it up succinctly. “Ain’t anything like it,” he says, and grins. Damned straight. There ain’t. I’ve encountered many historical sites and few measure up to what I see in Goffs. Dennis and his wife Jo Ann, even donated the 75 acres for the Goffs Cultural Center where the historic Goffs Schoolhouse (it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places) and Mojave Desert Archives are based. Dennis notes that the desert “gets in your blood,” something I have to agree with strongly. Luckily for those of us who have a passion for desert history and stories, the desert didn’t just get in Dennis’ blood, it became his lifeblood. Thanks to Dennis, the Mojave Road, an early wagon road that followed an ancient Mojave Indian trading trail, has been greatly studied, and still carries travelers (Dennis even hiked the 130-mile section of the Mojave Road from the Colorado River to Camp Cady). Dennis, it occurs to me, has been to the Mojave Road what Jim Conkle has been to Route 66. Dennis has written numerous books since 1970, including 26 books he published through his own Tales of the Mojave Road Publishing Company. He lectures and writes and speaks out for the desert and history he loves. And he is direct. I appreciate that aspect of his personality, however others, those
Goffs historian and desert treasure, Dennis Casebier in the library that bears his name in recognition of a lifetime of work collecting and documenting the stories of the eastern Mojave Desert, above; the 10-stamp mill at Goffs that is set to begin working again this fall, below.
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used to placing politics above all else, do not. Plans for the East Mojave Heritage Trail—660 miles of historical backcountry roads—were destroyed when Senator Dianne Feinstein’s California Desert Protection Act was signed into law by President Clinton in 1994. The act gave us desert lovers many things to be grateful for, but it also sliced the East Mojave Heritage Trail in 13 places and destroyed the project. But Goffs is thriving. The old schoolhouse is restored, and the historical archives here are housed in the Dennis G. Casebier Library, a state-of-the-art facility built to resemble the old Goffs railroad depot. Now, the American Boy Stamp Mill, a 10-stamp mill used to crush ore is set to begin operation as a working example of the kind of stamp mills used across the desert, with the 34th Annual Mojave Road Rendezvous this September 27. In the meantime, you can visit the Goffs Cultural Center from October 1 through May 31, on weekends, 9 a.m.-4 p.m., or call (760)733-4482 for an appointment. Admission is free, though I heartily encourage your financial support for this excellent desert historical resource. Reluctantly, Jim and I return to the road for the stretch into Needles. As the sun sets and the desert darkens, we roll past the spot where comedian Sam Kinison was killed in 1992 by a drunken teenage driver. Kinison had been married less than a week and died at age 38. We pass the site of the town of Klinefelter, and then roll into Needles, just in time for dinner at Juicy’s River Cafe. Juicy’s is perfect for Route 66 roadies as its menu is rife with comfort food. I settle on a half-rack of Mr. B’s BBQ ribs, house smoked and delicious. Meat seems to be the method here, with the 3/4 pound River City Ribeye Steak, Tri-tip, Chicken Fried Steak, and a Southern Fried Pork Chop (yeah, the apple sauce makes it healthy). There’s tasty pasta and fish dishes too, as well as some enticing salads. And don’t forget the drinks. The Juicy Mary helps melt the miles away at the end of the day. Our first night ends with rooms next to Juicy’s at the Best Western Colorado River Inn, an excellent, well run hotel, with a lobby replete with Route 66 memorabilia, including a fun mural. The Rio del Sol Inn also comes highly recommended. Day one of our Route 66 road trip feels as if it was packed 42 The Sun Runner – February/March 2013
with more history and stories than 24 hours should be able to legally provide. But we have one more day to go. As I doze off, I keep thinking about a comment Dennis had made about the area being a “transit zone.” People are always moving through the area on their way somewhere else. But here, the Aha Makhav, or the Mohave, have lived here for thousands of years. Father Garces was just passing through in 1776, and many characters have wandered through since. The landscape around Needles has a patina of antiquity about it, something timeless and deeply ancient. I haven’t spent the night in Needles since I was a kid, but I awaken fascinated with the place. Before Jim and I are to meet for breakfast and to plan day two of our Route 66 road trip, I jump in the old Sun Runner truck and head out to enjoy sunrise on the Colorado River over the Needles, the dramatic mountain peaks along the southern end of the valley. I pass attractive waterfront developments, something I hadn’t expected to see here, and then go on to the El Garces Hotel and Harvey House railroad station. Once considered the crown jewel of the Fred Harvey chain this giant Neoclassical and Beaux-Arts style building (also on the National Register of Historic Places) is gutted and fenced and supposedly being restored. I suppose it is, but it must be progressing painfully slowly, and from what I hear, will never again be what it should truly be—a classic Harvey House railroad station hotel along the lines of the beautiful La Posada in Winslow, Arizona. Denying the El Garces its return to glory and dooming it by making it a bus station and visitor center, is almost criminal. But history can be cruel. Jim and I begin to follow Route 66 out of town. But a brief detour is first in order. On the corner of an ordinary street stands an ordinary house where a distinctly exceptional individual once lived. It is the boyhood home for a period of several years, of the great cartoonist who gave us Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, and of course, Snoopy. For those who loved Peanuts, the legendary comic strip that brought Charles Schulz fame and fortune, it is hallowed ground. I half expect to see Lucy holding a football for Charlie Brown in the front yard, and I remember that Ron Paul was the only “no” vote on a bill before Congress in 2000 to give Schulz the Congressional Gold Medal, as Schulz lay dying. I will never vote for Ron Paul because of that meanspirited “no” vote. Good grief! What was he thinking? Well, there’s no time to think about that, for we must be on our way. As we near the Colorado River, there is an intriguing and mysterious site that lies off of the old Route 66 route near Park Moabi Road: the Topock (Mystic) Maze. Whether or not the Topock Maze is really mystical is one of those things that gets hard to address in the context of modern day political correctness. An article on Indian Country Today’s
website notes that the Topock Maze is believed by the Mojave (Mohave) people to receive “the souls of the departed, serving as the spiritual pathway to the after life. The sacred place is integral to the Mojave way of life, beliefs, traditions, culture and religion.” The article describes the maze as a 600-year-old geoglyph, and notes the site was first desecrated in the 1880s when the Southern Pacific Railroad laid tracks through the maze, destroying a human figure geoglyph. But like many historic sites, there’s more to this than meets the eye. It appears there are a number of geoglyphs in the area around the Topock Maze that are almost certainly ancient in origin, including one that was mostly destroyed by the railroad. But what about the acres and acres of rows of gravel windrow lines that comprise the maze? Were they part of some labyrinthian maze leading to the Mohave’s underworld? Would the partial destruction of these rows leave souls wandering for eternity, lost in limbo? Or were these mysterious rows actually just local gravel raked up into lines to be used for building the railroad? The controversy dates back at least to photographer Edward S. Curtis and his photo-historical series on Native Americans. J.P. Morgan commissioned Curtis to produce his famous work back in 1906. But many questions have been raised about Curtis’ manipulation of images and misrepresentations of Native Americans. Curtis photographed the Topock Maze site and published his work in 1908, and described it as an immense labyrinth of hundreds of acres. He noted not that the site was prehistoric, but rather that it had been “gathered by a prehistoric people.” This is an important distinction as workers from the Fort Mohave Indian Reservation had been hired to rake gravel by the railroad. Curtis went on to be the first to refer to the rows here a “maze,” and noted in recent years the tribe had used it to lure and escape from evil spirits, according to a recently published paper on the Mystic Maze (Maize), by Ruth Arlene MusserLopez for Archaeological Heritage Associates (River AHA). Route to the underworld or no, the ever ingenious Fred Harvey capitalized on the rows of gravel scraped up from the desert asphalt into lines, with postcards propogating the legend of the “Mystic Maze.” Later, the Topock Maze became a popular stop along Route 66. But while many folks are content to relegate the maze to gravel collection for building the train line, I’ll wait to hear directly from sources in the Colorado River Indian Tribes. There has clearly been significant Native American activity on and around the site with geoglyph making, so I’ll absolutely defer to the tribes on the site’s cultural and spiritual significance. Leaving the maze behind, we cross the Colorado River into Arizona where we meet up with a friend of Jim’s, Lorelei Sprott, who is in Topock to show us the new Topock 66 Spa & Resort, a resort being built right off of Route 66 near Topock Bay and the Havasu National Wildlife Refuge’s Topock Marsh. The man behind this multi-million dollar resort and marina project is Chet Hitt, who barely has time to introduce himself as he deals with a whirlwind of contractors on site during our visit. The resort is a striking example of how there is life yet in the old Mother Road, though it helps that nearby Interstate 40 is the only river crossing around these parts. The old Route 66 Trails Arch Bridge stands nearby, no longer carrying human traffic. I can’t wait to see the resort when it is finished, but the heron I watch out in the bay seems unimpressed. Jim and I follow Lorelei’s Mercedes as she leads us to a spot she wants us to see on our explorations, a place that may hold the key to the future of the Mother Road—Topock
The Needles at dawn, seen from Needles, opposite page; the “welcome wagon”, top; the El Garces Hotel under renovation, above; and the Topock Maze, below.
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Elementary School, a school right on Route 66. It’s here we meet John Warren, both the school principal, and, as it turns out, the superintendent of the school district, which here in Topock or Golden Shores or wherever we are, happens to be the entire school district. Warren is nothing if not energetic and involved. He began teaching at the school in 1995. He became the first teacher in Mohave County to win the Silver Apple Award for teaching, as well as the county’s Teacher of the Year, and was runner up for Arizona Teacher of the Year. He takes students hiking into the Grand Canyon, and also doubles (or triples) as athletic coach. While this isn’t likely to be a stop for most who travel Route 66, to me it’s important to see there is life left along this road, and with it, a future. Jim and I wind our way up through the stark yet beautiful desert landscape, into the mountains to the (almost) ghost town of Oatman. Oatman dates back to the late 1800s, but really got going after prospectors struck it rich in 1915. You can see evidence of mines scattered around the area. Before we reach the town, we stop to pay our respects at an inspired memorial to Korean War veterans on a rock outcropping. Then we head into Oatman with its wandering burros, cheesy tourist shops (with style), saloons, and some pretty cool specialty shops. The town was named for Olive Oatman, a young girl kidnapped by Indians. She was traded to Mohave Indians who adopted her and she had her face tattooed in the traditional Mohave style. She was released in 1855 near this area. Now, Oatman is a mandatory stop for Route 66 roadies, bike rallies, and adventurous wanderers from around the globe. I love Oatman and the characters who call the town home. We wind our way out of the Black Mountains, and head to Kingman, our final destination for this Route 66 road trip. Kingman is a great base for exploring this part of Arizona. There’s plenty of museums, from the Kingman Army Airfield Museum, to the Kingman Railroad Museum, the Mohave Museum of History and Arts, the historic Bonelli House, and the Route 66 Museum at the Powerhouse, the historical building that now houses this museum as well as the region’s visitors center. Not only does Kingman have one of Arizona’s only Cracker Barrel restaurants, but it also has Redneck’s Southern Pit BBQ, serving up tasty Q for me n’ you. Plus, and this is a big plus, Kingman is home to Desert Diamond Distillery, the makers of the best rum in the desert! OK, so I’m not certain how many rums are currently being made in the desert, but Desert Diamond’s rums (and their vodka) are exceptionally smooth and flavorful (and they win awards). We’re treated to a tour of the facilities by Peter Patt, and welcomed by his daughter-in-law, Deborah Patt. DDD is a friendly family run enterprise that has earned the right to be proud of what they produce. The Gold Miner Agave Rum is a superior sweet sipping dark rum, while their other dark rums are rich and full bodied, perfect for sipping. We toasted our adventures and new friends along the Mother Road with this delicious amber nectar, and then it is time to reluctantly head home. As we roll into the darkness of a desert night, we pass a slow, chugging 1926 Hudson Super 6 loaded to the gills with the remnants of a lost home and the memories of the Americans who have headed this way before us. I can almost hear Ma Joad as we speed on by... “We’ll go on forever, Pa, ‘cause we’re the people.” It’s the people who made this road. And it’s the people who still make it what it is today, and will see it continue to evolve into the future, long after our passing is forgotten. There’s only one destination, really. It’s the journey that’s important. 44 The Sun Runner – February/March 2013
From top left clockwise, opposite page: The old Route 66 Trails Arch Bridge; Peter Patt and daughter-in-law Deborah Patt at Kingman’s superb Desert Diamond Distillery; barrels of award-winning Desert Diamond rums taking their time; a Depression-era family along the road in the Powerhouse Route 66 Museum in Kingman; Mr. Route 66, Jim Conkle, at the end of our road in Kingman; Jim and Superintendent John Warren of Topock Elementary District #12 talk education along Route 66; the marina under construction at the new Topock 66 Spa & Resort set to open later this year; Jim with Lorelei Sprott who handles publicity for Topock 66, and owner Chet Hitt; feeding the “wild” and mostly all pregnant burros in Oatman, where Route 66 runs headlong into a fun and lively ghost town filled with gunfight skits, fun shopping, dollar-covered walls, and burros who don’t seem to realize they’re standing in the middle of the Mother Road.
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