Chasing Dreams On The Mother Road

A Cruise Down Fabled Route 66.

JUAN DELGADILLO SCRATCHES his whiskered chin, turns a tarnished key and suddenly the cranky ancient Chevy roars to life, belching an enormous cloud of gray smoke and triumphantly cracking the hushed morning reverie of Route 66.

Gripping the 1936 Silver Streak's oversized wheel, the elfish, frisky 84-year-old commences a signature ritual that's been ongoing for some 40 years, a tedious choreography involving much gnashing of gears and a cacophony of weird horn blasts ranging from chicken screeches to coyote yelps, until some 20 minutes later the noisy contraption is parked in front of Delgadillo's Snow Cap Drive-In on mainstreet Seligman, Arizona, population 900.

"My old pride and joy," Delgadillo hollers over the racket with a grin. His face is partially hidden amid the car's extravagant adornments, which currently include a taciturn Christmas tree in the rollseat and a paper cut-out Thanksgiving turkey wilted by November's chilly dew and now dangling precariously above the front grill.

I grin back, sorta: I spent the night before on Prescott's Whiskey Row, courageously investigating the historic district's authenticity (yep, it's the real McCoy), and now Juan Delgadillo's Chevy is achieving for my groggy, slightly hung-over early-morning soul what gallons of rotgut coffee could not. I've also lucked into what must rank among the world's funkiest backroads rituals.

This is Route, 66 after all, highway of dreams and artery of despair, a two-lane narrative of the American experience stretching from Illinois corn fields to California beachfront, with a million captivating personal vignettes dotting the path. During my three days on the infamous length of pavement west of Flagstaff, I'd meet crusty eccentrics and charming old-timers, retired small town teachers, badlands grease monkeys and hardened hangers-on.

And I'd encounter men like Juan Delgadillo, a Texas native who in 1943 glimpsed his slice of the national pie in tiny Seligman. Sitting roughly equidistant from both Flagstaff and Prescott, the burg is gateway to a more-or-less 100-mile ribbon of the old road reaching to the California border, and Juan Delgadillo is more or less its resident wit.

Straight-faced, he hands me his business card. "My Card," it says.

On the flipside, a tiny Delgadillo grips a fuel hose winding out from an antique pump, aimed toward block letters: "Eat here and get gas. Slightly used napkins and straws."

The point is made. This outpost consists of die-hard determination and pure cheese, high-cholesterol hijinx humor heavily dosed with gritty folk wisdom.

Delgadillo's decrepit Chevy alone is a rolling scrapbook of decades spent beside the immortal road. "Route 66," the license plate says, "Where the Brightest Star is You."

His drive-in is another staunch testimonial. The front window is splashed with sentimental affirmations like "Sweet Survivor" and a small Santa toting an oversized razor, announcing the Burma Shave company, once a profligate Route 66 advertiser.

As with many a great tradition, the Snow Cap sprang from inauspicious beginnings. Delgadillo chuckles at the memory, calling the drive-in's origin "a process of elimination."

"I could see that people wanted someplace to stop along the road," he says. "At the time, there was only a Texaco station across the street. But I had an outhouse here, and people kept come over to go pee. They started telling me it would make a good refreshment stop, too."

Before long, a booming business--and budding legend--was born. But never one to abandon his humble roots, Delgadillo then raised his beloved outhouses to shrine status, installing telephones and televisions, thus introducing the first Route 66 multi-media experience.

Judging from Seligman's morning street scene, the Snow Cap also seems to be a metropolitan nerve center. About the only other action consists of a couple quietly setting up their rag-tag thrift shop on card tables across the street. To the west a tiny AS&P market is still snoozing, and a block away the vacant Aztec Motel is enjoying eternal rest, a few remnant threads of neon draping its battered sign.

Delgadillo takes it all in with a wide sweep of wiry arms, then goes inside to fire up the day's first burgers. I take off, aiming my big Ford pick-em-up truck westward. The immensity of romantic freedom I suddenly feel, with the wind screaming past and the vast landscape unfolding, simply can't be over-estimated. Nor can the notoriety of careening down this most famous of open roads, buttressed by a full gas tank, plenty of expense-budget change and the weakening grip of last night's Old Crow.

THE GEOGRAPHY SPREADS before me like a raspy-boned skeleton, the badlands scrub giving occasional rise to smallish bluffs, and, in the distance, low-slung mountains with clenched, knobby peaks. And continuing a union that's lasted decades, the Santa Fe rail line tails Route 66 like a silent nanny. Visible to the south, it will likewise be my constant companion throughout the vacant miles.

This romantic rush is simultaneously tempered by more glamorous antecedents: actors like Martin Milner and George Maharis who navigated their Corvette across our 1960s television screens in Route 66; writers like John Steinbeck, who brought gritty realism to Dust Bowl migration in The Grapes of Wrath; and songwriters like Bobby Troup, who penned the big hit of 1946, "Get Your Kicks on Route 66."

Such celebration of a 2,400-mile concrete ribbon seems quaint now, in the day of smoothly sanitized interstate travel. But Route 66 experienced a difficult birth, following decades of complications. And it ultimately became the long-fought, hard-won first contiguous link from the Midwest to the far west.

Its history goes back to the late 19th century's powerful "better roads movement," prompted by a growing irritation with the mishmash of mostly primitive paths then linking the country. The modernization juggernaut briefly petered out with the railroad's drive to connect coasts. But ironically, the rails also spurred the movement's rejuvenation, as shippers grew tired of the locomotive's stranglehold on commerce.

By 1916, Congress had passed the Federal Aid Road Act, doling out construction funds to the states. Tantalized by new prospects of mobility symbolized by Henry Ford's affordable Model T, the populace embraced the work, and Route 66 was christened in 1926.

Eventually the thoroughfare would snake westward from Springfield, Illinois, down through St. Louis, then across the Oklahoma plains, vast Texas flatlands, New Mexican hills and Arizona deserts, arriving at a windswept pier in Santa Monica, Calif. It would carry an army of wandering souls, rumbling armaments and footloose wanderers, and strike a thriving vein of profit in countless curbside villages.

But new interstate highways began draining that lifeblood in the 1950s, until the sole remaining strip of Route 66 was bypassed near Williams, Ariz. in 1985. The highway was bid a fond farewell in a somber ceremony attended by Bobby Troup. Left behind were a string of little towns now gasping for commercial life.

GRAND CANYON CAVERNS is among those spots teetering on the edge of existence. Located 30 minutes west of Seligman, it sprawls silently behind a huge, empty asphalt lot. Loud signs tout the caverns, an impressive 21-story elevator-accessible cleft in the earth, and a highly realistic replica of an extinct sloth once common to these parts. Another, more subtle billboard says, "For Sale."

Inside the motel, staffer Tammy Wolford stands amid Route 66 bumper stickers, plaques and plastic-entombed scorpions. She says I'm witnessing the quiet season. Come back in the fall and early spring, she says. "We get a lot of Germans, lots of foreigners. Things get real busy then."

I don't venture into the caverns; subterranean is a little beyond my scope today. But I do tool on back to the Grand Canyon Caverns restaurant, where a tall fiberglass T-Rex gapes at me, while inside, two bored waitresses talk shop in a booth. Though forlorn, there's admittedly a strange beauty to the place, and I spend a few minutes pondering the dinosaur and scouting a trio of metal teepees.

Back on the Mother Road, I soon roll into Truxton, a ramshackle town with similarities to the desolate caverns far outweighing its differences. Little more than a breeze-riddled huddle of vacant storefronts and drafty motels, Truxton gains what little fame it harbors solely for being precisely where it is. Currently, the city seems most alive in the cluttered parking lot of Cliff Sudberry's auto shop. Speaking volumes, L.A. escapee Sudberry tells how he came here looking for a piece of Truxton property, and spent his first local night parked in a motor home without knowing he'd arrived.

It was a portentous entry. He was faced with a decision: Truxton or booming Lake Havasu City. Two decades later, the stocky 61-year-old in grease-stained coveralls calls his choice "Probably the biggest mistake I ever made."

Three aging cars sit next to Sudberry's shop, facing the road like sentinels, and several aging classics sit in the adjoining yard, anchored by a big cabin cruiser, curtains flapping from windowless panes. As we wander through the boneyard, a Native American wanders down the road, a boom box hiked up next to his ear. He's apparently aiming for the nearby Hualapai Reservation, and Sudberry gives him a clipped wave.

Sudberry says his biggest job these days, aside from dabbling in antique restoration, is keeping tourists from stealing anything with potential as a Route 66 souvenir. "I'd also like to have a buck for everyone who stops to take a picture," he says.

ROUTE 66 WAS originally the Old Trails Highway, and it was dirt road," recalls teacher Jim Leonard, relaxing in his Kingman living room, a purring cat nestled in his lap. "Of course, even in those days there were a lot of tourists, but people also got lost a lot easier," he says. "And the road was literally lined by worn-out tires. They just didn't last like the ones you buy today, and you'd see them everywhere."

A few feet away, his wife Peggy leans back in her recliner. "It was very busy during World War II," she says. "Lots of armaments coming through."

But Jim Leonard says turning Old Trails Highway into Route 66 "wasn't that big a deal, really. It didn't change things that much around here."

Nor did the road's subsequent demise seem to put the permanent hurt on Kingman. With a population now topping 32,000, the sprawling seat of Mohave County has in latter years become a bustling hub of industry. Discovering land prices far below those in neighboring California, companies like True Value Hardware and Goodyear have become local bulwarks.

At the same time, Kingman never neglects its dual fame as the "Heart of Historic Route 66" and hometown to the deceased, squeaky-voiced movie actor Andy Devine. A cruise down Andy Devine Avenue reveals timeless storefronts, and a rail station. Two-story Hotel Beale lords above them all; it's named after Edward Beale, who in 1857 blazed a wagon road from Fort Defiance to the Mojave River roughly paralleling Route 66.

Completed at the turn of the century, the inn quickly became a popular refuge, both for everyday road-weary travelers and a passel of luminaries including Charles Lindbergh and Greta Garbo.

Current hotel owner Tedi Kinkella gazes through wispy curtains in the Greta Garbo Room, out onto Andy Devine Avenue. "Garbo stayed right in here," she says. "Isn't that something?" She excitedly points across the street to where John Dillinger once gassed up, and explains the route's original placement. I'm particularly intrigued by the Lindbergh Room, where an old tub sits smack in the middle of the adjacent bathroom.

Kinkella, a graying woman with enough energy to hog-tie a grizzly, then gives me a rushed but thorough tour of her closed 73-room hotel. Right now, it has the dusty charm of a neglected attic, with an expansive wooden desk, a huge sunny parlor and broad staircases. Soon we end up in the basement, itself a historian's mecca full of yellowing suitcases left behind as travelers' epitaphs.

"A lot of times people would come through, and maybe not have enough money to pay for a room, so they'd leave the suitcases, planning to come back," she says. "But obviously, a lot of times they never returned."

I LEAVE NOTHING but boot tracks and goodwill as I head for tiny Oatman, 25 miles away. A gold-mining boomtown, Oatman had once nearly disappeared from the maps altogether, before staging a tourist-laced comeback a dozen years ago.

Hunkered down a steep, curving road in the meandering Ute Mountains, the town has become home to refugees from California or back east, and their ancient homes line the steep hillsides like needles poking from a cushion.

I park on Oatman's main drag, and am quickly ushered to a new spot by Fred Gay, a former Texan, one-time president of the Oatman Chamber of Commerce, and a regular barrel of a guy with a big friendly grin.

"Gets crazy here. Parking is in pretty short supply, with these narrow streets and all," Gay patiently explains.

But despite boasting the congestion of a mini-L.A., Oatman hardly puts on celebrity airs, he says, "Mining companies still own the bulk of the town, and there are only 28 properties, so I don't think we're ever going to get too fancy or anything."

And the bulk of that traffic is European, he says. "They love it here, and they love Route 66, the whole American West thing. Truthfully, those tourists are the only thing that keep us going."

Inside her colorful souvenir boutique, Fast Fannies owner Jackie Rowland augments that notion with a menu from a Route 66 theme restaurant in Marseilles, France. Topping the cocktail selection are thematic concoctions like Le Gas Oil, a heady combo of vodka, gin, tequila and rum.

"They're crazy about this stuff overseas," Rowland says. "We get French here, Swiss, we even had a group from Poland that rolled into town driving '50s-era American cars."

If Oatman is a regional funnel of foreign exchange, then the Oatman Hotel saloon is the prime repository of hard American cash. Built in 1902, it's the oldest two-story building in town, and Reverend Uncle Charlie is probably Oatman's oldest reigning bartender. He works surrounded by thousands of Federal notes climbing every wall.

The reverend tells us the practice of tacking up money started with drunk miners many decades back. "We had over $5,000 up there at one point, but we had to take them down for cleaning," he says with a laugh. Hanging on the brief sermon, a trio of Oatman regulars raise their beers in an unstable salute.

Outside we're surrounded by a herd of mottled burros, hungry for the day's rations of carrots handed out by tourists who happily take snapshots and cautiously avoid a different kind of kick. Perhaps the town's most enterprising residents, the burros are also among the most voracious denizens of Route 66.

Fat and happy, they bunch up to chomp away as I slowly drive past. Up ahead, the steady pavement offers the seduction of movement, while behind me time seems barely to budge. But both extremes seem to co-exist happier than hell on the Mother Road, as I step on the pedal and roar on down Route 66 and into the beckoning horizon.