I will apologize right off the top of this blog – it is somewhat long. That said, I hope you find the story interesting and entertaining, and that the length of this post is justified.
As we left the mining ghost-town of Rhyolite, and headed toward Las Vegas, we started talking with anticipation about the things we were going to see over the next 48 hours. For this particular trip, Las Vegas was going to be nothing more than a stop-over for us, although we were looking forward to a night in our favorite “Sin-City” hotel, The Bellagio. Likewise, while we knew we were going to be passing right by the Hoover Dam in the morning, we had been there twice in the last 6 years (most recently in 2011), so another stop wasn’t in the cards.
The Grand Canyon was now within reach, and for Mary in particular, that was a high priority “bucket-list” item, and I was pretty darned stoked about seeing it too. But, I was just as interested in the fact that while en-route to the Grand Canyon, we were going to have our first of several opportunities to drive along a section of historic Route 66, in this case, a 75 mile stretch from Kingman to Seligman, Arizona.
I’ve always had more than a passing interest in the history of Route 66 – a trans-continental highway that pre-dated the Interstates and connected small towns across the United States from Chicago to Los Angeles starting in 1926. I first recall hearing the song “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66” sung by Nat King Cole sometime in the late 50’s/early 60’s when I was a little boy (yes I am that old!), and I also very much remember the Chuck Berry version that got a lot of airplay in the early 60’s.
Perhaps most vividly, I can still see the title slide of the TV series “Route 66”, a show that ran for four seasons from 1960 to 1964. For those of you that are too young to remember or are unfamiliar with the series, it followed the lives/adventures of two young men travelling across the United States in a red Corvette convertible, “trying to find themselves”. One of the co-stars was a very young Martin Milner, who later spent 7 years as the co-star of “Adam 12”, and was featured in a number of cross-over episodes with its sister show, “Emergency”.
Starting in the late 1960’s, as one Interstate after another was completed, (five in all), small towns that had been dependent on Route 66 traffic to finance their livelihoods, began to fall on tough times. Many of them became modern-day ghost towns, even though in some cases, they were a mere 2 miles north or south of one of the new multi-lane freeways.
Around 1990, there was a groundswell of interest in Route 66, and tourists and social history buffs began to investigate and explore the historic highway, or at least what was left of it.
Mary and I very much fall into the category of social history buffs, so exploring a stretch of Route 66 was a natural “agenda item” for our 2014 road-trip
As I noted off the top, we picked up Route 66 at the town of Kingman, Arizona, although there is a 28 mile stretch that runs from Oatman at the California/Arizona border to Kingman, which we could have explored if we had wanted to back-track.
The first thing we saw was a beige-coloured tower with the words “Welcome to Kingman, the Heart of Historic Route 66”.
I had done an extra big sell-job to Mary on how cool this little side-trip was going to be, so to be greeted with that sign was surely an omen of good things to come. Kingman is the home-town of raspy-voiced Andy Devine, a character actor and cowboy sidekick who appeared in over 400 films and TV shows between 1928 and 1973. His name is on more than one building in town to this day, and you’ll find the Kingman Visitor’s Centre on Andy Devine Drive. Kingman is also where Clark Gable and Carole Lombard got married in 1939, before dashing down Route 66 to honeymoon in nearby Oatman.
As we motored along Route 66 through the center of Kingman, I began to get a bit of a sinking feeling. To my left there was a building that looked like it might have been a gas station in days gone by. It was now a souvenir store and it had a shiny red Corvette convertible parked in front, clearly intended to get people’s attention. There was also a 50’s-style diner called Mr. D’z that looked like it might have some kind of “cool” history, but was in fact a replica built in 2000, as a “celebration of life in the 50’s”.
As we rolled out of the east end of town, I remarked “there wasn’t as much there as I thought there was going to be, but I’m sure it will get better…..”.
The next town on this stretch of historic Route 66 was Hackberry, some 22 miles to the northeast, and as we drove along through the barren desert landscape to our left and right, I kept hoping for something “iconic” to lift my spirits.
Finally a sign that indicated we were at Hackberry, but I swear to you there is virtually nothing left of it. Apparently there were service stations there, and a small grocery store, but the last one closed in 1968 leaving it as a ghost-town. There is one run-down building showing some moderate signs of life, the Hackberry General Store. It is a Route 66 tourism information post and souvenir shop run by one of the unincorporated town’s handful of permanent residents. Another shiny red Corvette convertible was parked in front, but unless you stop and back up to take a picture (as we did), or have bookmarked the town as a destination, since you are rocketing through Hackberry at about 65 miles an hour, you are just as likely to miss it. The store was not open the day we drove through and to be honest it didn’t look too prosperous.
The next “town” on the map, a mere 6 miles further along was Valentine, and once again I hoped for something worth seeing. Guess what? Nada. A small sign indicated that somewhere in the vicinity 36 people called Valentine home, but there was nothing there except a couple of run-down lean-to’s and random buildings. It’s one and only claim to fame is that for some reason, a scene in the classic 1969 movie, Easy Rider, was filmed on the south side of the highway at Valentine. Sigh!
One of the many reasons why I love Mary so much is because she puts up with, and for the most part shares my unbridled enthusiasm to explore. But, this was beginning to try her patience and mine. We were roughly 35 miles into a 75 mile “detour” from the I-40 and so far we’d seen a couple of old Corvettes, some uninteresting run-down buildings, and a tribute to a “B” movie character actor. In the words of Archie Bunker, “Whoop-dee-doo”.
Now it was on to Crozier (nothing there except Keepers of the Wild, a non-profit sanctuary for rescued exotic animals), Peach Springs (now a Route 66 ghost town except for the roughly 600 members of the Hualapai tribe who have their administrative headquarters there), and the towns of Audley, Pica, and Yampai, where of course…….there was a whole bunch of nothing.
So we’re nearing the end of this 75 mile stretch of the suddenly not so interesting “historic” Route 66, and we arrive at the town of Seligman, a mere 2 miles north of where the old road meets back up with the I-40. We finally see a bunch of buildings that clearly are left over from the heyday of the old highway. There’s a couple of vintage motels and lodges, a burger shack, and Angel and Vilma’s Route 66 Gift Shop which has an old green truck parked in front of it with a picture of Lightning McQueen (of “Cars” fame) loaded in the back of it. Mary and I both comment that there is finally some stuff worth seeing, and it is too bad we didn’t know about Seligman at the beginning of our journey, as we could have simply avoided this entire drive, and just blasted across the I-40 to the Seligman interchange. It is also 5:30 in the afternoon, and everything is closed except for the gift shop. Mary pulled over to the side of the road, and encouraged me to run across to it, and if nothing else, see if I could get her a Route 66 pin for her collection.
Upon entering the gift shop I was greeted by a lovely young couple who welcomed me into a store that was crammed full of Route 66 memorabilia. They shared the following story about their father with me.
For over 50 years, Route 66 was the main source of commerce to the town of Seligman, but on September 22, 1978 (ironically one day before Mary and I were married in Amherstburg, Ontario), the newly constructed I-40 opened, bypassing Seligman and in the process re-routing the 9,000 cars that used to pass through town on a daily basis.
The livelihood of the businesses disappeared in one day. All the travellers who had once stopped to eat, get fuel, and the stay the night, were now quickly driving by, just two miles to the south. For the next ten years, the residents learned to live on very little but inevitably businesses closed, townspeople moved, and buildings were abandoned.
Their father, Angel Delgadillo, barber and proprietor of the Delgadillo Barber Shop and Pool Hall decided he had had enough of watching his town waste away. On February 18th, 1987, he arranged a meeting of representatives from Route 66 towns in Arizona, to organize a group to make old Route 66, a “historic” highway. It became the first Route 66 preservation association ever formed.
As interest in Route 66 nostalgia began to grow, people started seeking out Route 66 merchandise and memorabilia. Angel and his wife Vilma, started selling a few pieces out of the Barber Shop, and in the process established the first Route 66 gift shop in existence.
Because of the efforts of a town barber who refused to watch his town die, Seligman, and later on, other small towns along Route 66 were given new life.
I also asked Clarissa and Mauricio, the young couple in the store, about the picture of Lightning McQueen loaded in the truck out front, and they happily shared another story with me.
It seems that in 2001, the Pixar team headed by film-maker John Lasseter decided they were going to make a movie about Route 66. Lasseter wanted his team to not only learn about Route 66 but to experience it as well. During their field work for the movie, they became inspired by the stories of the little towns that had been by-passed by the Interstate system. This inevitably led them to interview Angel Delgadillo, an encounter that apparently lasted the better part of a day. The Pixar team learned of the saga of Seligman’s by-pass by the I-40 and they discovered that the “rebirth” of Route 66 was in no small part due to this small town barber’s efforts to rally local business owners to pull together to revitalize the economy of their hometown.
Although the look of Radiator Springs in Cars is a composite of Route 66 landmarks from across the United States, it was Angel’s account of Seligman, and its relationship with Route 66 that helped create the narrative of the animated town. The story of Seligman essentially became the story of Radiator Springs.
Our experience on this section of Route 66 confirmed for us there was indeed some history to be found, as well as some wonderful stories to be uncovered. I also learned that I needed to do some more homework and research about Route 66, before dragging Mary off on another “hunt and hopefully find” side-trip.
We’ll encounter Route 66 again later in our adventures when we get into New Mexico, and in particular, when we spend some time in Albuquerque.
I promise to be better prepared for that!