Note: For release Sunday, Oct. 5, and thereafter
Amboy, Calif., during Route 66′s heyday a town of 500 people, is today only a cafe-motel and a post office sitting silently in the high desert. In Cubero, N.M., where Hemingway wrote ``The Old Man and the Sea,″ a motor court crumbles slowly, its rusty bedframes visible through rotted wooden doors. Outside Topock, Ariz., a decades-old blue sedan pocked with BBs is being slowly reclaimed by sun and sand.
``Any road would do to show what the interstate has done. But this is the place to do it,″ Waldmire says. ``Here, the little serendipities, they’re not sanitized. They don’t conform. And now that people are tired of the sameness of everything, they’re coming back.″
Those who remain in the places that hang on echo the same theme by the dozen: America as a nation no longer values nuance _ and should. So they believe tapping into the past can effect a phoenix-from-the-ashes revival.
There is Luis Garcia, a retired parole officer who carves his own canes and lives at the El Rancho Motel in the once-raucous Mojave Desert town of Barstow, Calif. ``You go into a place and it’s not like it used to be,″ he says. ``You used to go, `Hey _ how are you? What’s going on?′ Everybody knew everybody. Now you go in and they say″ _ he makes a sour face _ ```What do you want?‴
There is Shiraz ``Sam″ Kassem, who runs the immaculate El Vado Motel in Albuquerque, where Route 66 becomes Central Avenue for several miles. He sits in the lobby in his silk bathrobe and talks late-night 66 trivia with guests. ``Everything is the same now,″ he says. ``You have a burger shop with no name and a great burger, and people still go next door to McDonald’s. I don’t get it.″
And there is Lora Mulligan, who volunteers at the Route 66 Museum at the foot of the San Bernardino mountains outside Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. To her, people who travel 66 today are atypical: They’ve learned to slow down and have imbued the Mother Road with longings for a more relaxed life that may or may not have once existed.
``Today you get into your car and rush to get `there,′ wherever that is, and you hop out and do it and then you get back in your car and rush to get back again,″ she says. ``They’re looking for something _ anything _ more simple again.″
In Hong Kong, a South African wearing a Route 66 T-shirt asks, ``Do you know Angel Delgadillo?″ In Europe, an ambitious entrepreneur is trying to trademark the Route 66 name and shield. In Pennsylvania, 750 miles from the nearest stretch of 66, its highway shields and other memorabilia are big souvenir-shop sellers.
Along the old road itself, within the landscape Steinbeck immortalized in ``The Grapes of Wrath,″ Route 66 markets itself irrepressibly. Kingman, Ariz., and Needles, Calif., among others, offer the Route 66 Motel. There are Route 66 diners, Route 66 tattoo parlors, Route 66 souvenir centers. In Gallup, N.M., there’s even a Route 66 adult video store.
Summers across the highway corridor feature Route 66 ``fun runs,″ car shows, parades, cookouts. Inevitably, someone from the road’s history or pseudohistory _ Martin Milner, who played Tod to George Maharis’ Buz on the old ``Route 66″ TV series, or maybe Bobby Troup, who wrote the song ``Get Your Kicks on Route 66″ _ signs autographs and talks with folks.
This interest intensified during the 1980s and is still growing. The appetite for history is ravenous, and 66 provides a living history of itself _ a landscapewide please-touch museum. Bob Waldmire’s guest book brims with names, many foreign. Angel Delgadillo’s barber shop is papered with business cards.
``The search for things as they used to be is a lost cause,″ says David Lowenthal, author of ``Possessed by the Past,″ a book about the heritage movement. ``But it works in an unusual way on Route 66. It’s a complicated interplay between the demands of the tourist industry and people who see themselves as having a stake in their own past.″
In Seligman, businesspeople, seeing increased tourist traffic, are trying again. The Aztec Motel, closed for years, is reopening. Four new subdivisions have sprouted; retirees are moving in. Many attribute it to the 66 revival.
``People are starting to see the potential in this town again,″ says Sandy Baugh, who runs the chamber of commerce.
Slowly, places like Seligman are re-emerging, helped by trinkets, people and philosophies in their push toward continued existence _ and using Route 66 to tap into the legends and desires, personal and national, of our particular moment in history.
``People want to meet people like Angel and me. They say, `You’re the real America,‴ says Delgadillo’s brother, Juan, who runs the Snow Cap, an old-time hamburger-taco stand.
Angel and Juan Delgadillo have made themselves icons of their own environment. They are featured in Route 66 books in a dozen languages. Busfuls of foreign tourists debark in front of their establishments and begin photographing them.
Like period actors at Colonial Williamsburg or Plimoth Plantation, they and their counterparts are role-playing. But in many cases the roles are their real lives. And the fantasy helps their reality endure.
``This small-town America doesn’t exist anymore. But, a generation beyond, we’d like to think it still does,″ says John Craft, an Arizona State University professor who produces documentaries on his state’s segment of 66.
``We look at these people and they have become our sages,″ he says. ``And Angel did it for a useful purpose: His town was dead. He had to do something. So he became Floyd the Barber.″
The men who built it called Route 66 a road to the future in an age when forward, not backward, was the fashionable place to look.
But today, the interstates tell America’s story: unimpeded destination without process or distraction. Frontier domesticated with call boxes every half-mile. Everything an establishing shot instead of a closeup. The Disneyland train has become an express.
Efficiency and safety vs. serendipity and diversity. Which is better? Who is to say?
The people of Seligman will say the interstates ignore a sunshine America _ a land where motel guests still talk to each other. Where the gas-station bathroom doesn’t require a key. Where the road promises adventure and rampant, irrepressible, entrepreneurial individuality.
Maybe that land never existed. Maybe it doesn’t matter. It will exist now, if people like Angel Delgadillo have anything to say.
He has retired from cutting hair, though he often obliges visitors. He and his wife, Vilma, sit in their dimly lit museum adjacent to the barber shop, listen to road songs on a phonograph and greet visitors _ sometimes 30 a day.
Now and then he walks outside, tilts his plastic visor against the blazing sun and looks down the Chino Street section of old Route 66 toward the Interstate 40 ramp.
And he worries no more about people and roads that pass Seligman by.
``How exciting to see this blossom,″ the barber says. ``Never in my wildest dreams did I think somebody would ever ask me to autograph a book. I now have a role to play, and I play it to the best of my ability. And I have a great reason. When Route 66 was alive, Seligman was a place to pass through.″
``Now,″ he says, grinning, ``it’s a destination.″