I picked up Route 66 just outside of Barstow, California, on my way from Tehachapi to Joshua Tree. No one else was on the road as I headed east.
Once the main arterial thread running from Chicago to the Pacific Ocean, John Steinbeck called this iconic highway "The Mother Road" in The Grapes of Wrath because it was the principal route taken by the displaced poor heading west during The Great Depression. Later it was enshrined in the national imagination by the popular song (Get Your Kicks on) Route 66 written in the 1940s by Bobby Troup and made famous by Chuck Berry in 1961 and the Sixties TV show of the same name. Cult movies such as Easy Rider added to the road’s mystique and for a while Route 66 became part of the seminal American experience of freedom found on the open highway. As a teenager growing up in the small green confines of England, I was fascinated by the prospect of such a mystical escape.
Sadly, only parts of this historic highway remain intact today, replaced in importance by the interstate freeway system, and it was officially decommissioned as a major route in 1985. Sections were given national scenic byway status, but others were abandoned like the one I was traveling on, a 60-mile stretch that parallels I-40 for most of the way until it veers away just east of Ludlow. It’s a good stretch though, heading out into the open desert, shimmering black hills in the distance. Plus, there is a sneaky satisfaction about freewheeling along beside a busy freeway, as if you are goofing off from school while everyone is back in class working hard.
Twenty minutes out from Barstow, I stopped at The Bagdad Café, the location for Percy Adlon’s 1987 movie about two women deserted by their husbands in the remote regions of the Mohave. The original Bagdad Cafe was fifty miles down the road in the town of Bagdad, which has now disappeared (both town and café). The film was actually shot at the current location, then called the Sidewinder Café, in Newberry Springs. Later, the name was changed to the Bagdad Café in order to satisfy the tourists. Nothing much has changed in the twenty-five years since the film was made. One of the old guys nursing a cup of coffee inside could easily still be awaiting instructions from the director before he makes his next move.
After leaving Newberry Springs, the road passes through a turbulent volcanic landscape that looks like a giant crumpled parking lot. The road surface got pretty rough too. After thirty miles of bone-shaking black top that loosened every screw on my car, I came across a sign that said “Rough Road Ahead’; after which the surface improved considerably. Occasionally I came across abandoned buildings, remnants of a distant and positive past when cars were rocket ships and gas stations and motels futuristic spaceports. Now there is a post-apocalyptic feel about the journey, as if Mad Max could suddenly come roaring at you down the highway astride a belching black hog. In fact, I saw only the odd car and a couple of bikers in the whole sixty-mile stretch.
At Roy’s Motel and Café in Amboy I pulled in for some $5 a gallon gas and sat beneath a shady pine tree to eat lunch. Nearby, leather-decked weekend bikers climbed off their mounts to stretch their legs. There was an old church with the spire leaning dangerously off kilter. Then I left Route 66 behind and headed south across the desert on Amboy Road past rows of conical sand hills. An hour and a half later I was checking in the High Desert Motel in the town of Joshua Tree. Across the highway was the Joshua Tree Inn where prodigal country rock star, Gram Parsons, once of The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, bands whose music was written for wheeling down desert highways, died of an overdose in 1973. His friends stole his body from Los Angeles airport on its way back to his family home in Louisiana, drove it in a borrowed hearse to Joshua Tree National Park (a place where he apparently used to get lost for days, getting high, communing with nature and searching for UFOs) and gave him an impromptu cremation with a five-gallon can of gas.
Early next morning, as the sun rose, I drove through the park, where the vast Colorado and Mohave Deserts merge, passing through piles of granite boulders and silent standing cacti. I took a walk in Hidden Valley where a hundred and fifty years ago cattle rustlers supposedly used to hide out, then drove on to the top of Keys View. From there you can see past the Salton Sea, south over the Mexican border and beyond—a giant dusty horizon where it looks like you could drive forever.
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