Adios Arizona & Creeping into California

October 14, 2012  —  Sunday

The free breakfast at Canyon Lodge is worth paying for.  The lodge’s breakfast room is a compact, cheery alcove just behind the check-in desk.  I loved its serving containers of juice and milk in the fridge, baskets with individually wrapped pastries and snacks, fresh fruit, assortment of teas, uniform cereal dispensers, and special touches.  This galley kitchen/breakfast room could serve an astronaut.  Managers Reinhard (tall & thin) and Mike (short & thin) are easy-going guys who do everything at the lodge: reservations, breakfast, housekeeping, laundry and maintenance.   Their attention to detail shows.  I give Canyon Lodge four gold stars.

After breakfast, I was ready to meet the Mayor of Route 66.  For months I had been reading about Angel Delgadillo, 85, the local barber who helped save Seligman from vanishing after  the interstate bypassed it.  Angel was born right on the road that became Route 66.  Like his father, he became a barber and opened for business opposite his brother, Juan of the Snow Cap Drive-In that I visited yesterday.  The brothers watched sadly as Dust Bowl families passed through Kingman for the promised land in California, then enjoyed the stream of 66 travelers until 1978 when the interstate turned 66 into toast.  Angel, a great storyteller, said the town was so dead after the interstate that you could lie down in the middle of the road and not worry about getting run over.   Nine years later, Angel was the driving force of the Historic Route 66 Association of Arizona, successfully lobbying the state for historic highway status.

The rest is history.  Seligman was reborn.  Angel and his wife, Vilma, opened a souvenir shop, doubling as visitor center.  Other Route 66 states asked Angel for advice and how-to, then followed suit, launching a national revival of the fondly remembered route.

Today Angel is retired as a barber, but he still serves as an unofficial 66 ambassador.  Every day he rides his bicycle to the souvenir barber shop.  Instead of shaves and haircuts, he poses with tourists from all over the world for a photo at the barber chair, shakes hands, and spends a few minutes with anyone who wants to meet him.  And that is a long line.  Angel has done hundreds of interviews and met thousands of visitors.  His barbershop walls and ceiling are covered with business cards.  I wander around, sad that I missed his morning visit, but enjoy buying some 66 souvenirs and talking with his charming daughter, Mirna, and cute great-niece, Kayla, who manage the shop and gently nudge Angel to take lunch and nap breaks at home.

Suddenly Angel enters, and like a rock star, throngs of visitors rush to meet him…Japanese and French from tour buses, Harley riders, and a German guy in a cowboy hat behind me who offers to snap a photo when I meet Angel.

When my turn comes, Angel greets me with the same ear-to-ear beaming smile I’ve watched him give everyone for the last ten minutes.  When I tell him that this is my special 66th birthday trip doing Route 66 in six weeks with six different companions, he laughs like a kid who just made his first home run.  When I add that I started at 6:06 A.M. on September 6th on purpose, his eyes light up and I think his face might pop from smiling so wide.   “I love that,” he says and hugs me goodbye.  I feel really lucky to have met the Angel and Mayor of Route 66.

Time to move on, more of 66 awaits, and I want to set foot on the glass-floored Grand Canyon Skywalk built on Hualapai Nation land 4,000 feet over the canyon floor.  On the way, I stop at Hackberry General Store, which pops up on 66 in the middle of Arizona nowhere, with rusty vintage signs swinging in the breeze and old jalopies parked around the building.  I push on to Peach Springs, chuckling at three more sets of silly Burma Shave signs.  When I reach Peach Springs in early afternoon, the Hualapai Visitors Center advises me that I won’t make it to the Skywalk that afternoon because it’s several more hours of driving, plus a shuttle.  Part of me is disappointed, but another part is relieved.  Another time, hopefully with someone to hold my hand.

Back to the unbroken stretch of 66.  Between Peach Springs and Kingman, I am racing interstate traffic on my left and a really long train on my right, so long I can’t see where the train starts or ends.  The sun roof is open, one of those 66 songs is playing, I dub this the freeway/car/train sandwich, and the train blows its whistle.   This moment is perfect.

Hours later, I reach Kingman and its excellent Mohave Museum of History & Arts with a 66 wing.  The museum has a wonderful old-fashioned movie theatre showing “158 Miles to Yesterday,” a lively film tracking the route’s birth, death and comeback.  Suddenly Angel appears as the narrator, flashing that same mile-wide smile, like seeing an old friend.

It’s time for supper and another Arizona 66 icon, Mr. D’s Route 66 Diner.  It’s a fun place with vinyl booths, checkered tile floor,  and chrome and 66 stuff aplenty.  Mr. D’s specialties are its own root beer, banana splits, bacon cheeseburgers, and chilli dogs.  The chilli dog with cheese is the biggest dog I’ve ever seen.  It sits on their specially made butter bun, piled with deliciousness the width of my hand.  It’s unbelievably good, but I manage only half of it, wondering who could eat the double dog version.  I visit the Ladies, which has beefcake photos of famous stars, wait patiently for the Men’s Room to empty, peer in and see a bevy of female beauties.  A cutie patootie waiter boxes the other half of my chili dog and hands me my souvenir Dr. D root beer bottle.  The whole staff waves me out the door and wishes me a good trip.

Back on 66, the route leaves Kingman and it doesn’t take long to see the terrain change.  The road leaves behind trees and cactus, starts to climb, then twist.  By late afternoon I’m slowing to 15 mph to take hairpin curves.  Dusk arrives steadily and I am navigating one switchback after another.  The scenery is spectacular: rocky high, deep valleys of black, a sliver moon rising slowly.  One truck passes me doing 20 mph around a curve that drops frighteningly far down.  I drive another hour without seeing another vehicle, and finally I arrive in Oatman.

Mining made Oatman big business in the 1930s and right up to WWII.   A true Old West mining town, Oatman went through a ghost town phase, then revived in the early 1960s when parts of “How The West Was Won” were filmed here.  Wooden plank sidewalks line the main drag, the only drag, through this steep town, and its most famous residents are wild burros, descendants of the boom mining years.  There are feed dispensers scattered around town, but so are piles of burro droppings.  I arrive in the dark, no burros about, but no shortage of droppings.  Nothing is open but one lone bar.  Still, I enjoy walking the planks and peering into store windows.

I checked the map for an alternative to the hairpin mountain road I’d been driving.  Nope.  I took a deep breath and left Oatman.  Within a mile the only light was the moon.  For two hours I wrestled the narrow, sometimes crumbling road in the deep dark, climbing, twisting, dropping, praying that the next curve would show me Golden Shores just outside the Arizona line.  I talked to myself and invented my own Burma Shave sign epitaph:

Here lies Donna Copen McKinnis,

who drove AZ 66 mountains alone in the dark.

She had a great time, but then in a blip,

she reached eternal rest and the end of her trip.

At last, town lights emerged down in the valley.  Golden Shores, I hoped, and two passing EMS guys confirmed I was on the right road.  Buy gas on the Arizona side, they said.  I drove on to tiny Topock and at its crossroads, stopped to fill up at an Arco station before crossing the bridge over the Colorado River into California.  Gas was $3.89 per gallon.  Across the bridge in Needles, CA the first gas station sign read $5.05 per gallon.

At 10:00 P.M. I checked into a nice chain hotel, heated my half chili dog in the microwave, drank a glass of wine, and fell asleep watching the news.  Adios Arizona, I loved you end to end  —  and next time I will drive the Kingman/Oatman/Topock section in daylight.

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