California, Here I Come

October 15, 2012 — Monday

Needles, California is known as one of the hottest places in the USA, and true to its reputation, the temperature was already mid-90s at 8:00 A.M.  I drove back to the bridge over the Colorado to see it in daylight, pleasant enough, especially the line of palm trees along the river that seemed to say “welcome to California.”

Entering Needles on the east is an old wagon, said to be the same 20-mule-team wagon used in the “Death Valley Days” TV show  starring Ronald Reagan.  In downtown Needles , El Garces railroad depot-hotel commands an older version of Route 66.  West of Chambless, for several miles you can try to decipher several miles of grafitti on a berm wall, as well as rocks that spell out words.  Some strange stuff there.  Next comes Amboy with its iconic 1950s Roy’s Motel & Cafe.  In 2005 the whole town was bought by a new owner, still working to restore it to tourist glory.  Just north of Amboy sits a 135′ tall thermometer, near Baker and Death Valley, but a quick check of my watch and the map convinced me to check its temperature another time since it’s not on 66.

The California 66 drive between Needles and Riverside on the far east side of Los Angeles is two-lane road that seems to stretch forever, sometimes with scrub, sometimes with trees and grass, but mostly a vast gaze across a valley floor with mountains in the distance  —  until a bitsy town pops up.  Bingo, like Newberry Springs, home of the Bagdad Cafe, where the movie with the same name was filmed with Julia Roberts.   The next pop-up is Daggett with its 1908 Desert Market, where miners cashed in their ore, and the Ski Lodge Roof House, a wood building with a soaring chalet-like roof.

Side trip time!  Just north of Daggett is the 1881 mining town, Calico.  In its heyday, miners hauled out silver and borax.  Today the “ghost town” covers about 60 acres, one-third of its buildings original, the rest carefully recreated to match.  When mining went bust, Calico was saved by Walter Knott, as in Knott’s Berry Farm jams, jellies and theme parks.  I spent a long hour walking Calico’s uphill business district, miners’ homes, an actual mine, and a delightful narrow-gage train that chugs a 20-minute loop through the mountains and desert.  Lots of shops and cafes here, all geared for families and foreigners eager to relive The Old West, and a favorite location for not-too-far Hollywood film and TV studios. As I walked, and baked in the high 90s heat, I heard Japanese, Chinese, German, French, Spanish, Korean, and almost every foreigner had bought something.  My recommendation: the Sweet Shop with its homemade candies and rich fudge, especially the maple walnut.  Leaving, I noted its annual Spring Festival includes the World Tobacco Spitting Contest.

I cranked on to Barstow, with its historic Main Street Murals and a former Harvey House hotel, Casa del Desierto, a gorgeous old deco building, but closed today.  I reluctantly skipped the World Burlesque Museum & Hall of Fame in Helendale and further west, the Forest of Bottle Trees, begun by folk artist Elmer Long in 2000 and still creating interesting art with bottles.  My “visit next time” list keeps getting longer.

No matter.  I was on a mission to see Victorville’s California Route 66 Museum before closing.  Dang!  The sign said open to 5:00 pm, but the door was locked.  As I walked back to my car, the back door opened and a smiling lady said hello.  When I told her my 66  saga, she ducked back inside, turned on the lights, and told two other volunteers: “This lady has been driving all day to see our museum so she can say she’s seen every state museum along Route 66.  Let’s give her a little look.”

And so I met Chick, Sharon and Betty who give new meaning to hospitality.  Sharon answered questions and reeled off info on California’s 286 miles of 66.  Chick, a lady by the way, was full of stories.  Betty rung up my fabulous Betty Boop tea set purchase.  It’s a terrific place, this museum, a diner here, a vintage car there, and enough displays to make any 66 lover weep with joy.  They didn’t rush me and made sure I signed the guest book with my ID tag: 66th birthday trip in 6 weeks with 6 companions starting 6:06 A.M. on September 6th.   They hugged me goodbye.  As I drove off, I noticed Chick’s big black auto and its tag, CHIXCAH.   Ladies, I loved meeting you.  You do 66 and Victorville proud, and I hope you’re all still there when I visit next.  Here’s a gigantic thank you!

I did a quick driving tour of downtown Victorville.  Its formal entrance is a massive arched 66 sign facing Route 66.  It looked nice, something else to come back for.  On the way out of town, I passed its iconic New Coral Motel and was pleased to see Trigger atop its sign, fortunately left behind when the Roy Rogers  Museum moved from Victorville to Branson, MO in 2003.  Hi yo, Trigger!

The day was fading fast, so I said a temporary goodbye to Route 66 and jumped on the interstate.  Instant shock.  After 5+ weeks of driving mostly 2-lane road, suddenly I was on I-15 in the middle of 6 lanes full of cars headed into Los Angeles.  Ulp.  Oh yeah, California traffic…I remember it from my 1980s years of living in sunny Southern Cal.  I still hate the traffic.  Another deep breath, firm grip on the wheel, a wee grit of teeth, and away I drive south and west to Granada Hills where good friend Marti waits to welcome me to her unique Eichler home.

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