Route 66: Ghosts Towns and Burros

February 21st, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

One of many memorials along Route 66.

So this is Route 66? I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it looks like the Middle of Nowhere. No 3G signal, so my iPhone’s GPS is inoperable. Golden Acres, the road sign says. Looks like a nondescript dusty watering hole with a smattering of palm trees. Wherever we are, we continue onward and soon come upon several white crosses along the roadside. One reads “Wes Trombone.” A brass instrument comes immediately to mind. But this was someone’s name. Whoever it was, this marked his death. That’s all that the desert was willing to reveal. I pause to reflect; nothing really goes through my mind except a few moments for this person, a thought that this was someone’s child, someone’s friend. This name on the side of the road marked with a cross, like the countless markers within graveyards. Only this one marks the spot, and we were destined to find more along the way. We drive onward.

Cacti Kon. That’s the name that we call our middle child Konstantin at that moment. It’s fitting on this leg of the trip. His is the sort of name that begs for variations, and we’re quick to throw them out. KONserve. KONcrete. KONgo. KONquest. The Wrath of KON. King KON. Butter PeKON. And he doesn’t seem to mind at all. I’ve thought about shortening his name to Kosta (my dad’s nickname), Dean (his cousin’s nickname), Connie (my favorite term of endearment), Dinos, Dino. Yuck. So he will most likely have the same fate as me, where his siblings shorten his name to the first syllable (mine was Ann) that will stick for his youthful days, and then go back to the full Monty as an adult.

So here we are, with Cacti Kon jumping out of the RV parked on the side of Route 66, running through a desert patch in search of his namesake. He stops to pick a limb of a stubborn cactus as a keepsake — no small feat even with a handy little whittling knife. Immediately after Kon extracts the cactus fragment, it finds a new home atop his orange Crock. The battle is on: The Cactus vs. Kon. Kon whips his foot around, bangs it against the RV’s tire, flings off his rubber sling-back and finally managing to free the cactus, but not without one of the sewing-machine sized needles embedding itself in his knee. Leave it to Kon to make a simple request turn into major endeavor. I made the mistake of trying to pick up the cactus from the ground and quickly recoil, wounded. As I suck my bloody finger and tend to Kon’s self-inflicted wound, I look around at the desert landscape and curse under my breath. It’s bloody hot out here, and there’s absolutely no refuge from the sun. Wounded but finally victorious, we climb back into the RV, where Kon inserts the cursed cactus into a sand-packed Venti-sized Starbucks cup, next to a completely different looking cactus pulled from an earlier desert patch. Another bloody story, another bloody time.

Onward, we pass by the turnoff of Catfish Paradise. Catfish. Really? Speaking of fish, Catfish Kon hasn’t let go of the idea that we will come across a fishing spot. He brought his poles on the trip and hasn’t given up, despite the prospect of fishing in desert country isn’t something I’d lay any high bets on.

We continue on what we assume to be Route 66 and stop again after a while, this time at a straggly tree haphazardly adorned with patriotic Canadian decorations, including a flag, ribbons, small windmill and a golden leaf. The tree sparkles in the intense sun with its silver Christmas bulbs. In the midst of this dry wasteland was Canada’s hope for redemption perhaps. From what is anybody’s guess. But it was quite impressive, even though whoever did this left in a hurry. There was an open black plastic trash bag spilling over with more ornaments. Our kids ran around in excitement, gathering anything on the ground that looked interesting. A tie for Richard. A miniature flag on a stick for Francesca. Canada Kon came in with two sparkly silver bulbs, rusted bud light bottle cap and a glittery red snowflake Christmas ornament. We move on.

We come across one abandoned town after another as we drove onward on Route 66. Then out of the desert’s vastness appears a baby burro sucking on its mother’s teat, smack in the middle of the road. There was nowhere to go but stop. Donkey Kon was having a blast with the rest of his siblings, and the kids proceeded to feed our entire supply of carrots to the half-dozen donkeys who came up to our RV.

Stopping to play.

We had entered the dusty town of Oatman, formerly a mining mecca some 30 miles west of Kingman and nestled within the Black Mountains of Arizona. This is one Wild West town that has benefitted from its Route 66 roots. We were among a half-million visitors this year who have stopped to take in the town. The stories about this here location are quite entertaining, considering today’s Oatman isn’t as magical a setting as the tales that are told. That is where the imagination takes hold.

As one story goes, two prospectors struck a $10 million gold vein in 1915 and the town’s population grew to nearly 4,000 people. It became a hotspot to be, even for movie stars. This town is famous as the honeymoon stop of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard in 1939. Gable fell in love with the area and returned often to play poker with the miners and the eight-room Oatman Hotel boasts the Gable/Lombard honeymoon suite as its major attraction. There’s also Oatie the Ghost, an Irish miner who died behind the hotel supposedly from too much alcohol. He was hastily buried in a shallow grave near where he was found, and has yet to leave the premises. Numerous sources say that the Oatman Hotel is haunted, and there are reports of the spirits of Gable and Lombard laughing from their honeymoon room, mixed with sounds of bagpipes coming from Oatie’s room.

The goldrush ended in the 1940s, and the population of Oatman steadily sank. It’s lucky if it has 150 residents now, which is quite impressive nonetheless, and it’s one of the most authentic ghosts towns you’ll find in the Middle of Nowhere. The biggest attraction for us were the donkeys, where they outnumber the people now. They’ve been freely roaming since the prospectors skedaddled out of Oatman and let their donkeys go free to proliferate the hills. We were welcome to feed them as we wandered in and out of a few of the shops, hoping for a high-noon gun battle to materialize. It appears as though the showdown happened early in the morning to beat the heat, so we moved on with our tour de Route 66.

Our drive revealed two more crosses with orange flowers, and a 150-foot drop where donkeys graze way below. We’re at 3,550 feet above sea level, and I would imagine that the nameless people plunged to their deaths. Another pause. As we drive on, the only sign of humanity are four mailboxes in a row on the side of the road, and a gold-mining area with no trespassing signs.

Another pause in our journey.

Some 15 miles east of Oatman, we come across a building that looks totally blown out and ravaged by the environment. When I look closer, the sign reads “Ed’s Camp.” Yet another abandoned encampment that was beyond repair and merging with the landscape. (I found out later that the proprietor, Lowell “Ed” Edgerton, originally came to the area as a miner but instead of searching for gold, he constructed a makeshift camp around 1920 for servicing Route 66 travelers. He threw up a few buildings that included the Kactus Kafe, a gas station, a bathroom and a few cabins. He also established a trailer camp of sorts.)

We barrel on and, before we know it, we are entering the outskirts of Kingman and cross under Highway 40. The clusters of mailboxes grow along the side of the road, then come the tell-tale signs: Cracker Barrel, McDonald’s. As we listened to rough cuts of the Beatles on CD, we enter civilization and stop to graze at a Mexican restaurant. The outside of  El Palacio looks old and rustic, but inside new and cleanly done, with clusters of plastic flowers arranged like large wedding bouquets. The food was good, although nothing unique. (Urban Spoon rated it a 78 percent, which is pretty much on the mark.) Looking around, I see a large man roaring from the bar as he watched a Mexican soap opera from a big screen. I see a young woman with bleached hair and black tips, I see an Indian family, several tables of tourists, pretty much a cross-section of America. What runs through my mind is, do these people live here? What brought them here? How do they spend their days? Would they rather be someplace else? Did they like the food?  Trains rumble in the background, making themselves known.

After spending the night in Kingman in one of the best commercial RV camps yet, we hit the high road and pass countless black-shielded Route 66 road signs assuring us that we are still on the right track.  I spot St. Michael’s Catholic Church next to a bail bondsman office. We follow along a train track that has more traffic than the road here. The front of one locomotive reads BNSF, and most of its intermodular freight is labeled “China.”

The constant rumbling of trains through the barren terrain.

Mile marker 99 is also the location of another cross where someone met death. We didn’t stop because cars were right up behind us. Twenty-three miles out of Kingman, we stop at a general store in a town called Hackberry that boasts a post office serving 68 residential mailboxes. The general store has plethora of Route 66 memorabilia, along with an old gas pump, a 1950s Corvette, old cars and engines and even an old sled parked out front. Cardshark Kon nabbed a tin container of Route 66 playing cards and we were on our way. The general store’s website reads, “The rail road came to Hackberry in 1882, loading cattle from area ranches along with ore from the Hackberry Silver Mine. The mine began in 1874 when prospectors built a mining camp near a spring on the east side of the Peacock Mountains. The mine was named for a large hackberry tree that grew near the spring. Mining ceased in 1919 but not before over $3 million in gold and silver had been produced. During this time, Hackberry offered regular services to its residents including a one-room school house, post office and two bordellos.”

Another spot where folks appear to be living in the relics of the past. This one was even enchanting.  That wasn’t the case for our next stop, Peach Springs, an important destination for the kids. Not only is it the headquarters of the million-acre Hualapai Indians reservation, it’s the town that inspired Radiator Springs for the movie Cars, but there was no pit stop in sight. Only some rundown homes, a relatively new nondescript hotel, an indoor fitness facility (huh?) and a small grocery mart. It was a bit depressing and, like the Pixar movie, depicts to some degree the losses that it and many other cities along Route 66 faced after they were bypassed by I-40. The kids lost interest quickly, thankfully, and we didn’t linger.

Entering the Seligma scene.

On to Seligma. It is quite interesting to see how some towns left unkept fall into total decay and a permanent part of the past. Other towns, like this one, are resuscitated and emerge as a tourist destination highlight. We stop to eat at Delgadillo’s Snow Cap, a quirky drive-in diner with counter service. Inside, a small entryway is lined with business cards taped on the walls, and little writings from all over the world. Seating was outside, on picnic table benches and metal garden chairs. Here junk is collected and showcased, like an old umbrella stroller seating a few Teddy bears and American flag.  A worn straw broom is propped on display on a wall, near a beat-up white plastic mannequin wearing a black one-piece swimsuit and pink tutu, standing proud. The place is packed with people eating chicken burritos, cheeseburgers and hamburgers, vanilla and strawberry shakes, crinkle-cut and sweet potato fries.

The Snow Cap in Seligma.

Conspiring Kon poking around again.

These joints along Route 66  are magnets for oddball signs, like “No parking except for Bob”, “Route Beer 66″,  ”Rock & Roll Ave”. Betty Boop is sold in every conceivable shop, along with the same fare of coffee mugs, bumper stickers, license plates and keychains. And lining the streets are other appealing establishments such as Roadkill Cafe, Route 66 Motel, Aztec Motel, Copper Cart, Canyon Lodge and Black Cat Bar.

All this and more in the  land of rundown ghost towns still inhabited by people.

Route 66 (or Election ’12): The Road to Hope, Dreams and Desperation

February 3rd, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

I wanted to be back on the road, reconnect with the countryside and carry on with exploring the Southwest with the kids. I consider Las Vegas as an unenlightening interlude on our roadtrip. But, heck, it was something different and short-lived. Like a one-night stand, you can say.  On that same vein, we steered toward the border of Californication. Ya know what I mean. That’s what happens when you’ve been slumming it for 24 hours. And that sure was a great album by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. (I’ve got to pull out the CD again…or download it on iTunes. It’s been way too long.) I still remember parts of that cover song:

“Destruction leads to a very rough road

But it also breeds creation

And earthquakes are to a girl’s guitar

They’re just another good vibration

And tidal waves couldn’t save the world

From Californication…”

We blew in and out of California, touching into the Mohave Desert to catapult us onto a well-traveled path. Route 66 was taking us for a ride. What images does that evoke? For me, it contains tail-finned markers of cruising across America on a road that connected one Main Street America to another. In my mind, I travel past diners, motels, mom-and-pop general stores with soda fountains where teenagers hang out after school. Between long stretches of road, there are drive-ins and car washes and gas stations with old-fashioned pumps and friendly attendants with a big cloths tucked in their back pockets, ready to hand-wipe your windshield and chrome bumper. I think of Dr. Feelgood’s over-the-top rendition of Route 66.

In fact, this historic thoroughfare represents the best and worst of times in American history. Following World War II, thousands took to the road in their quest for upward mobility and left the industrial East for good jobs in the suburban ideal of southern California. In essence, moving from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt. That was a huge shift from the Great Depression, when farm families displaced from the Dust Bowl made their way west along Route 66 to California, following what John Steinbeck called “the mother road”:

“66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert’s slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there. From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.” (Grapes of Wrath, pg. 108) 

February 1936. Oklahoma sharecropper and family entering California. Stalled on the desert near Indio, California.


November 1936. Young family, penniless, hitchhiking in California. The father, 24, and the mother, 17, came from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Their baby was born in the Imperial Valley, California, where they worked as field laborers.

As I looked through the Library of Congress’s photo archive of images taken by Dorothea Lange documenting the travelers of Route 66 and other routes leading west during the Great Depression, faces begin to emerge from the travels through the barren terrain that linked one sparse city with another. Men, women, families walked on foot through these endless stretches in need of survival, or loaded all their possessions into one car, as they moved westward in desperation.

February 1936. Oklahoma dust bowl refugees. San Fernando, California.

Their faces show the same look of exhaustion, emptiness, almost an acquiescence to whatever fate has to give them. At the same time, they were persevering and adapting. What else could you do if you have children? Or no options? What I came across is a window into a life that is no different than squatter camps that I encountered in the Philippines, in what is called Smokey Mountain, a large garbage dump where tens of thousands of people scavenge for their livelihood. It’s estimated that 30,000 people live near the site, making their living from picking through the rubbish. Or in the border areas of northern Thailand and southern Bangladesh, where women are compelled to sell sex for a few dollars to support their households, putting themselves at risk for HIV/AIDS or community banishment. Or in Jakarta where street children are hired by syndicates to beg at intersections and forced to turn in their money only to be given barely enough to eat.

Humans are forced into such harsh conditions, and somehow that survival instinct kicks in. They battle to live. Yet there are so many people with an overabundance of everything, and the thought of spreading the wealth to a greater number of people so that no one has to live like this has not been realized. What’s up with that? It’s a pretty simple concept. Yet the simplest of things are the most difficult to see. This isn’t an issue of religion, or pushing one’s morality upon another’s, or drumming up support for a politician or political viewpoint. It’s about humanity at its simplest form. It’s an individual’s right to dignity, and we have the obligation to make sure others have that very basic dignity. Look at any one of these faces, whether it be the migrants of the Dust Bowl, or the scavengers of Smokey Mountain, or the child beggars of Jakarta or the Burmese sex workers of northern Thailand. They could be one of us, and we’re more connected than ever before, with borders blurred in this shrinking community we call the world.

Although all the images that have appeared so far in my blog have been photographs by my husband, John, who has kindly allowed me to showcase some of his incredible work, the images in this segment were entirely taken by Dorothea Lange. Many of these people traveled on the same road that I found myself on now, and even now I could sense a feeling of emptiness, but full of past content. So much has happened along this route.  I thought I would take a moment to reflect on those who traveled westward out of survival. Because any of these people could have been me and you.

1935. Dispossessed Arkansas farmers. Bakersfield, California. 


February 1936. Migrant family looking for work in the pea fields. California.


February or March 1936. Migrant agricultural worker’s family. Florence Thompson, 32, is shown with four of her seven hungry children in a tent shelter. Nipomo, California.

What’s my point with all of this? Let’s take a step back and realize that, bottom line, the extreme wealthy don’t need so much wealth. Sure, it’s nice to live in luxury, to have it good and enjoy life to its fullest. And those who have that probably worked damn hard to get to it. Or at least their predecessors did. Or someone in their family. Or they got lucky in the stock market. Or lottery. WHATEVER. But there’s got to be a better way to have this wealth distributed so that those people who have such a hard time surviving, who cannot feed or clothe or shelter their children, can have some reprieve. Does anyone deserve to be in that situation? If they do, then they should most likely be in jail, and life in jail probably is a helluva lot better than in the streets.

It’s election time. Oh boy. I wouldn’t say we have entered the age of enlightenment in this phase of American politics.  Most of what we see and hear so far is how one candidates is messing up, or how one is tripping up another, or how a candidate is trying to put out his own fires that started  burning long before he entered the campaign trail. Or whatever nominal items that detract from what the purpose of government: to protect the people and catch them when they’re falling. We should be focused on finding someone who is not defending the rights of an individual to hoard as much money and be protected, but who is defending humanity and the rights of people who are caught before they hit rock bottom. What sort of legacy, what sort of example do you want to leave for your children? For the next generations? That they want to watch their own ass, or that they want to help others? I’ve said my piece. I’m hopping back on the trail again and looking for signs of hope and purpose. We’ve come so far.

February 1936. Destitute peapickers in California; a 32 year old mother of seven children (same subject as previous photo.)


All photographs by Dorothea Lange, courtesy of the Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection.