Ghost Towns, Sunlit Desert Bottle Art, & Beverly Hills ~Just a Day on Route 66

The Ultimate Summer Road Trip ~Day 5 (afternoon)

Wednesday, July 28th

It was hard to leave the soft, fuzzy burros of Oatman behind, but we couldn’t stay parked cattywampus on the highway all day, so we continued down into Golden Shores / Topock ~a sleepy community of 3,000 nestled along the banks of the Colorado River. From there we could see the bridges to California, and knew that the desert awaited us on the other side of the river.

View from the rear window ~Leaving the mountains of Oatman behind us

The blue ribbon of the Colorado is all that separates Arizona and California at this section of old Route 66.

The mountains of Arizona on one side of the Colorado River, and the desert palm trees of California on the other.

Three automobile bridges once spanned the Colorado River here, two of which are still present. They include the current I-40 bridge, and the “Old Trails Arch Bridge” which was built in 1916 for auto traffic. Currently, the older bridge provides support for a gas line. Gone entirely is the Red Rock Bridge, which was originally built for trains, but served as the Route 66 highway from 1947 – 1966, when it was demolished.

Anticipation built as we approached the I-40 bridge. We were still in Arizona, but could see California ahead!  Like generations of westward bound travelers before us, we were following Route 66 to the fabled land of milk and honey. California or bust! After crossing the Colorado, it was official. We were in the Golden State at last.

Park Moabi, CA ~on the banks of the Colorado River. {photo courtesy of Google maps}

We approached the Inspection Station, where all travelers hoping to enter the magical kingdom of California must prove their worth. Or prove that they have no fruit upon their person. One or the other, anyway. I patted myself down to insure that I was not in possession of a forgotten contraband banana. My husband drove us up to the Inspection booth, and proceeded to provide me with my most treasured memory of the entire trip. Conversation as follows:

Inspection Station employee: “Hello, folks! How we doing today?”

My husband: “Doing well, thank you!”

Inspection Station employee: “What brings you to California?”

My husband: “We’re on vacation”

Inspection Station employee: “Great, great! Do you folks have any fruit or vegetables in your vehicle?”

My husband: “No, nothing like that”

Inspection Station employee: “Good deal! Where are you folks coming from?”

My husband: “Arizona.”

Inspection Station employee: “Thanks, folks, enjoy your trip” (waves us on)

I took one incredulous look at my husband as we pulled away from the booth, and then I was off into loud gales of mirth. A quick glance in the rearview mirror showed the Inspection station employee gazing quizzically at our back license plate, and you could almost see him thinking “rubes!”… well, that just cinched it; I was lost in the full grip of hilarity at that point. Miles passed before I could stop laughing long enough to explain to my plainly bewildered husband what was so damn funny.

“Arizona!” I gasped “you said Arizona! You said we came from Arizon… ahHahaHa…”

“We did come from Arizona.” my beleaguered spouse responded, with the most awesome and adorable look of perplexity. This, not surprisingly, set me off again. You ever notice how hard it is to explain why something is so funny when you are laughing too hard to speak?

“Baby”, I managed to wheeze out, “everybody that pulls up to that booth is coming from Arizona, there’s no other way to get to this station except from Arizona, the guy knew that, he knew you came from Arizona” (snort! giggle!) “he meant, where did you come from, originally” !

Of course, long before I finished my explanation, my husband was laughing hysterically with me, having realized what he said, in response to what was actually asked, as soon as he paused a moment to think about it. That’s probably why it was so funny, it’s much more like something I would say, not my common sense oriented hubby 🙂

So, having firmly established the indisputable fact that we came here to California from Arizona, we left I-40 after the Inspection station, and followed old Route 66  into Needles, CA, where we gassed up and grabbed burgers to go.

Needles, CA ~photo by author

There are two Route 66 options to choose from west of Needles. The post-1931 route, which is now I-40, goes directly over the Sacramento Mountains. The  pre-1931 route follows the railroad line and meanders through the Mojave Desert, the Lava Runoffs, dry white lakes, and several ghost towns. The early route was definitely the winning choice here and we set off, following the train tracks into the desert. Just outside Goffs, CA, we came to our first of the fabled Route 66 Shields painted on the California highway.

Route 66 just east of Goffs, CA. ~photo by author

After photographing each other several times standing like loons in the middle of the shield, we continued on. This dry, barren stretch of highway is a ghost town lover’s dream come true, with crumbling buildings and decaying beauty to be found in every mile of the journey. Our temperature gauge read 109 degrees as we drove on.

Remains of the Chambless Market & Gas Station -photo by author

The abandoned Roadrunner's Retreat Cafe and Gas Station -photo by author

The Mojave Desert wasn’t quite what we expected. Having never been in the Mojave, we had mentally created a picture; in our minds a ribbon of cement laid across white desert sands, perhaps with dunes rising majestically to either side. Actually, the Mojave is a wide-open, flat, arid “high desert”, sporting the occasional spindly palm, plenty of sagebrush and broom weed, and spiky Joshua Trees. We drove through a stretch of road where hundreds of travelers had written their names on the dirt berm that runs along the north side of Route 66. Written in rocks, bottles, and assorted debris, it is an ever-shifting testament to those who still frequent The Mother Road. Eagerly, we viewed the fenced-off remains of the Danby gas station / rest stop, the long abandoned Chambless Market & Gas Station, and the ruins of the Roadrunner’s Retreat Cafe and Station. Then, up ahead, a sparkling oasis seemed to appear in a deceptive, glittering haze on the sun-baked horizon. 110 degrees read our temperature gauge, as the restored, fabulously kitschy, Mid-Century Modern architecture of Roy’s Motel and Cafe appeared in the desert before us.

In operation on Route 66 in Amboy, CA since 1927, Roy’s enjoyed its booming heyday in the 1950’s when the motel’s new “inclined roof flying over a glassed wedge guest reception and office theme building” were added. The large, neon, boomerang “Roy’s” sign is an oft-photographed icon of the Route. Roy’s was restored recently, and is now an operating gas station again. The motel Reception Office is preserved in its 1950’s glory.

Looking into the motel office, reflection of the Roy's sign captured in glass (photo by author)

Roy's sign (photo by author)

Roy's motel rooms (photo by author)

photographing Roy's

I had a role of expired, very grainy, black & white infrared film that I shot during this portion of the trip. To achieve the glowing white vegetation common in infrared photography, a red filter is used over the camera lens. Though I would like to claim creative experimentation; I actually experienced what is vernacularly referred to as “a brainfart”, and just forgot to attach my #25 red filter to my old Nikon FE.  The results were photos that look very much like they were taken back in the 1940’s, and I was quite pleased with the results.

photo by author

Here at Roy’s, we were able to make a restroom stop and grab an icy cold soda. We were able to get in and get out quickly, but only because we had just beat the European tour bus that pulled up as we were leaving. About 60 highly excited Eurpoean folk poured from the bus into the tiny Roy’s convenience store. It was rather like watching a huge number of clowns pour out of a teeny VW Bug (you keep wondering how many more can possibly fit in there?), only in reverse… and only if all the clowns were speaking several different languages, none of which you understood because you are an American and thus, unlike the rest of the civilized world, you only understand one language.

Next on our route, Ludlow, CA, the town that refused to die. Mining and the railroad sustained the town in the late 1880’s. When both the mine and the railways began a decline in the 1940’s, the town simply up and moved north a block -settling itself firmly on Route 66 to cater to travelers.  The arrival of I-40 effectively eliminated Route 66, and the possibility of traffic thereon, so residents of Ludlow followed the travelling dollar and moved north another block to meet the Interstate. While “New” Ludlow on I-40 is surviving nicely, the older Ludlow buildings along Route 66 are being inexorably reclaimed by the Mojave.

Ludlow CA on Route 66 -photo by author

Whiting Brothers Gas (photo by author)

old Sidewinder Cafe, currently the "Bagdad Cafe" from movie of the same

photo by author

Photographing Ludlow

photo by author

Leaving Ludlow, we were forced to get back on I-40 for a bit; only sections of Route 66 are still in existence here. Before long though, we were back on the old highway and driving through the small city of Barstow, through which both I-40 and old Route 66 pass. I marveled at the palm trees gracing the shopping malls, gas stations, and parking lots of the city. It’s as if they were just any old trees and not the epitome of lush, tropical, vacation joy! Amazing!

Random parking lot in Barstow, CA

From Barstow, we ambled along the old route, staying parallel to the Santa Fe Railroad as we traversed the sandy, sagebrush covered hills. In sight was the Mojave River, which appeared to be just a dry river-bed. We wondered if there was ever any “river” in the River. We wondered how large the parrot would be that our EZ Guide informed us would be on a vintage sign just ahead. We wondered how 110 degrees, which was really not as hot as we’d thought the desert would be, could feel so ridiculously hot. Dry heat, probably.

Suddenly, up ahead, the rainbow refraction of sunlight streaming through thousands of colorful bottles, which dangled from trees, gizmos, and whatchamacallits in an unassuming, fenced desert lot.

We’d reached Elmer Long’s Bottle Tree Ranch!

entrance to Elmer's

my husband and Elmer discuss mechanical stuff

photo by author

Elmer Long, who used to collect old bottles with his dad, found a unique way to display his collection and his artistic talents on Route 66. He ambled out to chat with us when we arrived, and he and my husband became immersed in things mechanical while I wandered around photographing Elmer’s beautiful collection.

This antique mirror once belonged to Elmer Long's mother


The view from Elmer Long's Bottle Tree Ranch -photo by author

By the time we left Elmer’s place, it was around 5:00 – 6:00 pm, maybe later; it’s hard to remember exactly because this next portion is such a blur. Victorville was close ahead, and once you reach Victorville, you never again have any idea which township you are actually in. It all runs together, a large, sprawling metropolis from Victorville to Los Angeles. And we were not driving straight through on an interstate, we were following the directions in the EZ Guide, so as to stay on the remaining portions of Route 66 as much as possible. This necessitated a looping course that took us onto and off of interstates or parkways for short portions, but mainly kept us going right through the cities. To give you the scope of this section of the journey, let me illuminate thusly:

  • From the border at Needles, CA, we had traveled 166 miles to our current location. That portion of the trip covered 5.5 pages in the EZ Guide. Just under 6 pages of instructions to keep us on as much of the old pavement as is possible, and most of those pages were taken up by descriptions and histories of the crumbling remains along Route 66 in the Mojave.
  • From our current location, to the western terminus of Route 66 ahead of us, was a total of 115 miles. In our EZ Guide, we had 12.5 pages of instructions to make this happen, if we wanted to stay on Route 66. Which we did. Almost 13 pages that took us in and out of cities, on and off of entrance / exit ramps, through rush hour traffic, through suburban neighborhoods (which always seemed so surreal and made us wonder if we could possibly be following the directions correctly…), and which, incidentally, took close to 5 hours to complete.

For the elucidation of the casual reader, the following is a small section of directions, oh, say 5 minutes travel time worth, verbatim from our EZ Guide….

Join I-15 SB. QUICKLY move to the middle/left lanes (signs: “Riverside/San Bernadino I-215”). I-15 splits right: BEAR LEFT with I-215, but QUICKLY take the NEXT off ramp (signs: “Devore Rd/Glen Helen Park Right Lane”) and “Historic 66 Next Right”). Once the offramp merges with the other road QUICKLY get in the RIGHT LANE and EXIT again to DEVORE. Turn LEFT on Cajon Blvd, and cross Devore Rd. At the “Y” with Kendall Dr, BEAR RIGHT with Cajon Blvd under the RR tracks. Pass under the “Highland Ave” overpass, then STOP, carefully curve RIGHT to the Mt Vernon stoplight, and turn left into SAN BERNARDINO.

Bear in mind, all that “quickly get into the left lane” and “quickly get into the right lane” was happening in L.A. traffic, where neither of us had ever been in in our lives; much of it was also happening at about 80 mph. My husband enjoyed this immensely, while I left fingernail tracks in the tahoe armrest. My husband swore that when we stopped, he was going to have to actually remove the seat cushion from my rear end if I didn’t relax a bit.

Arial view L.A. area interchange ~courtesy Google Earth

Hours passed as we made our way through page after page of EZ Guide twists and turns. The sun sank low on the horizon ahead of us, and then was gone completely. It was close to 10:00pm, and fully dark, when we entered Los Angeles proper. The City of Angels lit up around us, as we made our way down Sunset Blvd through downtown West L.A., and Hollywood. We didn’t see the Hollywood sign; I’m not sure if it’s not visible from where we were, or if it was just too dark to see it.

Hollywood ~courtesy of Google Earth

Soon we made our final turn -onto Santa Monica Blvd. From here it was a straight shot to the Santa Monica Pier and the western terminus of Route 66. It also meant we were in Beverly Hills! Ohh, la,La! Rodeo Drive itself is in this area, and I goggled the sights like the complete tourist I was, yelling out the storefront signs to my husband as we passed, “Armani! Gucci, no way! Ahhh, Coco Chanel! Holy crap! Cartier! Tiffany!” As dazzling as this was, what we both would have been far more excited to see at this juncture was a restroom. For the last couple of hours we had yet to see a convenience store of any type that was without a large “no public restrooms” sign prominently displayed. Not that there had been any sign of a parking space, anyway. So it was that we approached the climax of the Route 66 portion of our road trip with a great deal of squirming discomfort.

As a point of fact, so badly did we have both have to “go”, that it was consuming our thoughts completely, and we passed the official end of Route 66 at the intersection of Santa Monica and Olympic Blvd. without so much as noticing. Meh. The official end of the Route is somewhat anticlimactic anyway, really. Much more impressive is the “unofficial” end of ’66 ~with the Will Rogers Highway Marker in Palisades Park a few blocks further west, where Santa Monica Blvd. comes to an end at the ocean’s edge.

Which is what happened. Suddenly, we were just there. The Pacific Ocean was in front of us and we could drive no further west. Wonder of wonders, there was an open parking space in Palisades Park, which we took immediately, then made a mad dash down to the beach in the dark. An oval of halogen light ahead highlighted the square cement block of a public restroom on the beach, and we sprinted toward it like Olympic racers with the blue ribbon in sight.

It was locked. This… was a problem.

Suffice it to say that the next 10 minutes involved a dark section of the park (for certain individuals who are able to stand for such business) and a careening tear through the lobby of the most swanky, posh, beach-side hotel lounge that I had ever seen outside of the movies. The well-dressed individuals perched on all-glass seats, at all-glass tables, that were situated on an all-glass floor, under a mirrored ceiling, were probably all accounted for on a red-carpet Who’s Who list, but I absolutely did not care. I cared about finding a bathroom, and that was the sum total of my concerns at the moment. There was nothing so gauche as a restroom sign or arrow in this place, but the elegant bartender graciously directed me. Without, I might add, a single bat of the eye at my hippie-esque attire of short sundress and head kerchief with random tendrils of hair straggling out every which way, or the merest nostril twitch at my generally unkempt, desert-baked, road-weary mien.

Not enough emphasis can be placed on the pure bliss that is a bathroom when you really need one.

Once I was able to think again, I really had to take a moment to marvel over that bathroom. All white, and glass, and marble, and sconces… and a bathroom attendant! Who watched me sprint past her without saying a word. Bless you, employees of posh Santa Monica hotels ~so used to seeing all the oddities that L.A. has to offer, my unlikely placement in this luxury bathroom stall fazed no one.

Immediate needs attended to, we headed back to the Tahoe, climbed in, and just sat there a moment. We could hear the sounds of the tide, but it was far too dark to see the ocean. We were, literally, punch-drunk with fatigue at this point. We’d had maybe six poor hours of sleep in the stifling heat the night before, and by now had been on the road for 18 hours. In that time, we’d navigated the perilous Oatman Highway through the Black Mountains of Arizona, crossed the burning Mojave Desert of California, had, in fact, crossed the width of California east to west, and driven the entirety of Los Angeles. We considered just crawling in the back of the tahoe, and burrowing in to the mattress, but Palisades Park seemed like an awfully populated place to be camping overnight in. As we discussed this, two late-night clubgoers approached from the Boulevard, and got in to the tiny sports car parked next to us. Within moments, the distinctive sounds of a couple having a very good time emanated from the minute vehicle. Giggling wildly, we pulled out and went in search of a hotel. Which, considering it had now been 50+ hours since our last shower, sounded like a fine idea to me.

Going out on a limb here, we hazarded a guess that the ocean front hotels were in a price-range outside of our road trip budget, so we headed back east down Santa Monica Blvd. We’d gone less than a mile when the distinctive architecture and neon sign of a Route 66-era motor lodge caught our eye. Royal Santa Monica Motel. It was a quaint, charming, little place, and the motel building had to date back to at least the 1950’s. This close to the beach, we were sure it would probably be expensive, but as close as it was to more amenity-filled, luxury hotels such as The Hilton, or the Peninsula Beverly Hills, we thought there was a chance the price might be adjusted accordingly.

We were right. The Royal Motel was only $66 a night, a ridiculous bargain considering we were only blocks from the beach, it was clean, adorable, and an authentic Route 66 relic. Gratefully, we checked in and headed upstairs to our room. Or thought we did, as it turns out, we misread the room number on our key and spent 30 seconds trying to unlock the wrong door. We were just about to head back to the office to inform the night clerk that our key didn’t work, when a sleepy man in pajama bottoms opened the door and blinked at us solemnly. “Yes?” he said. Oops. A deal of apologizing, a moment to focus our eyes and turn the key fob rightside-up, back down the stairs we went and found our actual room on the ground floor.

1,680 miles from home, we slept deep and sound, on Historic Route 66, with the sounds of the city alive around us, and the scents of the ocean carried on the warm California breeze.

photo by author

More photos available at the following link:


2 thoughts on “Ghost Towns, Sunlit Desert Bottle Art, & Beverly Hills ~Just a Day on Route 66

  1. i love this you are so amazingly tallented. i so wish i had the brains to do this type of writing but my words are like mashed potatoes and your like new york steak. I love it. been down this road before and what a trip it was. Have drove it, and road it (bus grey hound) best times of my life. Way to go girl.

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