It is, perhaps, the most famous road in existence. Once a mighty highway taking people on the journey from Chicago to Los Angeles, Route 66 today lies somewhat forgotten. Here in California’s Mojave Desert, it is a small, two lane highway running parallel to the mighty Interstate 40. Today’s travelers zip down I-40 heading to somewhere better, not realizing what they are missing on that little side road. Until now, I had been one of those fast drivers, eager to get somewhere else. I-40 is about the destination. But Route 66? Route 66 is about the journey.
A hotel. A restaurant. A general store. A gas station and an auto repair shop. In many cases, that is all many of these Route 66 towns had, all with prominent signage along the famous highway. The tiny town of Daggett, California is no exception. Around 1,000 residents at its peak as a mining town and railroad center, it became just another Route 66 stopping point, not even a dot on most maps. And yet, Daggett is exactly the sort of town that lovers of Route 66 should be exploring.
Daryl Schendel is the President of the Daggett/Calico Historical Society. He and Mark Staggs, director of the Daggett Chamber of Commerce, act as my local guides. Daryl and the society have purchased several old properties with historical significance here in town, and he is slowly fixing them up. One old building, sitting at the corner of Route 66 – called National Trails Highway here in this part of the Mojave Desert – and Daggett-Yermo Road, an exit off I-40, will become a visitors center. The Mugwumps gas station and garage next door will become part museum and part restaurant, serving snacks out of an old rail car as travelers watch the trains roar past on the other side of the highway. Down the road, the old Stone Hotel – just a ruin currently – will have some of its facade repaired (the interior is, sadly, too far gone) and the general store next door will reopen, selling items from back in the heyday of Route 66 travel.
It is an ambitious plan for a town that today numbers only around 200, but Mark and Daryl are certain that not only it can be accomplished, but that in doing so, Daggett will become a mecca for those interested in the history of Route 66. For now, it is worth a drive-through to see the signs, to stop and take a photo with the Route 66 stenciling (just make sure to watch for traffic), and to pay homage to what this place would have looked like when everything was open. For most travelers, a town like Daggett would be a cheaper alternative to the much larger Barstow, just six miles west, and possibly a final night before the drive southwest over the Cajon Pass and into Los Angeles.
In comparison to Daggett, Newberry Springs, about fifteen miles east, is a metropolis. It is unincorporated with a population around 3,000, and it is here that you’ll find two icons of Route 66: the Bagdad Cafe and Jim Conkle. Jim wears many hats: publisher of a local paper, tour guide, consultant to Pixar for the movie Cars (set along Route 66), and Route 66 guru. We stop into the Bagdad Cafe, along the highway in Newberry Springs.
Bagdad Cafe was featured in the eponymous 1987 film, only then it was called the Sidewinder. Upon purchasing the business in the mid-90s, Andrea Pruett changed the name officially, capitalizing on the immense popularity of the movie. While today the cafe is closed for renovations, Andrea is kind enough to open for Jim and me (and our other local guides and friends). If you want character, this is the place for you. The walls are covered – literally, totally covered – with mementos of its history and clientele. Photos, stickers, and signed dollar bills grace nearly every inch of wall space. Andrea jokes that she could harvest the wall for retirement funds, and I don’t disagree. (I add my own signed dollar, determined to make myself a part of the storied history here, so make sure to look for it.)
As Jim talks to me about the history of Route 66 through California’s high desert communities, he stresses that it’s the people, not the businesses or even the road itself, that makes this highway and a journey along it what it is. Andrea is exactly the sort of person he is talking about. While the business is closed – although it will be reopening soon, she says – she still comes in to allow fans of the film access. Tour buses between Los Angeles and Las Vegas make this a stop, and she refuses to disappoint those who have come so far.
Next door, a motel marquis advertises what this used to be, another stopping point for weary drivers. I stand briefly, alone in the vacant lot, wondering what it would have been like to drive through in the 1930s or 1940s, the seemingly endless desert separating me from my destination on the Pacific. Might I have stopped here for a night’s sleep and a meal, for another tank of gas in what would have seemed like an unending journey? A few cars roll past, and I wave, glad to share my thoughts with those travelers.
Barstow is in many ways the capital of California’s high desert. First a railway hub, the meeting point of the mighty Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad (now part of BNSF) and the Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad (now part of Union Pacific), and now a transportation hub as the intersection of Interstates 40 and 15, this city of just under 25,000 is really just a larger version of a traditional Route 66 town. Main Street, not coincidentally a part of Route 66 itself, is lined with hotels, restaurants (like the venerable Cattlemen’s for a great steak), gas stations, and auto repair shops. While the smaller roadside motel may have been replaced by a larger chain, and Starbucks in place of a smaller coffee shop, it is still reminiscent of those earlier days.
Main Street itself is undergoing a major facelift. Between development of parks, improved Route 66 signage, and a truly world-class urban art project called Main Street Murals, the historic core of Barstow is already a charming walk, and will be more so as projects continue.
Just up First Avenue from Main Street, one can find a museum complex honoring the history of Barstow. A railroad museum (complete with a lovely collection of rail cars outside) sits alongside an original Harvey House (a chain of hotels/restaurants serving the railroads), and, of course, a Route 66 Museum. Sadly, the museum was unexpectedly closed when I was there, but I will make a return trip to see it. The reviews are good.
Route 66 evokes romance, adventure, nostalgia, and the American spirit. It is a living part of our history, a history that is still being written by people like Jim, Andrea, Mark, and Daryl. And now I am a tiny part of that history, as well. And you can be, too. By choosing to get off the interstate and drive a small portion of Route 66 from Barstow to Newberry Springs, you’ll add your own story to that of the thousands of weary travelers who made this journey. And Route 66 will be better for having you.
I need to thank my guides on this remarkable trip, as well as a huge thank you to Rose Beardshear, chair of the Barstow Chamber of Commerce’s tourism committee for arranging my experience and for hosting me at her Airbnb in Newberry Springs. I am so grateful for the warm welcome your communities gave me, and for the opportunity to hopefully do them justice here.
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