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Surreality and San Bernardino

August 1, 2014

At 6 a.m. Thursday morning, the phone in our motel room rang. It was the front desk calling to tell me that the credit card I had given them 11 hours earlier was rejected. The day only got more bizarre from there.

Eventually I fell back asleep, and when we checked out a few hours later we got an apology and some money off the price of the room. And as I was walking out of the lobby, another guest at the motel who had been sitting nearby (a burly man in his late 40s with a bushy mustache) jumped up from his chair, ran up to me, shook my hand, and said, “God bless you, sir.” I assume it was somehow related to the yarmulka I was wearing, and I had no idea how to respond. “You too,” I stammered with what I hope was a smile.

When we got in the car we noticed that it was 104 degrees. and it was only 10:30 a.m. It got much hotter as the day went on.

We began the day in Needles, California. In The Grapes of Wrath, the Joads get pretty excited when they get to Needles because it means they’ve finally reached California. They camp out by a little stretch of the Colorado River and the menfolk take a dip to both wash and cool off. Sam and I were planning to do pretty much the same thing this morning. In fact, there’s really very little to do in or around Needles besides jumping in the Colorado. In the book, one of the Joad children, Noah, likes the river so much that he spontaneously decides to leave the family and live by the river. So it must be pretty refreshing, right?

The best way to enjoy the river is Moabi Regional Park. But I found out only this morning that the place is really focused on people who are camping there and/or have boats. You can buy a day pass, but the day pass people aren’t allowed to use the actual river, only in a relatively stagnant inlet that gets pretty oily from all the boats and is thus good for boating but not for swimming.

This meant that instead of spending the entire morning in Needles, spending the afternoon driving, and the evening in Barstow (the next real town along 66), we were spending the morning driving, spending the afternoon in Barstow, and spending the evening who-knows-where.

We needed a new plan and we needed one fast. At first I figured we would just spend more time in Barstow but it turns out that there’s not much more to do in Bartsow than there is in Needles. There’s a historic train-station-turned-shopping-plaza, and there’s yet another Route 66 museum, and that’s about it.

Then Sam reminded me about the Wigman Motel and suddenly everything fell into place.

The Wigwam Motel is a Route 66 legend: a chain of erroneously named motels started in 1949 with individual cabins rather than one big building full of rooms. The cabins are all shaped like tepees (not wigwams) but are actually relatively modern concrete structures with real beds and even bathrooms inside. The Wigwam Motel is the inspiration for Sally’s traffic-cone-themed Cozy Cone Motel in the movie Cars. There used to be several locations scattered around the country but there are just three left now, two of which are on Route 66. One of those is in a town in eastern Arizona that we skipped while we were exploring National Parks. The other is the most well-known of the three and is in San Bernardino, California. I came across it when doing research about Route 66 and when I told Sam he said we should definitely try to stay there if we could. I put it on the list but I didn’t know if it would work out, especially since I expected us to stay overnight in Barstow tonight. But with the day moving faster than we’d planned, the tepees were suddenly possible. And sure enough, they still had rooms available.

All that we needed was a plan for what to do all day along the long and winding road that would get us there. If Route 66 is good for anything, it’s oddball attractions like the Wigwam Motel. Luckily I was able to find a couple of prototypical Mother Road amusements and we were soon on our way.

The stretch of Route 66 between Needles and Barstow is pure desert. Route 66 enthusiasts call it the ghost town section, because the few towns in between are barely even there, and there are a few that used to be there but no longer are. Bagdad is probably the most well known former Route 66 town. The only trace of it now is the Bagdad Cafe, which was reopened years later a few dozen miles down the road in a different tiny desert town called Newberry Springs. The one in Newberry Springs is just about the only visible business in that town, and it’s the one that inspired the 1987 movie Bagdad Cafe.

But along that stretch of road there is an actual ghost town in the more traditional sense, too. A few miles north of Route 66 is Calico Ghost Town, a refurbished version of a silver-mining town that boomed in the 1880s and 90s but then fell apart soon after. The remains of the town were purchased in the 1950s by the owner of Knott’s Berry Farm and turned into an Old West ghost town theme park of sorts, part tribute to the original Calico and part cheeky tourist trap loaded with old-timey gift shops and silly gags.

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It was 109 degrees when we got there, so the Calico ice cream shoppe (when discussing old-timey stores, “shoppe” is the legally required spelling) was doing brisk business. We also enjoyed touring the original 150-year-old silver mine and wandering through the town’s various buildings, like the woodshop, the jail, the blacksmith, and the saloon.

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The place is not so great that I would go too far out of my way for it, but as long as we were passing by in need of something to do, it turned out to be a fun way to spend an hour or two, even in the brutal heat.

We ended up spending only a few minutes in Bartsow. We skipped the Route 66 museum, but we did stop by Bartsow Station, the old train depot that now houses a few fast-food chains and a handful of little shops. It’s cheesy but there are some nice touches, like the old train cars used for seating at the McDonald’s there, and the fact that one of the restaurants there is Subway–probably an unintentional pun but appropriate for a train station nonetheless.

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There are also several murals on the sides of buildings along 66, which were cute.

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The Joads, incidentally left Route 66 at Barstow, heading north at that point in search of farm work. The Hamster and I are looking for adventure, not farm work, so we continued on 66.

About 20 miles further down the road is another perfectly quirky, fun stop called Elmer’s Bottletree Ranch. Never been to a bottletree ranch? That’s because this is the only one in the world. It’s a collection of around 200 “trees” made out metal poles with variously colored glass bottles stuck on them.

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There’s plenty of other random old junk involved in the decoration: typewriters, street signs, a stripped down Jeep, and old rocket, etc.

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It’s all in the front yard of a guy named Elmer Long, who happened to be home when we were there and he came out to chat with us and the handful of other folks who were wandering through his “forest.” He explained that he’s always been a collector and he and his dad amassed all sorts of cool old stuff and he figured that this was the best way to display it all. He’s still adding to it, and he’s got a pile of bottles and other stuff that’s basically the waiting room.

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He talked a little about trespassers, and about chickens, and about his annoying neighbors, and he posed for pictures with the two blonde women visiting from Belgium. And yes, Elmer looks exactly how you think he looks.

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We spent the next hour or so watching as California turned from desert into regular land with trees and multilane highways and regular stores, and the temperature dropped to a downright chilly 98 degrees. Soon we were checking into our tepee, which turned out to be much nicer than we had a right to expect: air conditioning, wifi, a flat-screen TV, a full bathroom, and even a suede couch. Plus it’s much more quiet then our room at the Quality Inn the previous night.

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At this point we didn’t know what we were more excited about–sleeping in a tepee, or finishing all the cities mentioned in the Route 66 song.

You’ll go to St. Louie,

Joplin, Missouri.

Oklahoma City looks oh so pretty.

You’ll see Amarillo,

Gallup, New Mexico,

Flagstaff, Arizona,

Don’t forget Winona,

Kingman, Bartsow, and San Bernardino.

 

We sang the song and celebrated with cheers when we finished that verse.

And we weren’t quite done for the day, either. We had a quick dinner in our tepee and then headed out to see San Bernardino’s minor league baseball team, the Inland Empire 66ers. (Yes, it’s a terrible name, but what do you expect from an affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim?)

We sat right behind the 66ers’ dugout, and a couple of innings into the game the team mascot, a furry red something named Bernie, climbed up onto the dugout to do his shtick. After some dancing and hamming he tossed Sam a ball, and while Sam was admiring it Bernie immediately covered him in Silly String.

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We laughed, and spent the next few minutes pulling off all the string, only to get hit again with what must have been the other half of the can of Silly String. It was a thrilling game that the 66ers ultimately lost, 3-2. During the game I noted that the manager, former Major Leaguer Denny Walling, didn’t know how to put a lineup together. For starters he’s using a DH who is hitting just .220 with no power. And his cleanup hitter, Cal Towey, is batting .285 (highest on the team) with just a handful of home runs while his number 3 hitter, Dennis Raben, is batting .260 with 17 homers. I told Sam those two guys needed to be switched in the lineup so that Towey can bat more often and can also get on base ahead of Raben. Not to mention the fact that Raben is 27 and no longer a prospect, while Towey has more growth potential and should be both showcased and challenged. As the game ended Sam ran up to the dugout, as did several kids and a few adults. Out came Denny Walling, and he tossed Sam a ball. Then Sam asked him why he doesn’t switch Towey and Raben in the lineup. I couldn’t believe he had the guts to mention it, and I wasn’t close enough to hear the conversation but I was watching, and it was clear that Walling was intrigued by Sam’s question. So were the adults who overheard him. Walling responded by asking Sam why he thought they should be switched. Sam explained. Walling said something about wanting Raben to bat in the first inning so that he can hit a homer and give the team a lead. I think it’s cool that he took the time to talk to Sam but I also think it’s clear he doesn’t know what he’s doing.

And thus we drove back to our tepee, a perfectly surreal end to a perfectly surreal day.

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