I left Kingman this morning, after catching breakfast at Beale Street Brews. It was a nice cafe, but all things considered I was still unimpressed with Kingman. All through Kingman, everyone told me to not miss Oatman while I’m on my way to California. It’s a fun town, they all said, where the “burros run the place.” So I get in my car, and head southwest on Route 66 towards Oatman.
I had read that the trek on Route 66 between Kingman and Needles is the most treacherous part of the journey, as you maneuver sharp turns through the Black Mountain Range. So I knew I couldn’t have upbeat music with catchy lyrics that would get me distracted.But still, I wanted to play something that would match the mood of the scenery – something grand, majestic and powerful. After fiddling through my CD’s, I finally find the perfect score for the occasion: Carmina Burana.
The Black Mountain Range is nothing short of spectacular, and I encourage you to view all the pictures I took over at my Facebook page. As the road made sharp turns throughout the mountains and I skillfully steered my car at 15 to 20 miles per hour, it made me realize how difficult it would have been for the Joad family in the Grapes of Wrath – as they maneuvered their old clunker (with all their possessions) through the same mountains. After all, this is the final stretch of Route 66 before you hit California – the Promised Land for these Okie farmers – and it must have been both physically and emotionally exhausted.
But I stay focused on the road, as the choir sings about horny drunk monks and their perverted sisters, whose virginity made them frisky (i.e., yeah, that’s basically a rough translation from Latin of what Carmina Burana is about.) All the while, I stop the car at every occasion to take photos – as the drive is really incredible.Suddenly, about a mile before I get into Oatman, three wild burros are just standing in the middle of the road. I take out my camera and snap a few shots, but they’re not afraid. It was a preview of what was to come in town.
Oatman, Arizona was a trip and a half. The old mining town only has about 150 residents, but the main drag is full of tourist shops – as wild burros walk nonchalantly down the street. It kind of reminded me of “Northern Exposure,” where the moose walks down the streets of Cicely, Alaska at the start of each episode – but Cicely was fiction, and Oatman is real. I get out to stretch my legs, and pet the burros. Oatman is also famous for where Clark Gable & Carole Lombard spent their honeymoon (after getting married in Kingman), because they enjoyed the solitude of a small mining town. But while Oatman is fun, it’s really become a tourist trap. Everyone is here for the same reason as me, and they all love the burros. I talk to a couple gift shop owners, and it becomes clear to me very quickly – nobody really lives in Oatman. So while it’s a fun place, you’re not really seeing any locals.
As I leave Oatman and head west towards California, the road straightens out – but the mountains are still majestic. We’re not far from Joshua Tree – so why not? I take out Carmina Burana, and pop in U2’s “Joshua Tree” album – as I belt out the lyrics while speeding down Route 66. As I cross the border, a guard asks me if I have any fresh fruit or plants, and I say “no” – so they let me move on. It’s a little past 12:00 pm now, so a good time to stop for lunch in the first town past the border – Needles, California.As I drive into Needles, my first reaction is “HOLY SHIT! Gas is expensive!” By crossing into California, it went from $3.69 per gallon to $4.69 – a whole dollar. Gas was over $4 back in Chicago, but because I picked up my rental car with a full tank – I didn’t have to fill up until Pontiac, Illinois. This was the first time on my trip where I’ve had to pay more than $4/gallon.
Needles turned out to be a good pit stop for my trip. I found a cute burger joint for lunch, a Bank of America to get some cash, a gas station to get gouged (although the car had really good mileage after going 20 mph in the Black Mountains) and a tire store for them to check my tire pressure. “They’re a bit worn,” noted the guy – after I told him I’d been driving since Chicago. But he checked them all, and gave them a clean bill of health – so I proceed into the Mojave Desert.For this part of California, Route 66 follows the Old National Trail Highway – as I zoom through the Mojave Desert, going almost as quickly as I’d be going on the Interstate. This is real dry desert, as I sing along with Bono to two U2 albums. I’ve planned to spend the night in Barstow, because it’s one of the songs in Bobby Troup’s Get Your Kicks On Route 66 song. But I’m making really good time, and will probably be there around 4:30 p.m. Do I really want to spend my Friday night in Barstow? All I know about Barstow is they got a cowboy bar called Gingers, but I seriously doubt that it’s a gay cowboy bar.
As Route 66 follows the Interstate a few miles away, I get a little tired of U2. Now, this may be fighting words for some – but I’ve always preferred R.E.M. over U2. So while driving through the Mojave Desert, I flip in R.E.M.’s “Automatic for the People” album – as my vocal range more closely resembles Michael Stipe, rather than Bono’s.By the time I get to Ludlow, I am debating between spending the night in Barstow – or driving a little further down to Victorville. The clerk in the coffee shop tells me to go Victorville, because there’s “more to do.” It’s also home of the California Route 66 Museum, so I decide – unless Barstow really moves me, I’m spending the night in Victorville.
West of Ludlow, Route 66 gets extremely rough and rugged – and I’m grateful to be driving a Jeep Compass. I can only go at about 30 miles per hour on this terrain, and I put some Billie Holliday in the CD player, just for a little change of venue. Taking Route 66 when you’re practically driving next to the Interstate is pretty cool, but not when the road is so rugged that you’re just crawling at a slow pace. But that’s unfortunately the way it is for the next several miles, until I hit Newberry Springs. At this point, Barstow isn’t much further away – and I’m able to regain a decent speed. By now, the Billie Holliday CD is done – so I pop in some Cesária Évora for the rest of the trip.
My initial take on Barstow is a good one, as there are plenty of cheap chain motels to choose from. But it’s still early, so I move on. Then, I get into Downtown Barstow – and don’t even stop the car. It’s depressing here, so I confirm that I’ll spend the night in Victorville. Driving out of Barstow, the road goes through some beautiful countryside (and a few kitschy Route 66 stops that are sadly closed at 5:00 p.m.), as I finally drive into Victorville.As Route 66 follows D Street and then 7th Street into Downtown Victorville, I’m about ready to cry. There are no decent hotels around, and the area is chock-full of pawn shops and boarded-up buildings. It’s depressing, and I seriously think about just driving all the way to Los Angeles for the night. But my cell phone battery is about to die, and there’d be no way for me to call Jim – and let him know I’m arriving a day early. So with frustration building up inside me, I trod through Victorville – in search of a decent place for the night. Right before Route 66 hits the I-15, I see a sign for the Green Tree Inn. It looks like a busy place, as there is some type of old-car “convention” going on in its front garage. But as I arrive at the hotel front desk, they do have vacancies for the night – and the clerk offers me a sweet deal. I have a great room to stay in tonight, before I head off for Los Angeles in the morning …