Angel Delgadillo grew up alongside that road and watched it bring the world to Seligman. He chased shadows cast by the passing headlights. He saw families fleeing the Dust Bowl, convoys going to war, sightseers and vacationers from everywhere. He never left Route 66, and in 1950 he reopened his father's barbershop, right on the road.
But cars, and life, sped up. Route 66 couldn't. Interstates spread around it, promising faster, safer travel. Then on September 22, 1978, a section of I-40 opened that bypassed Seligman, and, Delgadillo remembers, 'The world stopped. We were just plain forgotten. We almost blew away.'
Local officials wanted to attract industry or Grand Canyon tourists, but Delgadillo stood by Route 66. He called a meeting, attended by 15 area residents, and the Historic Route 66 Association of Arizona resulted. The Association started selling memorabilia and attracted worldwide publicity. In 1988, Historic Route 66 was officially designated. Signs went up along the interstate, declaring Seligman THE BIRTH PLACE OF HISTORIC ROUTE 66, enough hyperbole to pull a few cars off I-40 a mile and a half to the road's rebirth headquarters.
At first, says Delgadillo, 'people couldn't wait for the interstate. They were tired of having to drive on that narrow road. Then they got tired of not seeing anything.' Now travelers from all over the world come to see Route 66. They stop in Seligman-population 1,000, same as 50 years ago-for some raconteuring from Delgadillo ('I got a ride to Oklahoma tomorrow, if I want it,' he says, mulling a drifter's offer) and a cheeseburger from the Snow Cap, an old drive-in restaurant decorated with a giant plastic burger and neon cones. 'They're hungry for the America of yesterday,' Delgadillo enthuses.
There are fewer getting their kicks on Route 66 these days, he concedes, but 'you've never seen happier people.' Smiling from under his green eyeshade, he welcomes them at his gift shop/museum/visitor's center and adjacent barbershop, which is wallpapered with 2,300 travelers' business cards.
At day's end, he and his brother, who owns the Snow Cap, sit outside under the giant plastic burger, and the signs saying DEAD CHICKEN and KEEP FEET AND HANDS OFF WALL, comparing notes and marveling at their lives on the original open road. 'It's like a fairy tale,' Delgadillo says. 'It goes on and on and on.'
For a taste of the way it was, and still is, pull off the sterile interstate at Seligman. Take the stretch of 66 from Seligman to the California border that parallels I-40, and put the road back into road trip. The almost vacant two-lane stretch restores the size and scale of the West and the folks who pioneered it, rambling through solitary farmland, old gold-mining towns like Oatman (where burros descended from mining forebears wander the funky main street) and skirting Indian reservations and mesas topped by strange, fortress-like geological formations-none of it visible from the fast lane of the interstate.
FromEscape(Nov., 1999.) Subscriptions: $18/yr. (4 issues) from Box 462255, Escondido, CA 92046.