Still Kicking

It was once the most famous road in the land. Route 66. A ribbon of
two-lane blacktop stretching across endless plains, fertile green
hills and radiator-busting deserts on its way from Chicago to the
Santa Monica Pier, 2,400 miles later. It was America’s Main Street,
passing through towns in the middle of nowhere like Seligman,
Arizona, a hamlet in the dusty flats east of Flagstaff.

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.

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