The Grand Tour 22: Grit, Grime, and Gouging in the Golden State

This entry is part 22 of 22 in the series Grand Tour

May 19, 2018: Lake Havasu City to Hesperia: Route 66 in the West is beautiful. Route 66 in California is ugly, unrelentingly so. Or perhaps we are just tired of it all by this point. 

This is not our best day. My tummy is upset and Anna is fed up with the heat. At this point in our journey, we may have been on the road too long, and we are starting to realize that budget hotels are often false economy. All the money spent on a miserable vacation day is wasted, so you might as well pay what you need to enjoy them all – even if that means you can afford fewer of them. At least you will enjoy all the ones you have. This does not mean every budget hotel is a waste though. A great deal of it depends upon location. Some of the old motels along Route 66 are a delight. A budget hotel near an on ramp, however, is always a mistake. And the same is true of places that attract large crowds of partygoers or fishermen or any other seasonal crowd. They are selling location and nothing else, and thought they are inexpensive out of season, they don’t have anything else to recommend them.

From the hotel (breakfast is as sad as dinner) we go to visit London Bridge. This is a weird experience. There is not really anything distinctive about London Bridge other than the plaque that says “London Bridge Borough of London” and the ornate green lampstands that look totally out of place in the Arizona desert. Other than this, it is a totally unremarkable bridge that might have been built anywhere.

London Bridge

We snap a couple of pictures and move on.

The road into and out of Lake Havasu City is lined with blunt, steep, jagged, pointy hills. It looks almost as if we are driving through the jaw of some primordial monster.Road to Lake Havasu City


We cross into California where we stop for the agricultural inspection station. The guy asks us where we are coming from. “Lake Havasu City,” I say, and he waves us on. We could have kept the apples that we left behind in Lake Havasu City.

LakeHavasu to Victorville map

We turn off the freeway in Needles, which has the usual raft of Route 66 signs, but we are no longer charmed by them. We are becoming quite jaded by the old road. Can the Mojave Desert spark new interest?

We head for Goffs and discover that the Mojave is a gravel desert rather than a sand desert and its dominant tone is a warmish gray rather than Arizona’s yellow. There are the same low green shrubs dotting the landscape, however.

The Mojave Museum in Goffs is by appointment only, we discover. We don’t have an appointment.

The Mohave west of Goffs turns green. Literally, the desert is green. the olive-green shrubs that have always been part of the desert landscape are so dense here that the landscape is green on both sides of the road.

Green Desert

This continues more or less until Amboy, where the desert reverts to type. Other than what looks like a very small salt flat at one point on the road, we never see the kind of desert we have in our heads. With blinding sun, cloudless skies, and 10% humidity, however, it sure feels like a desert if you close your eyes. The closest thing we see to a cactus is the small one in a pot outside the Bagdad Cafe. Sometimes reality just does not live up to the picture in your head.

Where the Goffs road intersects the freeway, there is a gas station and store that calls itself an oasis. On the door there is a large sign telling customers that they are 100 miles out in the desert and that shipping costs are high, so don’t complain about the prices. To satisfy the large sign that says washrooms are for paying customers only, we buy water for me and a Coke for Anna. This place is all about large signs telling people how to behave. When you are the only store in a hundred miles of desert, you don’t have to be polite to the punters.

Getting back on the road, we discover that the next part of Route 66 over the Cadiz Summit is closed as impassible. This is curious. When I checked Google Maps a couple of days ago, it showed this closure, but there was nothing about it on the Route 66 App or on California 511, and then it disappeared from Google Maps as well. The Garmin did not know anything about it either. Nonetheless, the road is closed, and we are forced to take Interstate 40 as far as Kelbaker Road, where we can turn south to rejoin Route 66 between Chambless and Amboy.

Interstate 40 climbs into bleak hills the whole way, but once we turn onto Kelbaker Road it descends pretty much the whole way, providing some pretty spectacular views into the valley below and of the hills on either side. For the first time on the old two-lane roads we see significant traffic. We had grown so used to being alone on the road, once off the freeway, that we feel a bit put out to have to share it. Isolation returns however when we turn onto Route 66 proper again.

In Amboy we stop at the reopened Roy’s for a bio break. The famous sign is so far from the cafe, you need to use zoom to get a picture of it—or hike in the blistering desert heat, which I am not willing to do. I’m too jaded at this point to get excited about another old sign, no matter how iconic. It is hot and dusty and kind of pointless and everything is way too far apart.


I take a picture of the route 66 shield on the road in front of the café, though.

Route 66 shield on road at Amboy

The road into Amboy is interesting because you can see the Amboy crater dominating the view for miles. It is interesting how similar it looks to the Winslow crater as you approach, though the cone shape is more obvious at Amboy. Amboy is a volcanic crater, whereas Winslow is a meteor crater. But given the similarity in appearance, you can see why there was debate about whether Winslow was an impact crater or a volcano. While you can drive to the Winslow crater, you have to hike to see the Amboy crater. It is steep and the day is hot, so we don’t.

West of town—actually there is no town—we pass through the lava field from the Amboy volcano. It is black and crinkly. It looks like it might have cooled yesterday. It is one of the freakiest sites on the trip.

We decide to stop for lunch at the famous Bagdad Cafe.

Bagdad Café

If it was not the famous Bagdad Cafe, you would not eat here. It is one of the tackiest places I have ever seen. The waiter’s clothes are dirty. The menus are torn and dirty.

Dirty menu at Bagdad Café

The food isn’t actually terrible, for burgers and fries, though it displays no imagination. It is the Bagdad Cafe and the owners clearly don’t feel any need for it to be more than that. Maybe it is tacky and dirty on purpose. A French couple insists on taking pictures with the staff (a route 66 shield is kept on the counter specifically to be held up for such shots). Anna declares it the second coolest place we have eaten, after the Devil’s Elbow Grill. I am clearly more jaded then she is at this point.

Barstow has the same plethora of Route 66 businesses—notably a cluster of old motels—but mostly any business that happens to be on the old road puts Route 66 in its name.

We visit the Route 66 museum which turns out to be not really a museum but an un-curated and undocumented collection of junk, some of which is related to Route 66 and some of which is just stuff from the last 100 years with no connection to the road at all, other than it ended up in a museum next to it. The most interesting—or at least most eccentric—item in the place is a mounted collection of presidential campaign buttons, winners and losers, from FDR to GWB. The buttons get bigger as time goes by. This is interesting because it is eccentric. Its relationship to the road is zero.

Car in Museum

Past Barstow, Route 66 is in the country again, surprising because the map makes it look like the whole area is built up. It is the same high desert scenery as before— though not so high and therefore a lot hotter. We see two coal trains heading west—one headed by a CN locomotive with two Union Pacific locomotives in support. What is all this coal being used for in California the good? We also pass a really large cement plant. Route 66 was not built to be scenic. In the West, it is extremely scenic in many places, not by design but because so much of the West is inherently scenic. But we are west of the West now, and we are reminded that Route 66 was built to be practical. And practical often means ugly.

There are a number of roadside weirdnesses that we would have stopped for two weeks ago, notably the Bottle Forest. But now we are jaded so we just point them out to each other and roll on by.

Our hotel is tucked into a highway interchange. It is not only noisy, but nerve wracking to get to when everyone else knows what lane to be in and I don’t. I plead that there shall be no more such hotels. Anna spends the evening rebooking. I spend it with my noise cancelling earplugs in. Not our happiest evening.

I attend mass at Holy Innocents Church. It looks like a high school gymnasium, complete with exposed steel struts in the ceiling and an exposed corrugated steel roof. I look for the basketball hoops. I can’t see them, but I know they must be there. There aren’t even proper pews, but line upon line of those hotel-conference-room chairs that lock together with a steel hook and eye system on the side. There are no kneelers. I take back half the nasty things I said about Saint Thomas the Apostle Church. This place is not even trying.

If it were actually an old gymnasium that they were using while they built a church, it would be forgivable, but this is what they built. After the homily there is an appeal for a building fund to add more meeting rooms for parish activities. No. Turn this gymnasium into meeting rooms. It is already furnished appropriately. Then take the building fund money and start building a church.

Route 66 is too long and too much the same and I am ready for it to be over. But maybe that’s the point. As I noted at the beginning, it is a bit of an ordeal because a transcontinental highway is bound to be a bit of an ordeal. It wasn’t designed to be a scenic tour or a holiday road but to get goods and people between Chicago and LA and all points in between. I am longing for it to end, which it will, tomorrow, in Santa Monica, though our grand tour is only half done. But who, taking it in its heyday was not longing for it to be over by this point? So the feeling is authentic, if nothing else.

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