California, Saturday, March 29, 2008

California, here I've come! A place once alien and distant -- now home. Crossing the Colorado, I sought out the old stone-bordered California Welcome Sign before passing quickly through Needles then heading toward Amboy. Along this stretch, folks write their names in stones placed along the old railroad track heading west toward town. While most of the rocks are brown and therefore hard to see, some enterprising people obviously brought their own, or at least hauled in some white paint to ensure that their names would stand out among the rest. My next destination was Roy's Motel, located in the ghost town of Amboy, recently purchased by an entrepreneur who claims that he will reopen the cafe and cabins there one day. The fellow watching the place told me that the current problem is water, the challenge of drilling a fresh well, and he supposed that the ambitions to reopen Amboy for tourism might not be realized for another four years or so. I assured him that I'd be there to check it out, and that I wouldn't be alone.

Continuing west, I grabbed a quick burger at the Bagdad Cafe, filming location for the odd movie of the same name, and began to imagine that my journey was at last coming to an end. Past Barstow, with its lovely little Route 66 museum, I'd take an alignment of the highway that'd I'd always missed before, make my way toward San Bernardino, pay a quick visit to the Wigwam Village in Rialto, and gun it toward the ocean. Little did I plan on meeting Elmer Long at his Bottle Tree Ranch in Oro Grande.

As the sun was beginning to set, I followed a friendly and dusty section of 66, which the McClanahan guide mentioned as being particularly photogenic. I read something about "bottle trees" but thought little of it. But I screeched my tires when I road past a yard filled with tall poles branching with dozens, hundreds, countless bottles. I pulled over and then heard the sound: wind transforming the glass containers into musical instruments and fans of varying sizes spinning in the cool breeze. A sign offered admittance, and I quietly began to wander the yard, not wanting to bother its owner. Then I heard a hearty welcome, or at least I thought I did. Lost in a forest of bottle trees, I felt a little discombobulated. Maybe it was a trick of the wind. But then I heard a second greeting, "Come on over here and sit down!" I spotted a smiling fellow with a gray ZZ Top beard motioning me toward him. I walked over and sat down, and that's how I met Elmer Long, proprietor of the Bottle Tree Ranch.

Elmer retired from a day job at the nearby concrete plant, where he picked up his equivalent of a college degree reading the classics, with a particular fondness for the works of Homer. Now he tends to his garden of bottles, occasionally venturing out to unearth more treasures from the desert that he uses for his various art installations. One of his greatest kicks is to visit with strangers who happen by, talking about his family, his thoughts on life, and his eccentric collection. As we compared notes on our kids -- he's got a handful working their way through college, and mine is just about to start -- I grew less and less concerned about arriving at the coast by sunset. Some generic image of the Santa Monica pier could hardly compete with the opportunity to talk with this cool dude. Our conversation ambled for its time until it was right that we part. Asking him if he'd pose for a portrait, Elmer quickly assumed the pose he often offers to tourists. I offered to send him a copy of the photo, but he demurred. Elmer has more photos of himself and his beloved trees than he can possibly store.

And that was it. I found my way to San Bernardino and Rialto, photographing a Denny's "Diner" that seemed as perfect an illustration of simulacra as I had yet seen, and then carved my way west, mixing surface streets with interstate segments as the traffic deemed appropriate. The sun glowed deep red, practically the color of rust in the thick haze, and I counted the miles toward the pier. Hitting the beach road, I spotted a quick glimpse of neon, the familiar arch, and then became promptly lost. A minute later I passed by the sign, which has become a final landmark [though not the literal terminus of the road] for millions of Route 66 travelers, and I sighed gratefully. I'd made the trip. From Chicago to LA, more than 2,000 miles all the way.

It was the longest road journey I'd taken alone, and likely to be one of my happiest memories. The people I'd met, the places I'd seen, the land I'd watched evolve and change through the days, combined to a lovely jumble of moments. I started in snow and rain, wearing long pants and a thick jacket. I ended in cool breezes on the Pacific Coast, wearing camo shorts and flip flops. The trunk of my rental was filled with postcards, t-shirts, and other artifacts of the previous nine days, and I was ready to return home. I stayed at the Saga Motor Hotel in Pasadena -- a glorious remnant of mid-fifties "moderne" -- and contemplated the final leg of my trip, a race north along I-5 that would be so boring as to hardly merit a word of recollection. Route 66 was in my rearview mirror -- yet undeniably the Mother Road glowed in the near distance. I will return one day.

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All text and photos copyright Andrew Wood