The Guardian of Route 66

In my previous post, I mentioned that our travels that day included one more stop but didn’t mention where we stopped or why.  I felt it would be appropriate to give this stop a post of its own so that I could adequately explain why this stop was so important to me.  I struggled with feeling selfish for taking this detour, but Samantha (bless her) was all for it.  Instead of stopping in Williams as we drove west, we continued 43 miles to the town of Seligman.

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Seligman, Arizona was designated as the ‘Birthplace of Historic Route 66’ in 1987 due to the town’s engagement in getting the state to identify the Mother Road as a formal historic highway…the first state to do so.  Those efforts were largely spearheaded by long-time resident Angel Delgadillo, who has been appropriately dubbed the Guardian Angel of Route 66.  He also founded the Historic Route 66 Association of America and helped establish historic signage across the state, something that all other Route 66 states have since adopted.  He’s the prime example of how a concerned citizen can bring awareness to an issue and, through awareness, cause change.

Angel was born in 1927 and ran a barbershop + souvenir shop for decades.  He witnessed the Okie exodus of the Dust Bowl, the movement of World War II troops/equipment in the 1940s, and the rise of road trip tourism during the Route’s heyday.  He also watched first-hand as the establishment of the Interstate Highway System caused traffic and commerce dwindle in the town; in fact, he’s said the very day that I-40 opened in 1978 Seligman became a ghost town.  His efforts are well-known in roadie culture and many tourists come through Seligman specifically to see him.  Even Chevrolet has celebrated him, featuring him in a Super Bowl ad in 2011:

Although I’d been through Seligman once before, I didn’t get to meet Angel.  This time, though, I planned to remedy that omission.  When I walked into Angel’s shop, he had gone home for lunch.  They expected him back in about an hour and encouraged me to hang around. I was told to keep my eyes open for an eighty-nine year old man on a bicycle; he still rides to-and-from the shop every day!

We took that time to tour the rest of Seligman, which mostly consists of gift shops.  As time passed, I became less confident in my success.  Although we had nothing else planned for the day and Samantha said she was just fine with waiting, I didn’t want to anchor her to this town for the whole afternoon.  This was a Rhys thing, and this week was all about We.

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When I walked back into Angel’s shop, one of the folks working remembered me from earlier.  She offered to call Angel at home to let him know I was around.  She reached him and when she said there was a young man at the shop eager to meet him, he replied, “I’ll be there before another teardrop falls.”  Five minutes later, I found myself looking into the smiling face that I had seen in countless photographs.

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Angel’s passion was unbelievable.  He was genuinely happy to talk to me and share in our mutual love for the road.  Several times, he excused himself from our conversation to greet incoming tour buses full of visitors and regale them with stories.  With every person, he shared that same excitement and warmth; it was easy to see why people sought him out again and again.  When he returned to me, we picked up exactly where we left off.  He’s pushing 90, but is as sharp as ever.  As we talked, he used his story (and that of greater Route 66) to illustrate that hard work in the face of a great challenge is worthwhile; one person CAN make a difference.

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As we shook hands and parted ways, he pointed up to the old clock on the wall.  “Every moment in life is unique.  We should not take anything for granted, because nothing is guaranteed.  Embrace each minute, because we’ll never see another one like it again.”  Very wise words.  I’m honored that I had the chance to talk to Angel and hear his story as only he can tell it.

About rhysfunk

Rhys Martin was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1981. In 2009, he sold everything he owned and left the country, living out of a backpack for ten months. He discovered a passion for photography while traveling throughout Southeast Asia and Europe. After returning home, he looked at his home town and Oklahoma heritage with fresh eyes. When he began to explore his home state, Rhys turned his attention to historic Route 66. As he became familiar with the iconic highway, he began to truly appreciate Oklahoma’s place along the Mother Road. He has traveled all 2,400 miles of Route 66, from Chicago to Los Angeles. He has also driven many miles on rural Oklahoma highways to explore the fading Main Streets of our small towns. Rhys has a desire to find and share the unique qualities of the Sooner State with the rest of the world. Cloudless Lens Photography has been featured in several publications including This Land, Route 66 Magazine, Nimrod Journal, Inbound Asia Magazine, The Oklahoman, and the Tulsa World. Rhys loves to connect with people and share his experiences; ask him about enjoyable day trips from Tulsa, locations along Route 66, and good diners or burger joints along the way.
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