The second (and last) day of the Arizona Route 66 Fun Run took me through one of my favorite segments of the entire road: the Oatman Highway.
The original alignment of Route 66 between Kingman, AZ and the California border takes drivers through the Black Mountains for 48 miles, reaching a height of 3,586 feet at Sitgreaves Pass. The namesake of this little stretch is Oatman, a former mining town that dates back to the 1860s. US Highway 66 was re-routed through Yucca to the south in 1953 but the older road still attracts the lion’s share of travelers today, due to the spectacular views and the wild burros that populate the mountainside and come right up to you to say hello.
I left Kingman early the morning of Sunday, May 1st so I could find a nice perch where I could take photos of the cruise going by. I found it at the Shaffer Spring Fish Bowl. A set of obscure stairs are built into the rock at a particular curve in the road; at the top of those stairs is a small basin (created as a part of the Works Project Administration, supposedly) that captures fresh water coming down the cliff wall. Locals keep it stocked with goldfish – a lovely little “secret” along the most famous road in the world.
I actually stopped multiple times at little pull-offs so I could snap photos of the cruise. Cars and motorcycles would come in bunches, twisting and turning along the mountain road. I’d find a nice spot, take a few photos, move along, and find the next spot. I figured it would be a nice lead-up to a longer stop in Oatman, but it didn’t quite work out that way. On the edge of town, traffic just STOPPED.
It turns out there was ANOTHER cruise, a motorcycle rally, coming east. In addition, the Kyle Petty Charity Ride had already taken up camp in Oatman for the morning. The place was packed! I took a few photos from the driver’s seat while we were at a standstill but decided to just keep going west.
Still, there were some great spots to stop and get more cruise photos as the road straightened out. When I reached the finish line in Golden Shores, AZ I quickly obtained my completion packet and crossed into California.
The first time I came to California, it was 2009 and the eve of my journey around the world. I had been connected with a man in Signal Hill that had offered to let our little gang crash at his house in preparation for that long, life-altering trip. Doug has been a wonderful friend ever since; thirteen years later, here I was again pulling up to his home that overlooks Long Beach and the Pacific Ocean.
It was the next day, Monday, when I finally achieved the goal of my entire journey. I didn’t mind the traffic as I made my way to Santa Monica; I could feel the excitement building in my soul, as if I was plugged into the car charger myself. When the iconic neon arch of the Santa Monica Pier came into sight, my excitement peaked – then cratered. The road to the pier itself was blocked; there was no way to enter or even stop temporarily for a photo. I lucked into a street parking spot a few blocks away and walked out onto the pier to get some more information.
My previous time here, I didn’t know anyone. Now, I walked straight to the 66-to-Cali booth where my friend Ian was minding the store. Ian Bowen and Dan Rice have operated a little booth on the pier since 2009. They are responsible for the popular “End of the Trail” Route 66 sign on the pier, which is constantly being used for selfies. Although US Highway 66 never terminated at the pier (more on that in a minute) it has become the symbolic end of the road. Dan and Ian are pioneers in bringing attention to Route 66 in an area that didn’t pay it much mind. Now, of course, 66 is everywhere.
I hadn’t met Ian yet in person and I loved getting to chat with him there on the pier. He told me that the gate at the end of the pier had been placed due to an influx of unauthorized sales carts descending on the area as the tourists came back. I was dismayed for my own selfish reasons, but understood. I returned to my car and drove a few blocks to the ACTUAL end of US Highway 66: the intersection of Olympic and Lincoln. There’s now a little brown Historic Route 66 – End sign on the stoplight there and a diner on one corner, but I didn’t stop there for those reasons. I was meeting someone!
Shing Yin Khor is an author, cartoonist, installation artist, experience designer, and more. I came to know Shing’s work with the book The American Dream?, a graphic novel that tells the story of their experience driving Route 66 as a young immigrant. It’s a perspective that we need to hear more often and I’ve been a supporter ever since. We sat in Mel’s Diner, had a beer, a bit of lunch, and a great conversation about the changing world. And, the parts of the world that were resistant to change, too.
Best of all: Shing was game to return to the pier with me so I could get a photo with the Mustang and the neon sign in the same shot! I can’t tell you what it meant to me; it’s now one of my most cherished photos. Hooray for nice, friendly people! The car had now officially driven Route 66 end-to-end, one day shy of what would’ve been Dad’s 68th birthday.
I’d originally planned to head right back to Long Beach after lunch, but I pulled up my map and realized I was only ten minutes away from Will Rogers State Historic Park. How could I resist?
In the 1920s, right around the time that US Highway 66 (also known as the Will Rogers Highway) was established, Will bought some land in Santa Monica and started developing a ranch. It grew to over 350 acres as he became the era’s most popular actor and social commentator. After his tragic death in a plane crash in 1935, his widow donated the land to the California State Park system. That included the 31-room ranch house, guest quarters, stable, corrals, riding ring, polo field, golf course, and riding trails. The stable in particular just blew me away. Beautiful, expansive…it’s clear that Will loved his horses. The statue at his memorial in Claremore has him riding his horse Soapsuds, who is interred here.
The grounds are simply stunning. Families were picnicking under the trees as other people walked the trails. Horses were lazily eating in one of the pastures and groundskeepers were tending to the grounds. Will’s great-granddaughter, Jennifer Rogers-Etcheverry, co-founded the Will Rogers Ranch Foundation to help preserve the park. They are doing a wonderful job; I cannot wait to return to the ranch with Samantha so we can give it some proper time.
The rest of that day was spent hanging out with Doug and relaxing a bit before I headed back east. My time-table to get back to Tulsa wasn’t as strict as it had been on the way out, but I still had a timer running thanks to my day job. I slept well those two nights in Signal Hill, though. It’s a home away from home. There’s even an oil derrick at work visible from the window!
I loaded up and hit the road early the next morning, but that’s going to require another installation of this long travel report.