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The Road Less Traveled : Nostalgia trip: Rural Sierra Highway to the high desert holds on proudly to its traditional eccentricity.

December 25, 1989|STEVE PADILLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Large estate homes have popped up near the mission, but its caretaker, 70-year-old Robert Larson, said the complex hasn't changed much over the years. That's part of its appeal to church groups that seek out its calm and peaceful atmosphere. Hoover said there's more than enough business. "I have to turn a lot of it down."

For years, Sierra Highway was a bloody alley, notorious for head-on collisions caused by speeders passing slower traffic. "This was three lanes," recalled O'Brien, while recently driving a stretch of road now improved to four lanes. "One up, one down, one suicide."

Often clogged with vacationers headed for the Sierra Nevada on holidays, Sierra Highway was well known for "Boiling Point," a hill where many radiators blew their stacks after a tedious climb. Traffic would back up for miles.

For highway patrol officers, speeders were the greatest problem, O'Brien said. One officer, determined to pounce upon the lead-footers without warning, would hide his motorcycle behind two large tumbleweeds, he said.

It was a Sierra Highway speeder who, on a cold November day in 1960, contributed to the worst accident in O'Brien's 28-year career.

O'Brien, atop a Harley Davidson, was chasing the speeder down Cement Hill when his motorcycle began to wobble at 90 m.p.h. "I knew I was going down," he said. "I had no choice."

According to witnesses who described the fall to him, O'Brien tumbled 265 feet, most of it bouncing along on his head. "I didn't think I would ever stop tumbling," he said. "The road just kept coming."

When a dazed O'Brien finally stopped rolling, a man rushed up holding out the officer's battered gun. O'Brien has never forgotten the man's words: "I think this is yours."

O'Brien recovered from his injuries and returned to patrol the highway.

After the first leg of the Antelope Valley Freeway opened on Aug. 23, 1963, traffic disappeared from Sierra Highway. Kronnick, who by then had his own real estate office along the road, said traffic was so rare he "could have gone out my door and crossed the street blindfolded."

Businesses withered away. Cliff's, where frog legs were the house specialty, closed up shop. Wilson's, a 24-hour cafe and local institution, was sold to the Holy Alamo Christian Church, whose founder, Tony Alamo, is wanted by the FBI on child abuse charges.

Neighbors call the foundation an embarrassment and critics have branded it a religious cult that brainwashes its members with outrageous conspiracy theories. A church pamphlet once charged that a cabal of Catholic international bankers had placed specially trained agents in the media and government to help the bankers "control everyone in the world."

Perhaps the most unexpected sight along the highway is Callahan's Old West, a replica of a frontier town that catered to tourists who stumbled across the place from 1965 to 1973.

It was started by Robert Callahan, a writer, impresario and shrewd businessman obsessed with the history of Indians and the Old West. A compulsive collector, he saved everything, including 20,000 horseshoes and 500 wagon wheels. He was tough, too. He was hit by a train in 1965 but survived in poor health until his death in 1981.

In keeping with Sierra Highway's quirky character, strange things happened at Callahan's--like the time visitors stole a 300-pound anvil. Marion C. Callahan, the showman's widow, said she will never figure out how the thieves did it in broad daylight.

Then, there was the leader of an obscure, all-female band who insisted the group would draw big crowds to the theme park. When Marion Callahan questioned the band's appeal, the leader replied: "Honey, I'm in a topless girl band."

Callahan's is more ghost town than frontier town these days. Marion Callahan rents out the village as a location site for movies, but on most days the park is deserted.

She keeps it partly for sentimental reasons. After her husband's accident, one of his few pleasures was spending the day at Callahan's, where, seated in a throne chair, he would regale listeners with stories about Billy the Kid and Wild Bill Hickok. "It gave him an interest," she said.

The only regular tenant at Callahan's is the Canyon Theatre Guild, a 20-year-old community theater that began producing plays there four years ago.

The 170-seat theater had fallen into disrepair and it took the guild a few years to clean up the building--and to fix the heat. "The first couple of seasons, the actors and the patrons both froze," said Ben Boydston, president of the guild and director of the troupe's current production of "A Christmas Carol."

The guild once staged a play set in a Malibu beach house and, for authenticity, included a thermometer in the decor. Unfortunately, it registered 58 degrees. The heat works fine now, but in the past "our patrons began to dress appropriately," Boydston said.

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