But the town's real attraction, looming on all sides, is a landscape of surpassing beauty and strangeness: teetering rock fortresses, cars held together by rust, wind-scoured chasms that drop away hundreds of feet into nothingness. According to a posted sign, so terrifying were the area's snaking roads, especially the infamous Sitgreaves Pass, that many Okies and Arkies would hire locals to tow their Model A's and T's through to safety. Ansel Adams would've loved this place. Or Mad Max.
A marker designating "Historic Route 66" (as the road's remains now are called) leads out of Oatman, down through a valley and on into Kingman, Ariz., a sprawling town of 21,000 that somehow feels much larger. At the impressive new Route 66 Museum, which opened last May in a converted powerhouse, director Paul Snyder says this artery's origins go back way before the Great Depression.
For centuries, Native Americans had been using local trails as trade routes connecting the Southwest and Mexico with the Pacific Coast. By 1851, the U.S. Army was mapping out a road along the 35th parallel, an ancestor of the legendary highway. Toward the end of the 19th century, railroads were bringing immigrants and tourists into the area. Fred Harvey furthered the cause with his turn-of-the-century empire of hotels and restaurants laid out along rail lines. "There was a whole culture built up along this road," Snyder says.
The guts of the museum's permanent exhibition is a series of black-and-white documentary-style photos of migrant families. These stark images of hollow-cheeked children flopped on filthy mattresses, and grim-faced police inspectors at the California state line, are underscored by a famous passage from John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath": "And they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight."
Snyder shakes his head. "There's plenty of people buried out by the roadside," he says. "You wouldn't know it, but they didn't make the trip."
The exhibition's final third is devoted to a re-creation of a Route 66 small-town Main Street, complete with a beautifully restored banana-yellow 1950 Studebaker. A wall plaque describing the road's postwar heyday comes spiked with a liberal dose of conservative perspective: "Closets were for clothes, not for 'coming out of.' Gay meant joyful, bunnies were small rabbits .... 'Made In Japan' meant junk."
Downstairs, a gift shop operated by volunteers from the Historic Route 66 Assn. of Arizona offers every conceivable item capable of bearing the Route 66 logo: shot glasses, salt and pepper shakers, golf balls, steering wheel covers, jigsaw puzzles, tote bags, bar stools. Among the shoppers are a Hawaiian couple, Clint Bidwell and Debbie Chun, who bought a neon clock, some die-metal cars, and patio party lights for an upcoming birthday party in L.A. "There's a car theme going on at the party," Chun explains, "so we thought, Route 66."
Like the old road markers that have long since been torn down or stolen, Route 66 hails from an age when America seemed infused with a monochromatic directness, a black-and-white starkness. It permeated not only movies and television but attitudes about race, religion, sexuality, the future.
That may be one reason why the 98-mile segment of Route 66 between Kingman and Seligman astounds with its Technicolor variety and vitality. Driving this gorgeous slice of mesquite-covered hills, broken every few miles by a restaurant or solitary general store, is like driving through a hand-colored still photograph, circa 1945. Or like reading Steinbeck's best prose: by turns majestic and humble, coolly workmanlike and wildly romantic, even sentimental. The landscape, beyond merely stirring, feels sacred.
That connection runs deep for the people of the Hualapai Tribe, whose reservation rises on a brow of Route 66 in Peach Springs. But times have been tough since the interstate was built. Nowadays, virtually the only local employment option is conducting helicopter or rafting tours of the Grand Canyon, says Michelle LaPointe, a planning clerk at the tribal office. Most guidebooks make no mention of the reservation, a clutch of identical earth-toned homes, many abandoned, with boarded-up windows and trash-strewn yards. On one back porch a group of young children practices firing a pellet gun.
Beyond a great wall of mountains, the tiny railroad town of Seligman (population 1,000) meanders into view. Visiting Seligman without stopping by Angel Delgadillo's barber shop is like visiting Buckingham Palace without meeting the Queen Mum. Many regard the 74-year-old haircutter, whose older brother Juan runs the next-door Snow Cap Drive-In, as the savior of Route 66 in the Southwest. When I-40 bypassed Seligman in September, 1978, Delgadillo began organizing business owners into an association to promote the historic road.
"Here in America we all clamor for something bigger, better, brighter.