Thursday, April 3, 2008

Portraits of Route 66

While I'm working on the website for my recent Route 66 trip, I thought I'd share some of my favorite portraits of folks from the road. Some of the text is from our Motel Americana website, some is from the forthcoming site.

At Shea's Gas Station in Springfield (IL) I met both Sheas, father and son. Bill Senior is a D-Day veteran, a little more than 80 years old, and his son speaks respectfully of his dad, showing me a container of sand from Utah Beach where his father's feet hit the surf. The Station is a museum of the Shea Family's dedication to the gas business. A container even holds Bill Senior's Texaco uniform, complete with bow tie. The younger Bill explains that many servicemen viewed Texaco and similar jobs as merely a change from one uniform to another.

The museum includes two buildings filled with decades of bric-a-brac, including a couple of Bell telephone booths. Bill junior describes how Ma Bell once paid businesses like his to keep a telephone booth on their property, until one day the company switched the deal and started charging them. We chatted for a while, moving through the displays, and I was grateful for the chance to talk with folks who are exactly where they want to be.

Visiting Henry's Rabbit Ranch in Staunton (MO), I had no idea what to expect when I arrived and almost two hours later, I wasn't quite sure I could believe what I experienced. Chatting about road history, comparing notes on famous '66ers, wading into politics, and waxing philosophical, Rich Henry and I shared a great conversation, all while enjoying the company of one of his many rabbits, Montana, who is a presidential candidate (sadly left out of the debates).

Rich's welcome center looks like an old gas station, but it's a replica. The "Snortin Norton" trucks outside, though, are the real thing, just as is the Stanley Cour-Tel motel sign that Rich rescued from oblivion a while back. I'd always wanted to see that sign in its original location near St. Louis but missed my chance. Pulling into Henry's I couldn't believe my luck -- there it was!

If you ever pass this way on your own travels, make time (and plenty of it) to stop and chat with Rich. Maybe by then he will have completed his commemorative park dedicated to the many bunnies he's helped raise since his daughter decided she'd overestimated her ability to care for the two she started with. Right now the park simply offers grave marks for each rabbit that has passed over the "rainbow bridge." Ask Rich to tell you about that bridge and try not to shed a tear.

I set my course for Lebanon (MO) and the Munger Moss Motel whose sign advertises, “Here yesterday, today, and tomorrow.” Bob and Ramona Lehman maintain this Mother Road classic out of love for the people who keep the road alive. Ramona explains, “They're just good people. They're humble people. And it's like one big family that keeps growing and growing and growing and you care about ‘em -- and they care about you.”

Running the Munger Moss since 1971, Ramona takes great pride in her motel; she has also started to develop theme rooms, including one for each of the eight states linked by Route 66. However, the coolest theme belongs to the Coral Court Room, dedicated to the famed St. Louis landmark replaced by tract housing a few years back. With its pink and black tile and satin sheets, this room would fit nicely in any bordello -- a perfect homage to the famed No Tell Motel.

Cruising a quiet stretch of road marked with ghost buildings in Paris Springs (MO), I spotted a brightly painted Sinclair gas station and read the sign: Gay Parita. The gate was open, though no one was around, so I walked around a little. Before long a fellow stepped out of a nearby house and advanced toward me; I felt that familiar twinge. Was I trespassing? Nodding appreciatively at the station, I said, "It looks like a labor of love!" He broke open into a broad smile and asked if I'd like a tour. Before I knew it, I'd just met Gary Turner, a guy who rebuilt a gas station that burned down in 1955 just so he could greet travelers passing through.

Gary showed me lots of pics of how the place had changed, beaming with pride at his glorious reproduction. But more than anything, he is thrilled at how many people have visited him since he rebuilt Gay Parita. Visitors have mailed him souvenirs from all over the world, all expressing their joy at chatting with this guy. I suppose the way best to describe Gary is to point at the poster of Cars over his desk. Remember Tow Mater? Imagine that beloved character in human form: that's Gary.

Built in 1922, Barstow's (CA) Route 66 Motel offers an example to other towns seeking to revitalize their aging main street districts that might otherwise fall prey to the scourges of drugs and prostitution. Ved and Mridu Shandil have refurbished the formerly non-descript motel into a Mother Road must-see, complete with antique cars between the cottages and round beds in many of the rooms.

The couple shows visitors a guestbook filled with the names and memories of road-trippers from around the world, many who have left photos and other memorabilia. For Ved and Mridu, the Route 66 Motel is more than a business; it’s their passion: “Number one: this is Americana. Number two: We are proud to be in Barstow.”

As the sun was beginning to set in Oro Grande (CA), I followed a friendly and dusty section of 66, which the Jerry McClanahan guide mentioned as being particularly photogenic. I read something about "bottle trees," thinking little of it. But I screeched my tires when I rode past a yard filled with tall poles branching with dozens, hundreds, countless numbers of 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 hear 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 Elmer's 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 allow me to take 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.

(Portraits by Andrew and Jenny Wood)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My dad Rules :)

I love coming across these blogs with people that have had the oppurtunity to speak with him. He's got a world of wisdom in that crazy head of his that he is always willing to share.