Wigwam Motel to the Nipton Hotel: In part 2, we visit Route 66 museums and ride the Mother Road through the Mojave Desert
Story: Gary Koz Mraz Photos: Mraz and Ian Parker
A night in a Wigwam Teepee is like an Apollo space capsule ride; tight quarters but a once in a lifetime experience. The Wigwam came back to life in 2005, thanks to the Patel family. The motel underwent an intense renovation with attention to detail as its main focus. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012. A kidney shaped pool and gift shop complete the Wigwam Route 66 experience. The mother road becomes Interstate 215 only two miles away and then the I15. It’s a short 42 mile ride to Victorville where I’ll check out the Route 66 Museum.
Admission is free and staffed by friendly volunteers who are more than happy to explain this stretch of old Route 66 to anybody that walks in. There are three rooms full of donated memorabilia and ranging from a 67 Volkswagen hippy van to a 1948 Captain America Mustang scooter. Visit the gift shop in the front corner of the building and help support this historical window on America’s transportation past.
The superslab and I separate and I ride Old Route 66, the National Trails Highway. Here you will taste the romance of this road. The Classic Route 66 logos are painted on the black asphalt, and roadside diners with Route 66 emblazoned everywhere. I pass through the tiny towns of Oro Grande, Helendale and Lenwood. Abandoned cafés and gas stations are reminders of a time long past. With two lanes and wide open expanses, Route 66 was sometimes referred to as Bloody 66. With few sign posts or lights, this two lane highway accommodated a wide variety of vehicles. As you can well imagine, heavily laden trucks would have a string of cars following and only the brave or stupid would attempt a speedy pass. Often, an oncoming vehicle would appear racing the other direction and the result was a horrific explosion of metal and blood; no seatbelts, no airbags, no crumple zones.
Route 66 Mother Road Museum in Barstow is also free to the public and a must for all route 66 fans. Take some photos, sign their guest book and there are a lot of souvenirs to be purchased very reasonably. Admittedly though, I am tiring of souvenirs and the Kitsch of 66 and need the harsh reality of the road, not Hollywood’s storybook romance.
From Barstow route 66 skirts Highway 40 into Newberry Springs and then dips down into the Mojave Desert Reserve. It’s here we visit the Bagdad Café. Bagdad became the fictionalized setting of both a popular novel and a motion picture called Bagdad Café. The Café location shooting was actually done at the Sidewinder Cafe to the west in Newberry Springs, which has since been renamed the “Bagdad Café.” The actual town of Bagdad is gone. I can’t tell if they sell hot food or hot car stereos by the way the miscellaneous electronics are stacked up in the corners. It’s pretty untidy and I didn’t eat there but try your luck.
Newberry Springs is also home to the unique Volcano House built in 1968. Donated to Chapman University by its last owner, Huell Howser, it literally sits atop a lava dome with a spectacular 360 degree view. I have crossed paths with Huell and I have seen this home. It’s as remote as it gets and unless you are faculty at Chapman University, you never will.
Singing dunes, volcanic cinder cones, Lava tubes and endless highways are all found at the 1.6 million acre Mojave Nature Reserve. A visit to its canyons, mountains and mesas reveals mines, homesteads, and ghost towns long abandoned and newly reborn.
You better gas up in Amboy because there are no other options for many miles. My next destination is Nipton,122 miles away and they don’t have a gas station! Littered with abandoned Cafes and Hotels, the remnants of America’s motoring past lie scattered along this lost highway. The roads here are wild and wooly. Sections of newly paved asphalt suddenly become pitted with potholes and gravel. Nevermind the unending undulating dips and crests, which can be a lot of fun. These roads should absolutely be avoided in rainy weather. The dry terrain causes flash floods that will literally wash a car off the road. This eerie ride on old route 66 traverses much of the Mojave Preserve and is the best part of the ride for me.
I love the lingering mist of its haunted past; entire towns now abandoned. Bagdad, Danby, Cadiz Summit, Chambless, Siberia – Population 0, Cima – Population 9. Ludlow – Population 10, Amboy – Population 19, Goffs Ghost Town – Population 23. Essex – Population 111.
If you’re planning a ride through the Mojave, there are some very interesting stops you may want to include on our Route 66 road trip. Kelso – Mojave Visitor Center and the Kelso Booming Dunes are one. During the 1970s, Kelso was known as the town without TV. Kelso Depot, which once provided food, recreation and accommodations for Union Pacific Railroad employees, is now the principal visitor center for Mojave National Preserve. It’s staffed and houses displays, a movie room featuring Mojave history, free maps and plans for a restaurant.
The Kelso Dunes are notable for the phenomenon known as singing sand, or “booming dunes”. Hikers typically climb to the top of the dunes and slide down slowly, generating a low-frequency rumble that can be both felt and heard. The Kelso Dune complex has some of the highest dunes (600 feet) in the region. It had rained the day prior and the dunes don’t Boom if damp. The drier they are, the bigger they boom. It’s definitely on my bucket list.
Mitchell Caverns -Jack and Ida Mitchell built a road, trails and stairs where they led tours of limestone caverns now called Mitchell caverns. They built a home and permanently live at the caverns. Considering they live in the middle of the desert and the nearest neighbor was 15 miles away, that’s fortitude. Mitchell Caverns is located in the heart of the Providence Mountains State Recreation Area. Spectacular and intricate limestone formations found include; stalagmites, stalactites, helictites, lily pads, draperies, curtains and cave popcorn. The caverns were purchased by the State in 1954 and are the only limestone caverns in the State Park System. Land Fair road spikes north off Route 66 and is the final leg of my ride. I’m very glad to have topped off the gas tank in Amboy because this next jaunt is miles of barren desert to Nipton. No gas, no food, nobody.
25 years ago, Nipton was virtually abandoned but in 1984, the entire town was purchased for 200 grand by geologist Gerald freemen. He installed solar panels to power the entire town and Wi-Fi. It’s now home to the Hotel Nipton, The El Oasis Café and the Nipton Trading Post. Originally constructed in 1904, Hotel Nipton was restored by Freeman in 1986, and recently refurbished in 2004. This 5 bedroom Hotel is open as a bed-andbreakfast inn to serve visitors of Mojave. This 100 plus year old Hotel was favorite getaway to silent film actress Clara Bow. Room 3 was her room and is a patron favorite.
Room 1 is the Train Room, because it facing the train tracks with many windows. I stayed in room 5, the newest additions and wasn’t bothered by the train whistles. There is a Jacuzzi and a pond on the property. A clean, well maintained facility offers a western movie big sky experience. The El Oasis Café food is exemplary and Chef grows their own herbs and uses his mother recipes. The Nipton Trading Post stocks beer, wine and snacks. Nipton also offers tented cabins, roomy enough for a party of six. These Eco-Lodges are designed to provide a comfortable camping experience in the natural desert environment. Each cabin is air-cooled and outfitted with two double beds, a wood-fired stove, electric lights and overhead fan, table and chairs. It’s the “only” hotel within the Mojave National Preserve and is a completely unique and enjoyable experience.
This tattered shamble of unmaintained 66 through the Mojave tells the naked story of the Oakies escaping the Dust Bowl. It’s here you really sense the hope that drove them and hardship they endured. That feeling still prevails on these long lonely miles of unforgiving desert. For me, this ride has been the best of what Route 66 represents and one I will come back and ride again and again. I’ll pass on the fanciful romance of Route 66 and embrace the reality of this road. It’s a story where nature prevails and the best laid plans of men and mice are anecdotes.