The struggling Wigwam Motel still attracts some tourists to its teepee-shaped rooms along Route 66 in San Bernardino, Calif.

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Route 66 has long been the stuff of movies, song lyrics, TV shows and other popular culture. Its appeal is lost to many younger travelers, more eager to get to their destinations at freeway speeds.

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Once-thriving mom-and-pop businesses are now largely abandoned along the roadway.

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The iconic Roy’s Motel Cafe is barely operational along “America’s Highway,” Route 66, in Amboy, Calif.

Photos by MARK BOSTER • Los Angeles Times/MCT,

Few kicks left on dusty Route 66

  • Article by: Hugo Martin
  • Los Angeles Times
  • May 17, 2014 - 9:44 PM


Kumar Patel grew up along Route 66, a highway long celebrated in literature, song and film. He was not impressed.

On his first long road trip, about six years ago, he found himself bored by the route’s decaying monuments, mom-and-pop diners and dusty museums.

“I hated it,” he said. “But I didn’t understand it.”

The journey to understanding started soon after that trip, when his mother started having health problems. She had been running the family’s Wigwam Motel, a clutch of 20 tepee-shaped rooms on Route 66 in San Bernardino, Calif. She could no longer run it alone.

So at 26, Patel took over, ­giving up a career in accounting to run an aging tourist trap that struggled to cover its costs.

Now, as a 32-year-old entrepreneur, he stands out among the typical Route 66 merchants, who promote such roadside curiosities as a Paul Bunyan monument, a blue whale statue and the Petrified Forest National Park. Such sites now are operated and visited mostly by white middle-aged travelers — a dwindling crowd.

Unless Patel and other Route 66 business owners can attract a younger and more diverse following, one that matches the evolving demographics of America, the shops and oddball attractions along the route will shut down for good.

“If it doesn’t happen, we are not going to keep all of this alive,” said Kevin Hansel, the caretaker of another struggling Route 66 business, Roy’s Motel & Cafe in Amboy. “It will be history.”

A historic role in the ’20s

That history started in the 1920s, when the road was built to handle a surge in automobile ownership and a push by business owners to link the small towns and merchants of the Midwest to big cities. Route 66 became the nation’s main ­east-west artery.

In his novel “The Grapes of Wrath,” John Steinbeck called it “the mother road” because it beckoned and delivered the refugees from the Dust Bowl exodus to jobs in California in the 1930s. Bobby Troup penned his biggest hit song, “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66,” in 1946.

But by the 1950s, the narrow, slow-moving route was replaced by interstate freeways designed for high speeds. Federal workers removed the markers and decommissioned Route 66 in 1985, effectively killing business for the jukebox-blasting diners and neon-rimmed motels.

Today, with the future of the Wigwam at stake, Patel has immersed himself in Route 66, driving and stopping to chat with fellow shopkeepers and travelers. He set out to learn how to promote his business but ended up with a more personal appreciation of the route’s culture.

“That’s what grew on me: The people who shared with me their stories of the road.”

When the Wigwam Motel went on sale in 2003 for nearly $1 million, Patel’s father, who ran another small hotel in San Bernardino, saw it as a good investment. It has yet to pay off.

Like many Route 66 businesses, the Wigwam struggles to make enough money to pay for improvements. It took five years to save up to renovate the pool area. Last year, Patel was finally able to afford a full-time maid for the place. “We still run it on a thin line,” he said.

With the Wigwam’s success tied to Route 66, Patel has become a tireless promoter of its culture. He sees that as a way to keep the history alive — and his motel rooms full.

Some scenes from the drive

“On Route 66 you find real people, real food,” Patel said as he recently set out on the road.

He rattled off history and trivia as the car zipped past telephone poles on National Trails Highway — the name now given to the portion of Route 66 that runs through much of the Mojave Desert.

A downed tree outside of Amboy (pop. 17) is called the “Shoe Tree” because it toppled under the weight of hundreds of shoes tossed on the branches by visitors. It’s a tradition that locals say was started by an arguing couple and continues today.

Roy’s Motel & Cafe sells only soft drinks and snacks. The hotel is closed because of a lack of water. Kevin Hansel, the caretaker, dreams of the day someone drills a well deep enough to reach drinkable water.

“Once we get the water, we can open the restaurant and the bungalows,” he said.

Back on the road, just outside Barstow, Patel pulled up to the “Bottle Tree Ranch.”

The forest of metal trees, adorned with colored bottles, was built by Elmer Long, 67. He says he gets up to 1,000 visitors a day in the summer, mostly international travelers. “To them,” he said, “the U.S. is a magical place.”

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