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Bloody 66: Route 66 was a dangerous drive

Route 66, Halltown, Missouri

While working on Along Route 66, I got stuck behind an oil truck on a hilly, twisty two-lane road somewhere west of Tulsa. There was no passing that behemoth. I realized that this must have been what traveling 66 must have been like from its designation as a Federal Highway in 1926 to the completion of the Interstates highways beginning in the 1960s.

When Susan Croce Kelly and I conducted our interviews of the people who invented Route 66 and roadside tourism between the 1930s and 1950s, we heard stories about how dangerous travel on the highway was. An article about the dangerous of travel through Lincoln, Illinois, ostensibly through the flat prairies of Illinois, recalled the stories we heard.

The Golden Spread, Groom, Texas

From Chicago to Los Angeles, they called it Bloody 66, but there were regional names for it also: Death Alley and Blood Alley in Groom, Texas, also flat; Camino de la Muerte in Arizona across the Colorado Plateau, not terribly hilly.

Route 66, Mojave Desert, Amboy

Buster Burris at Amboy, who carried a saw in his wrecker to cut off the ends of  guard rails impaled in drivers’ chests, had a litany of stories about death in the Mojave Desert. From Along Route 66:

“With World War II over, civilian travelers learned that Route 66 in the Mojave Desert was a dangerous place. The 18-foot bridges that crossed the washes were too narrow for two speeding cars to pass safely in opposite directions. One car would hit another or worse impale itself, and sometimes its driver, on the wooden guard rail. Every wrecker had a litany of horror stories. But, vapor-locked gas lines and overheated radiators stopped more cars than did guard rails. Folks sat on the roadside, their radiators boiling, waiting for a wrecker to tow them to the nearest garage. Bored, they collected small stones, and laid them on the roadside berms in the shape of big letters, writing out their names.”

Quinta Scott's name in rocks at Danby in the Mojave Desert

“What was the purpose of the low berms? They were levees. When it rains in the desert, it floods. The berms that lined the north side of the highway funneled floodwater away from the road and into the washes.” And under the bridges. Over maybe even over the bridges.

Route 66 was a dangerous place.


Of course, knowing that story, I had to write my name in rocks in the Mojave Desert.


Mojave Desert, Solar Farms, and Water

Mojave Desert along Route 66

Mojave Desert along Route 66

BrightSource Energy, Inc. cancelled its plans to build a solar farm on 600,000 acres of railroad land donated to the Department of the Interior for conservation. BrightSource builds, owns, and operates solar plants.

This is the land by Sen. Dianne Feinstein would like to see transformed into the Mother Road National Monument. If that happens, the land would connect the Mojave National Preserve to the north with the Joshua Tree National Park to the south, and the Colorado River to the east.

It is my long time interest in Route 66 that draws me to alternative energy and the Mojave, and how energy extraction changes landscapes.

For my first book on Route 66, Susan Croce Kelly and I took oral histories from poeple who built gas stations, motels, restaurants, and trading posts along the road after it was established in 1926 and before the passage of the Interstate Highway Act with funded the roads that replaced 66. The book Route 66: The Highway and its People is the basic text on the founding of the road and the creation of roadside tourism.

My second book, Along Route 66, is about the architecture of their buildings. Again, I drew on the oral histories Kelly and I had taken in the 1980s and on additional interviews taken by phone in the 1990s.

Now, I am interested in the landscapes the old road crossed from the Great Lakes to the Pacific, the coal fields and oil fields that lie under the landscape, and how we change the landscape when we extract energy from it.

This idea blossomed when I visited Moraine State Park, near Bloomington, Illinois, where Route 66 crossed the Bloomington Moraine, laid down by the retreating Wisconsinan glacier 15,000 years ago. The Twin Groves Wind Farm occupies soybean and corn fields just north of the park.

Twin Groves Wind Farm, Bloomington Moraine, LeRoy, Illinois

Twin Groves Wind Farm, Bloomington Moraine, LeRoy, Illinois

So if I seem preoccupied with things not Route 66, forgive me, but this is a new role the old road can play in my life and work.

Solar Energy in the Mojave Desert,

Dry Wash, Mojave Desert

Dry Wash, Mojave Desert

Interior secretary Ken Salazar describes his agency as the “real department of energy.” He is in charge of the vast expanses of public lands in the western United States, lands that energy producers want to exploit for their natural resources, oil, coal, natural gas, and now wind and solar.

Which brings us to the Mojave Desert, sunny and windy, and much of it owned by U.S.

There is a five year backlog of applications for 158 solar projects on 1.8 million acres of public land, which could power 29 million homes. Half the projects would be built in the Mojave Desert, where some of the land is pristine, and some not.

The White House wants to streamline the application process and create 50,000 green jobs by 2011.

Roy's Motel, Amboy, California

Roy's Motel, Amboy, California

Pacific Gas and Electric is planning a solar farm near Roy’s Motel, a classic Route 66 business and a classic Route 66 story

Buster Burris was the wrecker king of Route 66 in the Mojave. He arrived in Amboy from Texas in 1938 and went to work for Roy Crowe at his gas and service station, driving Roy’s wrecker. Buster took over the business, and added a cafe in 1945 for feed people who waited for Roy to fix their cars. Three years later he added the little cabins to bed them down while they waited for Roy to fix their cars.

Roy's Motel, Amboy, California

Roy's Motel, Amboy, California

Roy’s grew into a small city out in the desert, even though drinking water was hauled in by the Sante Fe Railroad and stored on a siding.

Because the highway is there, because the railroad is there, because Roy’s is there, Pacific Gas and Electric claims the land is no longer pristine, and a solar farm near Roy’s will not damage the environment and be far enough away from Route 66 to not spoil the view from the road.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein and David Myers of the Wildlands Conservancy feel it is way to easy to use public land for energy production and that the planned solar projects will be way too big. Myers calls it the industrialization of the desert. Feinstein wants to establish the Mother Road National Monument on 800,000 acres of the land that would connect the Mojave National Preserve to the north with the Joshua Tree National Park to the south and the Colorado River to the east. And she wants to prevent the construction of solar farms on the land.

The Mojave: California’s Newest National Monument


Dry River, Mojave Desert

Dry River, Mojave Desert

Yesterdays LA Times had a story about the proposed National Monument in the Mojave Desert. Senator Dianne Feinstein is writing a bill that would put hundreds of thousands of acres of the Mojave off limits to wind and solar energy development.

The region along old Route 66 between Ludlow and Needles is a wildlife corridor as well as an historic corridor. 

There is no place where energy development does not have consequences for the landscape. Straight oil canals crisscrossing the Louisiana coast have changed the way water and sediment moves through the wetlands. Mountaintop removal, coal mining, in Appalachia has filled streams with debris, changed the way water flows through the mountains, and destroyed communities.

Perhaps, if we learn from the experiences in Louisiana and Appalachia, we can find a way to have both the clean energy development we need (and the Mojave is a natural place for it )  and the landscape we want and need.

Proposed National Monument in the Mojave Desert would preserve Route 66

Mojave Desert

Mojave Desert

Years ago, while I was working on Route 66, the first book, I was squatting on the edge of the road in the Mojave Desert, making a photograph of the Sleeping Beauty Rock. A tank drove out of the desert and missed me by a few feet. Gen. Pattons tank men learned desert warfare in the Mojove, during WWII. In 1982 who knows who was practicing desert warfare in the desert, but that tank sure scared me.

On another trip across the desert sixteen years later, I became intrigue with the dry rivers that run through the landscape.

Preservationists, concerned that the expansion of the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms, which would cut off access to miles of Route 66 and the growth of solar farms in the Mojave would have on the proposed  Mother Road National Monument, which would protect 70 miles of old Route 66 between Needles and Ludlow and 2.4 million acres of  desert where the Bureau of Land Management owns most of the land.

Dry River, Mojave Desert

Dry River, Mojave Desert

The proposal would preserve all existing uses of the federal lands and allow for military and solar and wind farms.  It would keep the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Area open to off-road vehicles.

However, Pacific Gas and Electric’s proposed solar generation plant on 5, 120 acres east of Amboy would spoil the view from Route 66.