Pioneer Town was established by Hollywood investors in the mid-1940s hoping to create a living movie set. Its history is as fascinating as some of the movies that were filmed there – what would appear behind the facade old fashioned saloon might hold a bowling alley or ice cream parlor.
There’s something familiar about Joshua Tree Park, something you can’t quite place, and, no, it’s not the cover of U2’s album. Then you remember about all those Dr. Seuss bedtime stories you read the kids, and suddenly you realize – this landscape look a lot like Seuss’ “Truffula trees” in “The Lorax” (1971). It turns out that Dr. Seuss was enamored with Joshua Tree Park, and indeed, used the landscape as inspiration.
Unfortunately, the trees could use the Lorax to speak for them. Highly sensitive to climate, they only grow between an elevation of 1,300 to 5,900 feet, and if the climate continues to warm, they could face extinction. A species belonging to the Yucca genus, Joshua Trees were named by Mormon settlers who were reminded of a story in which Joshua reached to the skies in prayer. Like Rocky, these hearty trees may not be pleasant on the eyes, but they’re fighters. They can live hundreds, even thousands of years because of their rhizome root systems. 2013 saw one of the greatest blooms in decades, which both excites and worries park employees – on the one hand, the tree, which has seen a drop in reproduction in the past decades, might be making a comeback; on the other, Josh Hoines, a national Park Service vegetation specialist explains, “The most recent theory I have seen is that as the climate has moved to the edge of the physiologic tolerance for Joshua trees and they are put- ting out one last ditch effort before they die.”
The last time we were here in August 2008, it was 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Getting out of the car felt like stepping into a sauna – a dry heat that burned the skin immediately. Today it is comfortable, but I have respect for the barren landscape and bought enough water for all of us. It’s 50 miles to Amboy and there’s no chance to get anything between here and there.
I completely forgot about this place. An abandoned whistle-stop, a former ghost town, made up of the deserted Roy’s Motel and Café, an airport (where Harrison Ford sometimes lands his plane), a gas station, a garage, a school, a graveyard, and, after a treacherous hike in the desert, a volcanic crater. Even if you don’t recognize the name, you’ll recognize the Roy’s sign from the movies. For years the former mining town was the only place to stop for miles, until the Interstate opened up nearby in 1973, bypassing Route 66 and driving most of the family-owned motel and diners out of business, and in the process, the little towns that had established themselves around these businesses.
Amboy recalls a bygone of traveling along Route 66. The whole town was owned by Roy Crowl and his wife Velma in the late 1930s. It was a town that consisted of just a dinky service station. Over the next decade he expanded the town with his son-in-law, Buster.
In 1995 Buster sold the town to investors who used it as a movie set. In 2005 the California native Albert Okura, owner of the Juan Pollo restaurant chain and collector of Route 66 memorabilia, acquired the site of Amboy for $425,000 with plans to restore it through the help of donations. He reopened the gas station in 2008, after $100,000 worth of renovations to the building housing the gas station, diner, and café. Counting on the traffic from a renewed interest in travelling Route 66, the gas station, which is stocked with candy and souvenirs, is still worth a stop to stretch your legs and peer into the windows of a diner frozen in the glory days of America’s most famous highway.
A Recollection from Mr. Trip:
When you leave Death Valley you drive up over the hills and cruise down into a salt plain with one of these roads that stretches into the horizon. I got out of the car to stretch my legs and take a few photos when suddenly I heard a sound, something that started as a low whoosh, like a gust of wind that quickly built into a roar. I grabbed for the camera and I turned to see a fighter jet. It was like Top Gun. The jet streaked by, the pilot at eyelevel. He waved. He waved!
Then another one passed, and another in a ballet of American power. These pilots were just playing around in their jets, and there I was, standing in my shorts like the tourist I was. It was every cliché about America that you could ask for: the desert, fighter jets, Mount Whitney on the backdrop, and the cocky yet endearing friendliness of the wave.