Travelling the Main Street of America
Your gateway to the Promised Land of California is the I-40 bridge over the Colorado River, but it's worth a detour down to the original road crossing - an elegant white arched bridge now used to carry gas and water pipes across the shimmering Colorado. The Business Loop will take you on the original alignment through Needles and set you off on one of 66's greatest challenges - crossing the Mojave Desert. It's a long steady climb westwards out of Needles, and as the sun rises it rakes this east-facing slope with its fiercest fire. The locals say that in August it can hit the 100ºF mark before 8.00am and stay there until late into the afternoon. Temperatures up to 120ºF are not uncommon. But I'm told that the daily flow of traffic never stops, even on the hottest days. With just a little thought and care, you should make it across the Mojave in fine style. There's a sign near Needles that will have occupants of older, non-air-conditioned cars laughing their socks off. Drivers are commanded to turn off air-conditioners to prevent engines overheating. Now, the folks in classics will be thoroughly acclimatised to the summer heat, but their cosseted brethren who've so far been cocooned in nicely chilled air will get quite a shock! The key to a stress-free cruise across the Mojave is an early start from Needles. Those in the know will be under way well before 5.00am. In so doing, they'll not only gain cool temperatures, but will also witness the magic of the desert sunrise.
Having explored most of it, I see little point in fussing about the ancient original alignment through Goffs and Fenner. The post-war route takes in some great scenery, and is much easier to follow and better maintained. When you rejoin the I-40 later you'll see a sign to Goffs. Look down the road you would have used and be glad that you didn't.
The southern swing of the old route through Amboy is wonderful. It takes you right away from the thundering congestion of the Interstate and out into the heart of the Mojave. From Cadiz to Amboy the surface is a little the worse for wear, but it's fine as long as you're alert. From Amboy to Ludlow is better, but throughout this section take notice of the "DIP" signs. These dips are potential suspension wreckers if you're pushing on at much over the 55mph limit. (Now, who'd do a thing like that?)
At Amboy, Roy's Café has been unparching the throats of sweating travellers since 1938, while further on at Newberry Springs you'll find the substitute "Bagdad Café" used in the movie of that name. You pass the site of the real Bagdad Café just after Amboy, but there's nothing left for you to photograph. After Daggett, there's a switch-back section that's sure to bring out the Devil in you. If you get carried away and overshoot, though, you'll end up in the Marine Corps Logistics Base. Not recommended.
Barstow, the next town of any size, has an evocative main drag cluttered with hoardings and neon signs in the best tradition of American roadside commerce. The accommodation here is a strange mixture of the quite-nice-but-overpriced and the downright creepy. What goes on in the dozens of old traditional-style motels that seem to have large numbers of "permanents"? Most of them seem to be run by recent immigrants from the Indian subcontinent and the welcome given to this potential client was cool, to say the least. I ended up biting the bullet and paying over the odds to stay at the perfectly ordinary but normal-seeming Holiday Inn Express. The exception to this gloomy outlook in Barstow is the El Rancho motel. It is a beautifully restored motel of the old school, built of railroad ties (sleepers to you and me). It's run by interesting and friendly people, but has only a handful of rooms. As I subsequently discovered, Victorville, just a few more miles along the road, is a better overnight prospect on most counts.