The wife-and-husband team of Claudia and Alan Heller bring enthusiasm and knowledge to their new book “Life on Route 66: Personal Accounts along the Mother Road to California” (History Press, 158 pages, paperback, e-book available).
But it’s the people who experienced Route 66 during its heyday — and their stories — who make “Life on Route 66” shine.
“Life on Route 66” essentially exists as a collection of columns about Route 66 that Claudia Heller wrote for the Pasadena Star-News and other publications in her native Southern California. The first column described the Route 66 border town of Needles, Calif. That inspired readers to tell their Route 66 stories, which sparked more Route 66-related columns — and later more stories from people who’d experienced the Mother Road.
The book starts at Needles and works its way gradually west. The Hellers’ writing conveys both expertise and a tour-guide tone, as if directing you along the way. The columns contain a mix of Route 66 history and current-day reports. Because these originally were newspaper columns with space constraints, the prose often is lean and brisk. Here’s an example from the Cajon Pass portion:
Step back into time and relive the heyday of Route 66, when you visit the Summit Inn, located at the crest of the pass at the Oak Street exit. Next door to this iconic eatery is a vintage building, once a Texaco station. The inn is typical of Mother Road eateries and features lumpy seats, coin-operated fortunetelling machines, a gift shop and menu items such as ostrich omelets and buffalo steaks.
Hilda Fish was the anchor waitress for thirty-eight years. Her beehive hairstyle and friendly personality welcomed such patrons as Elvis Presley, Pierce Brosnan and Pearl Bailey. Fish retired in 2002 and is now deceased.
Leaving the pass, slow down and reflect a moment on the fate of one of Hollywood’s favorite entertainers, Sammy Davis Jr. In 1952, returning to Los Angeles from a gig in Las Vegas, he was involved in a car accident at a fork on Route 66 at Cajon Boulevard and Kendall Drive. The crash, which nearly left him dead, resulted in the loss of his left eye. He wore a patch for a while and then a glass eye. He continued entertaining until his death in 1990.
But it’s the stories from readers that make “Life on Route 66” even more fascinating:
- Noah Jameson, a 6-year-old who traveled Route 66 in 1940 from Joplin, Mo., to Ontario, Calif., on a Greyhound bus, feared losing his hair when the bus rolled into “Indian territory.”
- Alan J. Staller, a Midwesterner who was forced to hitchhike twice to California on Route 66 in the late 1930s. He was turned away the first time by a border deputy.
- Manny Avila, who was so inspired by a performance of “Route 66” at a Nat King Cole show in New York City in 1946, he and a buddy bought a convertible and took that California trip.
- Lonell and Marguerite Spencer, who spent their 1951 honeymoon at the Wigwam Motel in Rialto, Calif. The cost was $5 a night, and she still owns the receipt.
- Dan Hyke, who cycled from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic in 1982, with much of his path on Route 66. He suffered only one flat tire during his entire 3,500-mile journey.
- Excerpts from a cross-country journal written by Carrie McMahon Humphrey’s grandmother. The trek went from Pennsylvania to the California coast in 1922 — four years before Route 66 existed.
The final part of the book is essentially a travelogue, with the now-retired Hellers taking a weeks-long trip to Chicago in a recreational vehicle. Compared to the rest of the book, the descriptions of what was seen in Route 66’s other seven states seem all too brief.
The final chapter could have used more editing, too. Cadillac Ranch is incorrectly placed in Adrian, Texas, instead of 40 miles further east in Amarillo. The 100th Meridian Museum and Roger Miller Museum are in Erick, Okla., not the nearby ghost town of Hext, as the Hellers describe. And the Route 66 towns of Sapulpa, Okla., and Allenton, Mo., are listed incorrectly as “Salupa” and “Allentown.”
Still, the book has value as a pseudo-guidebook to Route 66 attractions in Southern California. And novice travelers would do well to follow the Hellers’ advice in the introduction: