Route 66 in the Mojave Desert may look barren, but its past brims with history and stories.
That’s the takeaway from Unoccupied Route 66’s latest film, “The California Promise: Historic Route 66.” The 37-minute documentary, again directed by KC Keefer, explores a 100-mile stretch of ghost towns that dotted Route 66 in Southern California’s harsh desert.
Here’s the trailer for the film:
West Texas A&M marketing professor and Route 66 researcher Nick Gerlich again hosts the film, as he has with Unoccupied Route 66’s “Painted Desert Trading Post,” “Exit Zero Glenrio” and “The Missouri Maze.” Jeff Keefer also returns with his atmospheric guitar music in the soundtrack.
But the star of “The California Promise” is Joe de Kehoe, author of a history book about the region, “The Silence and the Sun,” and a longtime researcher of the Route 66 desert settlements of Essex, Cadiz Summit, Chambless, Amboy, Bagdad, Siberia and Ludlow.
De Kehoe guides us through each town, pointing out where a key business, home or school once was and sprinkling his comments with little-known facts. Rare vintage photos from de Kehoe, Joe Sonderman, Mike Ward and Steve Rider also prove helpful in telling the tales of those towns.
For instance, a number of businesses that once were near the railroad tracks and dirt-road Route 66 moved those buildings when the highway was realigned further south.
Time, vandals and bulldozers eventually took a toll on many of these tiny burgs. For instance, not a trace remains of Bagdad except for a lonely tree and a small graveyard. De Kehoe’s attempts to figure out the purpose of 6-by-6-foot foundations near the railroad tracks have proven fruitless, as memories of those who once lived there have faded or they have died.
It may seem foolhardy for someone to have tried to eke out a living in such an unforgiving environment amid sparse facilities. But Gerlich points out many people were driven to California by the Depression and the Dust Bowl during the 1930s. The Mojave Desert probably seemed like a big step up for many an impoverished Okie.
All of the Unoccupied Route 66 films have proved enjoyable. But because of de Kehoe’s invaluable contributions, this one may be the best of the lot.
“The California Promise” includes a brief postscript about the Bagdad Cafe in Newberry Springs, California. It’s in a more-populated area, but the restaurant takes its name from the 1987 cult-classic film “Bagdad Cafe,” which in turn took its name from a restaurant in the long-abandoned town of Bagdad.
(Screen-capture image from “The California Promise” of Joe de Kehoe at Essex, California)