SELIGMAN — Angel Delgadillo can still visualize the glory days of his youth, when he’d use the headlights of cars traveling along Route 66 to make shadow puppets on the modest storefronts of his small Arizona town.
He also remembers the darker days — just after a leg of nearby Interstate 40 opened to the public — when the headlights moved off to the horizon.
“The town of Seligman died at 2:30 p.m. on Sept. 22, 1978,” he recalls. “We were the first small community in Arizona to get bypassed by I-40, and it took us years to figure out why the traveling public quit on us.”
Route 66’s storied life, slow death and ceremonious revival are the three events etched deepest into the timeline of this 90-year-old barber. To appreciate his story, you need first to understand the road that forever changed it.
Route 66 was a legendary 20th century highway that crossed eight states from Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif., rising to prominence during the Great Depression as the so-called Mother Road that ushered Dust Bowl refugees westward to California. From the 1950s to ‘70s, it gained a new life as the ultimate path across America for road-tripping families who visited its themed motels, neon-lit diners and audacious roadside attractions. The end was nigh by the mid-‘80s, however, when Route 66 had been replaced almost in its entirety by five soul-crushing interstates.
That’s where the story of this road probably would have ended if it weren’t for an idealistic Arizona barber who noticed folks trickling back into Seligman a decade after they’d first abandoned the town.
“They were searching for their tire marks, their history and the America of yesteryear,” the nonagenarian recalls as we sit in his cluttered barbershop. “They wanted to find the highway of their childhood.”
All this nostalgia got Delgadillo thinking: What if he could persuade the state of Arizona to designate the still-surviving segment of Route 66 through Seligman as a historic byway? He called a meeting Feb. 18, 1987, and formed what was to become the country’s first historic Route 66 association.
Nine months later, the state government agreed to create new Route 66 signs and put them up between Seligman and Topock, 140 miles away. Three years later, Delgadillo had inspired the seven other states along Route 66 to follow his lead. The highway at the heart of our American identity was officially reborn.
I wanted to see what it was about this initial stretch of Route 66 though Arizona that inspired a movement across the nation, so after talking with Delgadillo, I set off to explore first Seligman, then the rest of what is now the longest uninterrupted leg of the historic highway.
If you’ve seen the 2006 Pixar film “Cars,” you already know Seligman by its fictional name: Radiator Springs. Director John Lasseter came out to this itty-bitty town to interview Delgadillo, drawing inspiration for the movie from the stories he heard.
You can see glimpses of Radiator Springs in real-life places such as the Snow Cap Drive-In, a classic greasy spoon built out of scrap lumber from a nearby rail yard by Delgadillo’s brother Juan in 1953. Its walls are now covered in mementos (business cards, money, IDs) left by travelers from as far away as Japan and Brazil.
Down the road is the Supai Motel, whose soaring neon sign recalls the heyday of this route for road-trippers. A succession of kitschy gift shops leads to the edge of town, as I enter into the dusty wilds of the high-desert Hualapai Valley. I pass Grand Canyon Caverns — one of the largest dry caverns in the U.S. and site of the first meeting that spurred Delgadillo’s Route 66 society — en route to the Hualapai Indian Reservation.
At the striking Hualapai Cultural Center in Peach Springs, I meet Marcie Craynon, who tells me about the center’s work to preserve the cultural legacy of the Hualapai with pottery workshops, ethnobotany programs and classes teaching the Yuman language.
“These traditions are all dying out along the Colorado River, and our purpose is to help preserve them,” she explains.
The road west to Valentine is lined with Indian craft vendors selling turquoise jewelry, intricate sand paintings and earth-toned ceramics. It’s a reminder of just how exotic this route was for 20th century travelers coming from east of the Mississippi.
At tiny Hackberry, I find the iconic Hackberry General Store, whose patio is littered with decades-old gas pumps and vending machines. I then race trains chugging along the Santa Fe railway over to the regional hub of Kingman. It’s the largest town on this historic stretch and has an illuminating Route 66 museum in the old powerhouse.
From Kingman, it’s a winding roller coaster of a road up to a 1920s-era service station in Cool Springs, whose stone-built core now acts as a gift shop with soaring views over the Black Mountains. The hairpin turns continue through this rugged, scrub-filled landscape all the way to Oatman, a hilltop town that boomed in a gold rush and went bust after the interstate made Route 66 obsolete.
Oatman has bounced back from ghost town status in recent years and now milks its Wild West heritage with staged gunfights twice daily. Its most famous residents are the wild burros (released by early prospectors) who roam freely between shops named in their honor, such as Classy Ass Gifts and Jackass Junction.
Bighorn sheep amble past fields of cholla cactuses on the coral-colored hills that lead down from Oatman to Topock. The final town on this historic leg, it sits along the golden shores of the Colorado River at the California border.
It was here back in 1987 that Angel Delgadillo ended a three-day car parade along this very same route, announcing to the world that the Mother Road was dead no more. Media at the event dubbed him the “Guardian Angel of Route 66,” and 30 years later, you’d never know that this nostalgia-filled stretch of storied highway was ever abandoned to the sands of time.