Route 66 & The Birth of Taco Bell

Continuing on Route 66 after leaving the Bottle Tree Ranch, it wasn't long before we started hitting the seemingly never-ending sprawl of the Los Angeles area. We were close to the end of our trip now, but there would be a lot of traffic and congestion and hordes of people to navigate through before walking on the sands of Santa Monica Beach and wading in the Pacific Ocean. There was one more stop I wanted to make before Santa Monica though - a little restaurant in San Bernardino named The Mitla Café.

In 1940, two brothers, Mac and Dick McDonald, opened a small eatery called McDonalds Bar-B-Que in San Bernardino. In addition to bar-b-que, they sold hamburgers. Eight years later, they were selling more hamburgers than plates of bar-b-que so they decided to revamp their restaurant and feature hamburgers as the main menu item. Since they would no longer be serving bar-b-que, they renamed their business to simply McDonalds. In 1954, milk shake mixer salesman Ray Croc came calling and was mightily impressed with the efficiency of the system the McDonalds brothers had designed.  He bought the business a year later, began franchising it, and the McDonalds chain of fast food restaurants was born.

The Mitla Cafe - 602 N. Mt. Vernon Ave., San Bernardino, CA.
Glen Bell, Jr. was born in 1923 and honorably served as a Marine in World War II. After being discharged in 1946, he settled in San Bernardino and in 1948 opened a hot dog stand he named Bell's Drive-In. In 1950, he sold his hot dog stand and opened another stand selling hot dogs and hamburgers - Bell's Hot Dogs and Hamburgers. His new place of business was in the West Side barrio of San Bernardino directly across the street from The Mitla Cafe, a Mexican restaurant in business since 1937. 

The main item the Mitla Cafe was and is still famous for are their hard-shell taco's. Bell fell in love with them. After eating the tacos, he would go back to his place where he tried to figure out how to make them the way they were made at the Mitla Cafe. Try as he might though, the right combination of herbs and spices eluded him. Finally, in desperation, he began asking the owners of Mitla to teach him their secret.

A short time later, Bell began selling tacos through a side window of his business. The tacos proved so popular that between 1954 and 1955, he opened 3 Taco Tias stands. He took on a business partner, sold the 3 Taco Tias stands and opened 4 El Tacos stands in Long Beach.

By 1962, the chain of McDonalds was proving to be very popular and they were opening up all over the place.  With McDonalds' continued growth right there at his back door, Bell decided they were too much competition and sold his hamburger place. He then sold his share of the 4 El Tacos to his partner and focused exclusively on selling tacos with his new place - Taco Bell. He franchised his business in 1964 and eventually sold 868 Taco Bells to PepsiCo in 1978 for $125 million. Today, the company is based in Irvine, California and has almost 7,000 locations which sell more than 2 billion tacos each year.

Home of the "Mother Taco" which launched the birth of
billions of tacos!
It was the Mitla Cafe I wanted to see, the place whose tacos launched billions of tacos; the Mother Taco so to speak. Of those billions, Youngest-daughter and I have had our fair share. At least one Friday night each month, our family has the same conversation - "What do you want to eat tonight?" "Oh, I don't really care." "It's been a long week. I don't feel like cooking." "OK, how about we order pizza?" "Nah, not tonight. How about Sonic?" "Nah, I don't think so. How about Taco Bell?" "Yeah, that sounds good. It's your turn to go get it." "No it's not; I went last time!" If it hadn't been for the Mitla Cafe introducing Glen Bell to tacos, that same conversation might not take place in thousands of households all over America every week.

Unfortunately, our timing was not good and we arrived a little before the Mitla Cafe opened. The area is not exactly the safest of places - bars on windows and doors of every business in the neighborhood is usually a pretty fair indication. The Mitla Cafe had its own bars and heavy linked chains across the front door and side entrance securing the premises from evil-doers.  I didn't feel nervous or particularly unsafe while walking around, but didn't feel real comfortable hanging around for very long waiting for the Cafe to open. It was most likely an over-abundance of caution, but we soon left the neighborhood and headed toward the end of the road at the Santa Monica Pier. We didn't get to eat a Mitla taco or two, but I'm sure we'll be stopping at least once at a Taco Bell on our journey back home. It'll have to do.

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Route 66 - Atomic Highway and Elmer Long's Bottles

It only took a couple of minutes to put the dying town of Essex behind us, but unfortunately, it took a while to leave behind the anger at our run in with that unpleasant old codger. Fortunately, there's 141 miles between him and our next stop, Elmer Long's Bottle Tree Ranch in Oro Grande, so I had plenty of time to find my calm place and remember to enjoy the journey.

In between where we were to where we were going is the sparsely populated Mojave Desert and the Bristol Mountains. In the late 1950's, some government genius in Washington, D.C.  came up with a grand plan to use up old surplus atomic bombs to help build roads. The cold war was in full swing and America was building newer, improved, bigger atomic bombs. Nobody knew what to do with the old-style bombs or how to safely dispose of them until the government came up with several projects under the umbrella of a plan called "Operation Plowshare." One of these projects was a plan to widen the Panama Canal in one fell swoop with several bombs. Another project was planned to add another harbor in Alaska by setting off however many bombs it took to create one. Project Gnome was a project to create energy by bombing underground aquifers. Projects Rulison and Gasbuggy were planned as an attempt to free natural gas with nuclear explosions.

During this time, a new, easier alignment was in the planning stages for Route 66. In comes a government physicist and it was decided these atomic bombs would be a great way to blow up mountains to speed up road construction. It seems nobody thought about the old-style "dirty" bombs releasing so much radiation that any place where they were detonated would be uninhabitable for 50 years or more. It also appears that nobody thought about the people who lived in these parts.  Meetings were held, plans were made and finally, a proposal was submitted which called for 22 atomic bombs to be placed along a 2-mile stretch through the mountains. The dust cloud was expected to rise a minimum of 12,000 feet and have a diameter of 7 miles. It would shorten the intended route by 15 miles. Amazingly, the proposal went forward with the federal government and California Transportation giving approval. Almost at the last-minute, a number of the local citizens began protesting what was being called "The Atomic Highway." This slowed down the schedule until in 1963, Russia unexpectedly signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the project was cancelled.

Elmer Long's Bottle Tree Ranch
Several hours after leaving Essex, having safely negotiated the desert and mountains to arrive at 24266 National Trails Highway, we were not greeted by a big neon sign or any sort of roadside alert to let us know we had arrived at the Elmer Long's Bottle Tree Ranch. In fact, if we had not been ready and expecting it, we might have been looking on the wrong side of the road and totally missed it. However, when you do see it, you know immediately you have arrived at some place different, a special place built and assembled by some special person.

We pulled off the road to park on the narrow dirt strip in front of the "ranch." Bottles and, well, a lot of odd, old stuff is everywhere. But not like a normal junk yard, oh no, this is an interesting, weirdly artful junk yard - bottle trees everywhere you look; typewriters, cash registers, wrist watches, galvanized tubs all arranged with various colored bottles to form what I guess would be called modern art or perhaps interpretive art would be a better name for it. Not hundreds of bottles, thousands and thousands of bottles. It's weird and it's interesting and we had a great time just wondering around the place.

Elmer Long is the artist behind the Bottle Ranch. He used to go with his dad out into the desert and collect the objects they found, including many, many bottles. After his father passed away, Elmer was left with all of these bottles and other objects with no idea what to do with them. He finally decided to craft a bottle tree and in the year 2000 when he was finished, he liked the way the light shown through the bottles and the melody the wind created as it flowed over them so much that he decided to make another one. He hasn't stopped yet and now there are more than 200 "trees."

Unfortunately, when we were there, Mr. Long was not, but the gate leading into the property was open with a "welcome" sign just inside. We thoroughly enjoyed walking around looking at the colors created by the setting sun and the bottles and spent a long time looking at, thinking about, and to be honest, trying to figure out what, if anything, the artist was saying with some of his creations. I'm thinking some of them were assembled just because he had a pile of crap he wanted to use and it actually has no meaning at all. I could be wrong, of course. I wish he had been there so I could have asked him. But whatever, Mr. Long. Just please don't stop creating your art. It's a joy to many and any Route 66 traveler who doesn't make it a point to stop is missing a treasure.

Cash register art?
Bottles and "art stuff" as far as you can see.

Go to the first Route 66 entry here.
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Route 66 - Essex & A Very Unpleasant Encounter

Entering California from Arizona
After leaving the less than exciting London Bridge, we made our way back to I-40 and crossed into California. There's really not much choice here as I-40 basically goes along the earlier Route 66 layout for a number of miles. For anyone thinking they will see palm trees, orange groves and lush landscape as soon as they enter California, nope, but there's nothing here except wide open spaces full of hot nothingness. And it goes on for mile after mile after mile. I can't imagine travelers in the Dust Bowl years traveling through this desolate section of road in 120 degree temperatures in a 1929 Ford prone to overheating. Heck, I got nervous when my cell phone shows no bars!

After navigating 54 miles of Mohave Desert on the interstate, we got back on the pre-1931 alignment of Route 66 (also named "National Old Trails Highway" in this section) by jogging over to the town of Essex. If you've been following along from the beginning of this trip, you may remember the scary incident we had in Gallup, NM, but it was in Essex where we had the worst, most depressing encounter with another human being. It actually was the only really negative incident of the whole 2 week, 3,500 miles of our journey, but it was a doozy.

Route 66 coming into the town of Essex
Essex was founded, so the story goes, when a  motorist had a flat tire in 1915 and discovered there were no services for miles around. During the heyday of Route 66, the town served the needs of travelers with a service station, café, store, towing service, post office, and, thanks to the Automobile Club of Southern California, free water from a well located alongside the road through town. For a while, there was even a public school which served the educational needs of children living in the town and surrounding area. When I-40 was opened and bypassed Essex by a few miles though, the town began its slide toward ghosthood.

One thing Essex did not have, at least until 1977, was television. In that year, all 50 residents in the town went to the Johnny Carson show to be featured as the only town in America without television service. Afterward, equipment was donated and Essex was brought into the modern era.

Essex Post Office - showing the dirt road between it and
the abandoned store/cafe next door
Upon our arrival, we noted the complete absence of any other cars on the road. The whole place was eerily quiet and deserted. We saw the old post office so we parked in front of it in the small dirt and gravel parking lot. I walked up to the front door, but it was locked and obvious that nobody was there. I took a couple of pictures and walked next door to the abandoned store/café for a couple more pictures and that's when I spied a man walking toward us.

He was dressed in typical old service station mechanic's clothes - grease stains, a bit dirty, a bit down at the heels- a man used to working hard for not much of a living. He ambled toward us more than walked. When he got within a few feet of me I said, "Howdy." Without slowing down one amble, he looked at me with absolutely no change of expression so I said, "How you doing today?" By now he was almost past me, but he did glance back and gave an almost imperceptible nod of his head. Certainly not friendly, but not crazy unfriendly either. He walked on to the Post Office, opened up one of the external mail boxes, removed a small package and started walking back to, I suppose, the garage where he worked at the other end of town about 150 yards from where we were. He didn't bother to look our way as he ambled back from whence he came.

Route 66 painted on the road in Essex
After taking a picture of the Route 66 shield painted in the road, we walked back to the post office and then down a dirt road beside it toward the back. There were a bunch of old cabins and what looked like falling down storage buildings spread around back there. I stopped about 50 feet from the nearest buildings and took 1 picture while still standing in the dirt road. Since some of the buildings appeared to have stuff in the them and I wasn't completely sure they really were completely abandoned, I decided to just turn around and leave. As I turned, a beat up old pickup came driving up toward me. I waited a second for it to stop as I thought I could have a nice conversation with the driver about the town, its history, and maybe get an interesting story to write about. Boy, was I ever wrong about the nice conversation.

Closer shot of the post office

The driver appeared to be ancient, but I couldn't really tell if the fella was 90 years old or 60  and the desert had done a serious number on him through years of living harshly. Even though I was several feet from his open window, it was readily apparent to my eyes and my nose that it had been a while since water and a bar of soap had gotten anywhere near him.  "How you doing, sir?" I asked. And this is what ensued:

Old Codger: (In an angry, very unfriendly tone) - "What are you doing?"

Me: "Just taking a couple of pictures and taking a break from the road."

Old Codger: "You're from the city aren't you? G*d*mn city people! You have no respect for other people's property! You just walk on in and take whatever you want, don't you?!"

Me: "Sir, I really don't know what you are talking about. I just got here, I haven't taken anything and I wouldn't do that."

Old Codger: "G*d*mn city people! You're all alike! I deal with this all the time! You g*d*mn people just walk right in my trailer and steal my things! You're all criminals and trespassers with no respect for other people's stuff!"

Me: "I haven't taken anything at all, sir; I haven't been in any building or trailer. I'm standing in the middle of a road and I haven't seen a 'No Trespassing' sign or anything that indicates I shouldn't be on this road, but we'll just go back to our truck and leave. Sorry to bother you."

Old Codger: "Sorry?! You should be sorry you g*dd*mn city son-of-a-b*tch!

By now, his unwarranted cussing and confrontational attitude had me at my snapping point and any semblance of compassion or respect for another person was next to gone. However, I need to set an example so I forced myself to turn and walk away, back toward the front of the post office and my truck. As I was walking, twice he shouted, "You're a g*dd*mn city son-of-a-b*tch! You've got no respect!"

Me: "You have a nice day" and I waved my hand, surprisingly even to me, without the middle finger pointing up.

Old Codger: "You're g*dd*mn right I'll have a nice day you g*dd*mn son-of-a-b*tch!"

Buildings behind the post office. This is the one picture
I managed to take before the unfortunate encounter.
At this point, it was all I could do to keep on walking away. I did slow down and turn my head back to glare at him. Our eyes met and I guess he figured he had pushed it far enough or was satisfied he had made his point because he abruptly sped off. I'm glad he did because I was mad enough then to be shaking.

We got in the truck and left that little piece of nothing town. For a while, I remained mad. I tried to work up some sympathy and understanding for that old dude, but it wouldn't come. No matter how old you are, whatever your background, however many boulders life has thrown in your path, there's no cause to treat another person who has done you no wrong in such a manner.

After getting over being mad, I was depressed for several hours before I could eventually get myself out of that funk. I kept thinking, "Unlike him, I've got all my teeth. My clothes are clean. I'm driving a new truck with air conditioning and I'll be sleeping in a clean air-conditioned room with fresh sheets tonight." I'm pretty sure none of that actually matters to him. I can only assume, for whatever reason, he himself has chosen to live in a filthy old trailer surrounded by junk. He certainly is not a happy person though.

My advice? Skip Essex. There's nothing there really. It's obvious the handful of people who live there want nothing to do with visitors. Unlike all the other citizens of Route 66 who are happy, friendly, glad to sit a spell and enjoy a conversation and are appreciative of having people stop by their towns and place of business, the two Essex folks we ran into apparently just want to be left alone. So I say give them what they want and let that town continue it's slide into absolute nothingness with none left to mourn its passing. As far as I'm concerned, good riddance. Of course, that's just my opinion and I could still be a little resentful. 

At this point, we had a decision to make - continue on down the old Route 66 alignment through the desert which would take us through Amboy, Bagdad, and a couple of other old towns and sites, or get back on I-40 for a while. We had been on the road for going on two weeks and Youngest-daughter had been missing Momma-woman for a while now. She was being a good trooper and definitely wanted to finish the trip at its end in Santa Monica, but she was ready for it to be over. My injured foot which had been re-injured back in St. Louis was still bothering me a lot and an old slipped-disc problem in my back had painfully flared up. We decided to miss a few sites on the old Route 66 alignment and take the interstate for a couple of hours to save a day. One place we didn't want to miss though was Elmer Long's Bottle Tree Ranch so it was back on I-40 for 140 miles to Oro Grande and our next really interesting site.

Go to the first Route 66 entry here.
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London Bridge - Route 66 Side Trip

Before leaving Arizona, there was one more place we wanted to see - London Bridge in Lake Havasu City. It's not on Route 66, but only 54 miles from where we were in Oatman. I'm pretty sure we'll never get back that way again and since Momma-woman's momma is from England just outside of London, we had to make the side trip just to say we'd been there.

London Bridge in Lake Havasu City, AZ.
The London Bridge in Lake Havasu City is the 1831 London Bridge which spanned the Thames River. By 1967, the granite bridge was worn and no longer able to safely support the amount of traffic going across it. The city put it up for sale. About this same time over in America, the Federal Government gave some land and an abandoned military airstrip to the state of Arizona. Located smack dab in the middle of nowhere in a very hot and barren desert, not even the state was really interested in owning it. A lake had been constructed by the Bureau of Reclamation in 1938, but it was not developed and was only used to store water for pumping into 2 aqueducts.

Along came Robert P. McCulloch, owner and chairman of the very successful McCulloch Oil Company, who had an idea. With the promise of developing the area around the lake, the state gave him the property for free.

Crossing London Bridge
Mr. McCulloch financed the building of roads and houses to sell to the public, but Mr. Robert Plumer, McCulloch's real estate agent and lead salesperson for the venture, was finding it almost impossible to get prospective buyers to go out to the property, much less buy a home there. He heard about the London Bridge being up for sale and, hoping to entice more prospects, he asked McCulloch to buy it for the property as a tourist attraction. After second and third thoughts, McCulloch finally agreed and purchased the bridge which had been deconstructed and stored in numbered blocks. Shipping the bridge to the site in Arizona was going to be very expensive, but then Plumer heard of a cargo shipping company who was bringing a newly built ship from England to America. The new ship was sailing empty so Plumer made a deal with the company to pay for all the operating expenses of getting the ship to America if the ship would bring the bridge with it. The blocks of granite were delivered at less than half of what it would have cost without the arrangement.

A new concrete bridge in the shape and size of the original London Bridge was constructed on land along the east shore of Lake Havasu. After completion, the granite blocks from the London Bridge were trimmed and used to clad the new bridge. The whole process took a little more than 3 years to finish. Once it was completed, a canal was dredged under the bridge and filled with water from the lake.

The bridge from the patio of a restaurant
located on one end.
McCullouch financed a big promotional push with the theme "come see the famous London Bridge!" and housing sales began to take off. Against all odds, Lake Havasu City was a success. With the land being given to him for free and with limited costs for the bridge, it wasn't long before Mr. McCullouch had made back his investment and was making a very nice profit.

I'm not sure what we expected before we got there, but I have to say it was a bit of a letdown. I mean, it's just a bridge. There's a couple of signs on the ends indicating it is London Bridge. There are gas stations and shopping centers and eating places and masses of humanity for several miles on both sides. Lake Havasu City doesn't seem to make much of a big deal about it. You drive across or walk across and you can say you've gone over London Bridge.

It was cool to be there; to actually see it; to actually touch it. I guess I'm glad we went. I thought, "Hmmm. Well, here it is and here we are." We sat on a low concrete wall around the outside patio of a restaurant on one end of the bridge and watched as several high-dollar speed boats loudly zoomed through the arches. Then it was just a number of cars driving over the bridge without fanfare. I took a few pictures and we got  back on the road, crossed over London Bridge and headed back to Route 66 before hitting the California border. We didn't even get a t-shirt.

Bye-bye Arizona. We had a blast!

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