If you want a quick and convincing taste of what traveling across the Mojave Desert was like in the days before air-conditioning and cellular phones, turn south off I-40 at Ludlow, 50 miles east of Barstow, and follow the well-signed National Old Trails Highway, one of the many monikers Route 66 has carried over the years, on a 75-mile loop along the old road. At Ludlow, where two gas stations, a coffee shop, and a motel represent civilization between Barstow and Needles, the old road wends slightly southeast, passing first through Bagdad, a turn-of-the-20th-century gold mining town that’s now defunct. Continuing east, old Route 66 cuts across another lava flow, this one part of the Amboy Crater, beyond which another road heads south to Twentynine Palms and Joshua Tree National Monument.
Midway along the old road loop, Amboy (pop. 2) is synonymous with Roy’s Motel and Cafe (760/733-4263), a museum-worthy assembly of roadside architecture that has survived solely due to the willpower of its longtime lord and master, Buster Burris, who ran the place from 1938 (when he married the daughter of owner Roy Crowl) until 2000, when Buster died at the age of 92. In the late 1940s, Roy’s was the prime stop between Needles and Barstow, and as many as 90 people staffed the café, the motel, and the car repair shop, working around the clock to cater to the thousands of passing cars. Roy’s fell on hard times after the opening of I-40 in 1974, but the whole town—complete with a huge “Roy’s” sign, a classic late-1940s roadside café, a set of simple (but air-conditioned) motor court cabins, and a pair of gas pumps—hung on, and is now a photogenic reminder of the heyday of Route 66.
From Amboy, it’s another 48 miles back to I-40 at the town of Fenner. If you’re keen on traveling as much of the old road as possible, another stretch of Route 66 runs east from Fenner on a roller coaster of undulating two-lane blacktop, parallel to the railroad track through the desert hamlet of Goffs, near the spot where comedian Sam Kinison was killed in a car wreck. Fifteen miles east of Goffs, old Route 66 joins up with US-95, which continues north to Las Vegas, 90-odd miles away, and south to I-40, linking up with the freeway 10 miles west of Needles.