The burly railroad and transportation center of Barstow (pop. 23,835) is located in the middle of the Mojave Desert, at the point where I-40 disappears into I-15, approximately midway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Trucks and trains are the main business in town—even the McDonald’s pays homage to trains, with its dining rooms housed in old passenger cars from a train. Barstow is scruffy and a little scary in the way railroad towns can be. Along Main Street, the old Route 66 corridor, many of the old cafés and motels are now closed and boarded up, but there’s an unexplained copy of the Amboy “Roy’s” sign, and just north of old Route 66, the 1911 Barstow Harvey House hotel next to the train station is a survivor from an earlier age. Looking like the Doge’s Palace in Venice (if the Doge’s Palace faced the wide-open desert instead of an intricate network of canals), the Gothic-style arcades are a substantial reminder of a time when travel meant more than just getting somewhere. The long-abandoned building has been brought back to use as the railroad and Route 66 Mother Road Museum (760/255-1890, Fri.-Sun. 10am-4pm, free).
Between Barstow and Victorville, old Route 66 survives as an old-roads trek across the Mojave Desert. The 32-mile route, called the National Old Trails Highway, parallels the railroad tracks and the usually parched Mojave River, passing through odd little towns like Oro Grande, which is still home to a huge cement plant and an array of roadside junk shops. The cement plant, processing local limestone, follows on from the optimistic prospectors who gave the town its “Big Gold” name back in the 1850s. The cemetery here is one of the oldest in southern California. Oro Grande is also home to some long-abandoned roadside businesses, relics of Route 66. One relic lives on: A 1930s tractor dealership now houses the popular Iron Hog Saloon (20848 National Trails Hwy., 760/843-0609), which serves cold beers and big steaks.
The Oro Grande boasts an impressive silver steel bridge over the bed of the Mojave River and is getting famous for another more colorful sight: the hard-to-miss Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch (24266 Route 66), where thousands of green, blue, brown, and clear glass bottles have been dangled from a forest of mostly metal “trees” by a white-bearded local retiree named Elmer Long. There’s no admission charge for the Bottle Tree Ranch, which Elmer has dedicated to “those who have lived and died on the Mother Road.” Elmer is not shy (he has his own Facebook page!), so stop and say “hi.”