I roll into Seligman feeling good. I plowed through snowfall in Williams and breezed downhill into another quirky Route 66 town 40 miles closer to the ocean. Something’s different here and I can’t put my finger on it. Then Reinhard tells me that chain motels and restaurants are not welcome here.
Reinhard owns Canyon Lodge where each cinder block room has a theme. I got Elvis. He explains that Seligman is franchise-free thanks to the efforts of an activist who is also the oldest active barber in the country.
Angel Delgadillo is known as the guardian angel of Route 66. He and other business owners banded together after the interstate bypassed Seligman in 1978. Angel led the charge to put this little town back on the tourist map, starting with way-finding signage for what became the road less traveled as soon as the interstate opened.
“People come from Siberia to Seligman, and when they check in the first thing they ask is, ‘Where is Angel the barber?’” Reinhard says in accented English.
Reinhard is German. He came as a tourist in the 80s and never left. He lived for a few years in the Pacific Northwest with a home on the ocean, but decided it was too rainy and moved to California. On a road trip he stayed at this motel, woke up and saw the place was for sale, and bought it.
“Millions of tourists pass through here every year going to the Grand Canyon and seeing Route 66,” he says. Plus, consider the quality of life. There’s no crime and one German restaurant, he boasts. Seligman is actually named after a fellow German who was a railroad financier.
More recently it was inspiration for the fictitious town Radiator Springs in the animated movie Cars, although other towns along Route 66 also stake claim to fame in the Pixar movie (see: Adrian, Texas).
Vintage vehicles rust outside local businesses. The commercial strip looks like a 1950s time warp without gaudy signs for Motel 6, McDonald’s and Family Dollar hosted into the sky (update: Seligman is getting a Family Dollar… sigh). Home-grown alternatives include the Roadkill Cafe, which would have been my first stop had the stern German not made a stink about how bad it was.
Souvenir shops ply Route 66 merchandise, made in China, of course. The irony is that many Chinese come all the way to this authentic town and buy trinkets mass produced in Guangzhou. Nevertheless, the Rusty Bolt, Route 66 Motoporium, and Historic Seligman Sundries are painted with passion and run by Route 66 die-hards who reminisce about the glory days and dream of a revival.
I’m not in the mood to buy anything. An icy wind tears down the empty street. I feel uneasy, like I shouldn’t be here. The next morning I’m ready to leave… until I open the curtains. Everything is covered in snow, again. It’s not deep, but the landscape is frozen in place. The roads aren’t clear.
I should have come in the summer. It’s common for 30 tour buses a day to stop here so Chinese and European tourists can get their kicks on Route 66.
That’s what Billy tells me. He’s a merchandise salesman who pulls double duty as the cook in the winter.
“I love to mix things up in the kitchen,” he says while taking my lunch order.
I’m stranded for another snow day, but there’s no brewery this time around. The best I can do is hang out at this gift emporium cafe with Billy, a self-described “redneck with a creativity problem.”
A hard worker in all seasons, Billy, for the first time in four years, is getting a vacation next month.
“Going somewhere warm?” I ask. “Mexico’s not far. I could almost bike there, haha.”
“Nah, I’m going home, shuttin the door and sit in my recliner. And if I get bored I’ll go to the shooting range across the street and shoot some stuff up,” he says and then rattles off gun names and part numbers until I can’t take it anymore.
“Dude, I’m from New York City, we don’t have guns. I have NO idea what you’re talking about.”
“Liberal pu**ies,” he laughs and starts yapping about this waterproof rifle he made.
“I also keep a .22 under my pillow and got a .25 automatic stashed in my boot. I’m loaded. I’m ready for the apocalypse,” he proclaims.
Then he bends down to his boot. My eyes widen with fear, ready to get a gun pushed in my face. Instead, he brandishes a switch blade and Leatherman multi-tool with flashlight.
“I’m loaded!” he cries. “If those terrorists come here, I’m shooting back. This ain’t fu**ing France,” he says, referencing the Bataclan theatre massacre in Paris a few weeks prior.
Billy ran away with the circus in 7th grade and stayed for 16 years before falling out in Phoenix. At a keg party he met a fellow motorbiker who persuaded him to be his roommate and ended up “adopting” him. The other man is apparently older because Billy keeps referring to him as “daddy.”
Mutual passion for building motorcycles and shooting guns brought the men together. They looked at a map of Arizona, closed their eyes, and a finger landed on Seligman. I would have tried again, peeking just enough to land on Flagstaff, Phoenix or even Williams.
Despite his rants about violence, Billy has kind eyes and a young face that narrows into a long goatee. A ponytail flows from the back of his baseball hat. I’m putting together the pieces of his personal history and filling in gaps with my imagination. I think Billy could be coupled as a gay redneck with gun-toting machismo to overcompensate.
Before curiosity gets the best of me, I shut up and stop asking questions. I’m hoping to eat in peace, but Billy’s got one more thing. He wants to show me rattlesnake eggs.
“You’n ever seen’em?” he asks with a crooked smile.
I haven’t seen the eggs or the parents and would like to keep it that way, I say, but Billy comes over with a small yellow envelope. As I peer inside, the envelope flutters to life. I jump two feet back, propelled by profanity.
I just fell for a 99-cent prank.
Billy howls with delight and runs around the store careening into merchandise, his arms high in the air like scoring the winning goal at the World Cup. Arizona Rednecks 1, Liberal City Suckers 0.
The sun is setting and the store is closing in an hour, maybe sooner because nobody’s here except me and I’m leaving now. The heat’s been shut off and my toes are cold, so I take the rest of the food back to my Elvis motel room. I dial up the thermostat, get under the covers, open my laptop and begin to write about my snow day in Seligman, population 456.