We usually think of "archeology" to be about mummies, King Tut, and other ancient stuff. Stuff long buried. Ruins. If it isn't dated BCE, it isn't archeology.
Nonsense. Archeology is about uncovering "the human past using material remains. These remains can be any objects that people created, modified, or used." (Google definition. It's as good as any.)
This "human past" can be a fluid concept, so anything in the "past" is fair game. Now, of course we're not being flippant and saying that if we look at stuff made last week it's "archeology." Some significant amount of time has to have passed, and the subject of study must be of some cultural significance.
Then, there is the other part of my title: "suburban." As in, yes, you guessed it, the vast suburbs that have spread like a rash outwards from major cities. Nowhere is this phenomenon been more obvious than the vast 'Burb of Southern California. The term, if not created by SoCal, certainly typifies the landscape of the counties that make up the area. "Ninteen suburbs in search of a city," as Aldos Huxley (not Dorothy Parker, nor Robert Benchly, nor even HL Menken) aptly put it in 1925.
As happens with the spread of what are essentially bedroom communities, (people sleep in Covina, Arcadia, Bell, or Hawaiian Gardens but commute to work, mostly in Los Angeles), means that what was once there has been swallowed up mostly by housing and small businesses to provide the essentials for those living in the suburbs.
"Suburban Archeology" is therefore a search for evidence of what was there before this insatiable need for housing ate up the citrus groves, vineyards, and ranch lands that had previously eaten up the semi-arid scrubland that was home to people less "blessed" by "civilization."
So, what does any of this have to do with "Road Trippin'?" A lot. Road Trippin' in LA can't be about the open back roads, there aren't any now. However, one can, using Suburban Archeology, find evidence of what was once vast open space. And where better than traveling the Yellow Brick Road that led to LAOZ than Route 66?
The "Mother Road" has a history in three phases:
The first was as an escape route from the Dust Bowl to jobs picking fruit in the vast orchards of California. The citrus of SoCal, the crops of the Central Valley, provided a modicum of relief for those who'd lost everything in the ecological disaster of the mid-1930s. These people eventually, as World War II began to relieve the ills of the Great Depression, took up residence here and either joined the military or got jobs in the various defense plants. This required housing and areas like Burbank, El Segundo, Lakewood, and Hawthorn grew up around the plants.
The second phase was in the post-war boom. In the late 1940s and well into the 50s, an even more vast exodus from the Mid-West began to flood California. Mustered out Marines who'd trained in Camp Pendelton, Sailors who'd set sail from San Diego or Long Beach, Soldiers who'd done their Basic at Camp Roberts or Fort Ord got home, spent maybe one or two winters up to their hips in snow and cow dung and dreamed of the sunny winters of SoCal. That greatest of all SoCal promotions, the Rose Parade, was now broadcast nationwide on television and it didn't take too much convincing to sell the family farm and move west to the land of sun and orange blossom honey. Armed with their back pay, the GI Bill, and maybe the college degree it provided, they headed west. And of course, this is where Route 66 assumes its mantle of America's Main Street.
The third phase was a direct result of the second. Almost a 2b. All those Nebraskans, Iowans, all those refugees from the icy blasts of Minnesota and Chicago could, now solidly middle class, get to take that icon of middle class respectability, the Two Week Vacation. Back "home" to visit the relatives who'd stayed behind.
All this travel activity meant a boom in businesses to support the Great American Road Trip. Gas stations, that new-fangled place to stay the Motel (motor hotel, get it?), and of course, Road Side Attractions and Happy Crappy Tourist Stuff.
Nowhere is the overlay of Suburbia more apparent than the 42 mile stretch of Route 66 (Foothill Boulevard as it is know now) between San Bernardino and Monrovia. A 42 mile slog that will take you TWO HOURS. One way.
I know this route well from my days as a charter bus driver in the 1970s. Almost every summer weekend we'd row across the freeway-less expanse of orange groves and eucalyptus wind breaks taking happy campers to their week-long battle the Nature in the various camps in the San Bernardino Mountains. We'd schlep a convoy of five or six Crown Coach school buses out Foothill, up Euclid, across Highland and up into the mountains.
Claremont was the edge of civilization. Rialto was a crossroads with a single stop sign and a flashing red light hung over the middle of the intersection. Cucamonga wasn't yet a "Rancho" and only known to Jack Benny devotees. A vast sea of orderly groves that did indeed "reek of orange blossoms." That was HL Menken, by the way.
In the fifty years since, it has all disappeared, swallowed by houses so jammed together that you can shake hands with your neighbor from bedroom window to bedroom window.
The other day, in a fit of nostalgia, I fired up the Yellow Submarine and retraced the whole of Foothill from LaVerne to San Berdoo and back, looking for evidence of those long lost halcyon days of Route 66. A bit of Suburban Archeology. My finds were both spectacular and mundane. Some of the great icons are still there, and nestled in-between the miles of big box stores, fast food chains, and acres of housing are the more modest signs of former glory.
I began the road back at the San Bernardino train station. Once a pillar of the Santa Fe Railroad, it has been restored and has most of the ambiance of the heyday of the Super Chief.
From there, it was a short hop to The Quintessential Route 66 Icon, the Wigwam Motel. Yes, it is still there and it's been brought back from derelict to a thriving success, fueled by the mighty power of Nostalgia. I spoke with the General Manager, Samir Patel, who told me business is booming! Especially on weekends, he has a full house from about March to November. This is great news for us fans of Road Trip Kitsche. It is one of the three extant "Sleep in a Teepee" spots, the others being in Holbrook, Arizona and the original, in Kentucky (of all places!). The local one was built by the originator (and patent owner!) Frank Redford in 1947 as part of his chain. The one in Arizona was built as a franchise. Yes, it's hokey and borders on the sterotypical and maybe offensive, but it is a perfect example of the era from which it sprang. When one looks at what were once rows of cookie-cutter motels, the Wigwam stood out. A genius bit of marketing.
People who had to rely on the "Green Book" for travel advice. Advice that would tell them that their "less-than-acceptable skin color" would not bar them from a night's accomidation. It is the dirtiest secret of Road Trips that Blacks, until far too recently, had to plan their trips with great care. Even driving through a "Sundowner City" after dark could mean arrest and, at best, a police escort to the city limits and a stern lecture about their "proper" place in America. The "Green Book" was compiled to show Blacks where they could eat and sleep on the road. One has to wonder which, if any of the small motels were listed and which were "restricted." By the way, "restricted" didn't just apply to Blacks. Minorities of every flavor just weren't welcome. And, yes, Jews fell into that catagory. Sad doesn't half cover it.
One also has to wonder at other back stories to these motels. There are dozens of them along the way. What attracted someone to think that putting up people for the night, then cleaning up after them was a good business model? One in particular, the "New Kansas Motel" has to have some kind of story to it.
The last of the wonders of this stretch of 66 are my personal touchstones. Places that still thrive, despite the vagueries of progress. One, the Virginia Dare Winery was once a derelict ruin, now an office building. Another, what was a river rock gas station in Claremont is now a florist shop. Others, the Sycamore Inn and Magic Lamp Restaurant are still in operation and quite good. Then there's the "Madonna of the Trail" at Foothill and Euclid. I feel that as long as at least these are extant, the Route 66 of my days driving Foothill Boulevard are not lost to the developers' shovels.