The town of Barstow is often hailed as the official west coast gateway for those traveling east along Route 66. Unfortunately we were now heading west as we looped back toward Joshua Tree so for us only a small section of the famous road was left available. We made the most of it and she proved to be every bit as quirky and enchanting as expected; probably more-so since we had no idea really what to expect.
Route 66 signs began to appear frequently on Main Street Barstow; on power poles, flags, buildings, and most obviously on the road beneath our wheels. Big numbers in white surrounded by the outline of an interstate shield; the routes badge of honor.
This section of the route still appears to be a regularly used secondary road and a pleasant artery between Barstow and the next town over, Victorville. There is of course Highway 15 but road trips, in my opinion, should avoid these; especially when an alternative like the “Mother Road” is available.
I remember a book I read many years ago by William Least Heat-Moon called “Blue Highways”. It is the story of his journey around the continental United States in a van traveling solely on roads identified by his map in blue. Major highways and thoroughfares are in red.
Traveling these roads, and these roads alone, he greatly enhanced his Americana experience. He found himself in situations he could not have expected; some soul warming, others gut wrenching.
It was a tale describing in unfiltered honesty and impartiality, a cross-section distinctly American. From the awesome natural beauty of Crater Lake Oregon, to the expected peace and serenity a town named Utopia Ohio provokes, to the exposed underbelly of racial hatred and intolerance in parts of the deep south. It was a journey that chronicled life in America in the early 80’s; raw and extreme, bringing forth feelings of both pride and shame.
We exited Barstow on-board Route 66 and immediately the uneven and cracked surface began retelling its history. On the left lay ruins; two white columns, paint cracked and peeling, stand guard in front of a broken weather-beaten building on a concrete slab are all that remain of a gas station once serving the needs of thousands; in 1960 providing a full tank for 31 cents a gallon.
Further down and on the right we were struck by a glistening spectacle of multi-colored glass. Acres of steel trees with welded branches sat side by side. Atop each branch was a bottle of a different shade and color. Interspersed among the trees were collectibles of every kind; from coke caps to rifles to jeeps and road signs. The u-turn we had been forced to make to return to this quintessential Route 66 landmark was well worth it.
As we stepped through the gate we also took a step back in time.
An orchard of steel trees spread out before us; among them, and working as he always had, was the retired dreamer. With long grey beard and broad smile Elmer approached and greeted us as I imagine he did to all who stopped and visited; like long-lost friends who had found their way home.
Elmer is 72 years old and after retiring from the local concrete factory where he had worked all his life he decided to indulge his hobby and take it one step further. As a boy, he and his father had collected anything they took a fancy to, especially glass bottles. Upon retirement he had thousands of them.
On the property, where he had always lived, trees were scarce. It was the desert. He began building trees out of steel and planting them in the ground like you would a real one. He started to display his bottle collection on the tips of each branch.
Elmer’s Bottle Tree ranch was born; fifteen years later he is still at it.
Elmer has no intention of selling anything and seems very proud of that fact. Meeting him was an honor, really. He surprised me on many fronts. His trusting happy nature brought an infectious joy to the place, learning of his life brought intrigue, and shedding my own pre-conceived notions of a grizzled long bearded man brought surprise and admiration.
Elmer had retired in his mid-fifties and set about making his life what-ever he wanted. He had no need for money because he told me he had enough. My first though was that he had a box under the mattress and had saved well. I was wrong. I felt schooled.
He began to explain to me the stock market and how he and his stock broker had invested wisely. Elmer was naturally articulate and it seemed we could talk about anything. He came across as a man with a worldly outlook. A man at peace. A happy individual.
He was all set now to do as he pleased. He built bottle trees 🙂