Legend of the Motor Palace
A Boy’s Destiny: Chief Yellowhorse Trading Post.
At a hundred and ten miles an hour, the desert was a blur, but it didn’t matter. I was counting the miles as we raced the setting sun. Our mission, to meet a living legend…Chief Yellowhorse.
In my mother’s capable hands the Fastback Charger blazed across the Arizona desert on our annual bonsai run to Texas. The previous year Chief Yellowhorse’s famous signs had spoken to me–from his “…no Scalp-um White Man just Scalp-um Wallet” to his promise of “Live Cave Buffalo”–I was obsessed. As we passed the “Twenty miles to go” sign the sun faded and we had to slow down. Fifteen minutes later we made our destination… but it was too late. The Trading Post and Buffalo Cave were closed. We got out to look around anyway since we wouldn’t be back this way ’til next summer and we needed a break. The desert was quiet, almost spooky, but the sound of passing cars reminded me where I was. Since it was too dark to see anything, we headed back to the Charger, but just as we rounded the corner, a shadow appeared from beside the building. Before I could run or piss my pants a man asked if we were OK. Mom said, “Fine, just stretching our legs before driving on to Gallup.”
The guy seemed cool so I asked if he knew Chief Yellowhorse. He kinda laughed and said,
Yes, I’m Chief Yellowhorse.”
He was clearly the real deal but bein’ raised in California and Texas in the ’60s I knew hippies looked like hippies, and cowboys looked like cowboys. I guess I expected him to look a little more like a wise old hippie. He was wise, but didn’t seem that old and definitely wasn’t a hippie. He took us on a little tour, let me check out the cave and walked us through some dark rooms with wild animals. We never knew what kind of animals but I’m sure rattlesnakes, cougars, bears and gila monsters surrounded us. I wasn’t scared because Chief Yellowhorse had ’em under a spell and we were his guests.
Route 66: California, Texas, and Grandma’s in Arizona.
To a kid in the late ’60s and early ’70s Route 66 was a song, an old TV show, and the road Okies took to Bakersfield. It was the route to places, not a place. Every year we traveled between California to Texas via Bullhead City, Arizona for a stop at Grandma’s. We saw the dinosaurs, tepees, the Snow-Cap, painted deserts, trains, petrified forests, trucks, a meteor crater, Stucky’s, and the Trading Posts, unaware Route 66 was changing and very different from other roads.
First Memory: Tune in, Turn on, and Drop out.
Jerry was my Dad’s best friend in the ’60s. He worked in a lab for Atlantic Richfield, drove a Triumph TR3, had a nice wife named Nancy, and knew all about sports cars, radios and BB guns. One day, he quit his job, got a girlfriend, bought a Volkswagen, opened a trading post, moved away, and I’m pretty sure smoked some marijuana.
Hippies were a common sight in So Cal back in those days and my mother used to take us to the park once in a while so we could check ’em out. Once on our way to a Love-In my mom told us Jerry might be there. This was cool ’cause my sister and I liked Jerry and we hadn’t seen him since he “split” (that’s hippie talk). Despite long odds we found him sitting in a circle playing music with Ms. Karen and a bunch of other hippies. He put down his bongos and waved us into the group. With long hair, a mustache, a head band, and moccasins, (he looked a lot like Tommy Chong would a few years later), but when he talked he was still Jerry. He told us about his trading post and showed me a cool knife, but the thing that stuck with me through the years was his description of a Motor Palace with exotic cars, an old pick-up, and a bunch of motorcycles with names I’d never heard. “What’s a Motor Palace?” I asked, “Where is it?” Jerry looked east and said,
I could show you but I can’t tell you.”
We moved to Texas about a year later and only saw him again once, but his description of the Motor Palace never left me.
The Message: I heard it on the radio.
A few years later I heard a song…about a thousand times a day “I was standin’ on the corner in Winslow Arizona…” I’d been to Winslow, it must be a sign, by summer of ’72 I felt I knew where the Motor Palace was.
My Teen Years: 1973-1995.
My parents bought me a motorcycle in 1972. In ’74 we moved back to California and we never drove to Texas again. From then on about all I did was ride motorcycles, try to get girls to like me, and figure out ways to avoid hard work. A good way to avoid hard work was to go to college. I spent most of ’81-’91 “studying” in San Luis Obispo, California. I was accepted to Sci-Arc, moved to L.A and met a nice girl in late ’91. In 1993 I moved back to San Luis Obispo, got a job in a motorcycle shop and dropped out of Cal Poly for the last time in ’95. During this period I rarely traveled east of Death Valley or South of Santa Barbara. The riding’s good on the Central Coast and the Motor Palace faded from my memory
Nice Girl: Resurrects ghost from the past.
The Nice Girl is Lori. Shortly after we met she was on a business trip and made a present for me (I told you she was nice). Since I liked riding and driving and she was on the Mother Road, she picked up things such as broken glass, a piece of tire tread, a rock… and attached them to a souvenir Route 66 sign with Scotch tape she borrowed from a hotel clerk. When she gave me the sign, my Route 66 memories came crashing back. It suddenly became clear. Route 66 wasn’t just the dust bowl, Model Ts and ’50s hipsters in Vettes. It was a slice of American history. My American history. It was all the cool places we’d visited those summers when I was a kid. I found some books at the library and looked at the pictures. Almost everything from Amarillo to Victorville was familiar, east of that I didn’t have a clue other than it was a great place to find Okies if you for those tired of Bakersfield.
Mission: Find an Old Route 66 alignment.
One summer Lori and I headed for Phoenix and decided to take old Route 66, eager to see all the diners, cool gas stations, cafés, and trading posts. Our AAA map showed a section between Barstow and Needles. We peeled off the 40 to Ludlow and there it was: Route 66. Cool gas stations, a café, and even a truck stop.
We passed through and quickly settled in to Mom’s “safe bonsai speed” soon zeroing in on Roy’s Cafe in Amboy. It was exactly as I remembered. While enjoying our hamburgers the cook told us they planned on fixing up the motel in hopes of snagging some tourists now that there were signs directing people to Route 66. We thanked him for the burgers, shot a few pictures, and hit the road, happy to see that the Mother Road was alive and well.
Apparition in the desert: An Oddly familiar Stranger.
With a mile-long freight train in sight we resumed speed. After several minutes we passed the lead engine and cheered ourselves in victory. Shadows were long as we approached the Roadrunner’s Retreat outside Chambless. The restaurant was still in business but had closed for the day. The wind suddenly kicked up so we ran to the side of the building for shelter. Coming toward us wide-open throttle was a rider on an old dirt bike being chased by a long plume of dust. The bike slid to a stop and the rider leaned it against a post. He was oddly familiar and asked if we were still open. We told him we didn’t work there. It seemed strange a guy from a town of about six wouldn’t recognize people from the only restaurant around so I asked him where he was from. He said, “Wi… uh… that way,” with a grin and asked if we had any duct tape. A snap was loose on his visor and he wanted to keep it from falling off. As I walked to the car for duct tape I saw his reflection in the window as he laughed and gave Lori a hard time for not riding her motorcycle on “such a beautiful day.” While he was messing with Lori and the visor I checked out his bike. It was an old Husky with a desert tank, big headlight, and a rack with a duffel bag, water jug, and a small fuel can. The side plates worn smooth with remnants of tape that were once numbers. As he swung his leg over the bike he glanced at the number plate, paused, then looked me deep in the eye. With one kick the motor started, and the bike lunged as I asked his destination. He shouted,
…and vanished in his own dust cloud. We stood in awe ’til the howl of the big two-stroke faded from our consciousness.’
Motor Palace: Maybe it never was.
I began to doubt myself. Did the blue-eyed desert racer really say “Motor Palace?” And Jerry. With the bongos, tambourines, and Ms Karen’s singing did I misunderstand him at the Love-in? After all, I’d looked for the elusive Motor Palace every time we crossed Arizona. My parents drove me around Winslow for a look after I heard “the song.” I asked people at diners and gas stations..even some guys on a corner, but their replies were always the same, “Huh?” or “I could show you but I can’t tell you.” As the years went on I’d bring it up occasionally but nobody’d seemed to remember. I even searched the Internet once in a while… never found a thing. Maybe there never was a Motor Palace.
The New Millennium: Ed knows about everything.
Lori got a real job in Orange County so I returned “home” after thirty plus years. We went to lots of motorcycle shows and car shows. Swap meets in Long Beach and Pomona, with regular trips to El Mirage Dry Lake filled our free time. And nearly every weekend we’d run into Ed. He’d visit the shop once or twice a week and was determined to fill me in on all I’d missed since 1968. Ed flew P-51s in WWII and was riding motorcycles in the ’30s. His wife was patient and he never settled down. When she quit riding with him he bought a Sportster and rode it like the Hooligan he was (and still is). One day he was telling me about flying his plane to Charles Lindbergh’s airport and mentioned a bar with a secret entrance to a tunnel leading to a small room with a few motorcycles and old cars. My heart nearly stopped, could it be? I asked him the name of the place and he started making jokes and changed the subject. He looked away when I asked where it was and said,
I could show you but I can’t tell you.”
Ed wasn’t lying: Lindbergh built an Airport.
I was riding to Nashville in ’07 and spent the first night in Winslow Arizona, possible home to the Motor Palace. As I rode through town the old buildings of my imagination came to life, some with fresh paint and nice windows, others faded and crumbling. It was Mayberry meets the Twilight Zone…and it was real.
On my way in I’d passed a cool looking coffee-house and walked down to have a cup. I saw people walking in and there were a couple of cars out front, but when I approached, the place was empty and its door locked. A Ducati Monster sat across the street between two empty buildings—not a soul sight.
I walked around for about an hour and imagined a few of the crumbling buildings in their heyday, but nothing stood out so I headed back to the La Posada for the night. The host at the Turquoise Room was telling me about the area, so I asked him if he’d heard a Motor Palace legend. He told me we were only about a block away. It was restored, had lots of neon and was still in business. This was better than learning Santa was real!
The last 40 years played in my head as I walked down the block. Glow from the neon lit up the intersection. I paused for a second, afraid to take that last step around the corner. After all those years in my imagination would it meet my expectations? I took the step and there it stood, green and orange neon proudly declaring… “Earls Motor Court.” I laughed. Close, nice Court but not the Motor Palace.
Disappointed yet strangely relieved, I spent the evening exploring the La Posada. I learned a lot about Winslow that night including two things that kept me awake a few more years. Winslow had an airport, and Charles Lindbergh designed it.
Winslow Motor Palace: Or something.
When Lori first heard about the Motor Palace she was pretty eager to see it. As the years went on she continued to believe we would, despite the fact we didn’t know where it was, we didn’t have any idea what it looked like, and weren’t sure what it really was. If I’d only thought about it the night I met Chief Yellowhorse, I’m sure he would have told me.
We took a ride to Denver via Nevada and Utah, then back down to Flagstaff and Route 66 to Roy’s then south to Pioneertown. Along the way we checked out small towns and back roads looking for places to stage future rides and maybe find a nice building to stash some bikes. While staring at the stars over Bluff Utah after a storm Lori asked,[quote]”If you had to bet your R50, where would you guess the Motor Palace is?””Winslow,” I replied.
She nodded “We need to find it.”
For the next six months we searched the net, scoured county records, newspaper archives, and asked anybody who’d listen. About all we could confirm was Winslow had an airport designed by Charles Lindbergh, there had been a network of tunnels under the town, it was on Route 66, it used to have a ton of bars, and there’d been countless Trading Posts within fifty miles. Lori found an interesting building on the net one night in January. I called Allan at the La Posada to ask about it and he offered to show us around town. We decided not to ask anybody about the Motor Palace so they wouldn’t think we were kooks… and probably a little fear we’d learn it never was.
“A Corner” Winslow, Arizona.
Construction on Route 66 up forced detour around the historic district on our way in. Once we got settled at the La Posada, we walked downtown to get a better feel for the place. The streets were empty as we wandered around Second, Kinsley, and First streets. From “Standin’ on a Corner Park” Lori spotted a stand alone brick building. It had a dark red façade, carved wooden doors, and creepy tinted windows. I told her not to get too close because there might be some attorneys inside. She stood in the street staring and said,”I really like this one.” We continued our walk past the abandoned Babbitt building on First St. Buttressed years ago to keep it standing it maintained its dignity despite years of neglect. Back on Kinsley we peeked inside the theater then stared across the street at the lonely brick building. Lori wondered out loud if it was for sale as we returned to the La Posada.
The next day Allan and Dan from the Snow Drift Art Space took us to lots of buildings: one had a big apartment with a roof garden, another had tunnels and was haunted, one was a real theater, and another had a huge kitchen and oversized works of art.
An Architect purchased Babbitt building with plans to give it a second chance. But other than the “El Gran” none had a way to get a car inside. While the El Gran was more than qualified–and in the 80s and 90s housed a private car and motorcycle collection (its history is well documented)–it was not for sale, was way more building than we could handle, and it was not the Motor Palace. But one building kept calling out to Lori. Every time we looked out a window from a second story or rooftop we’d see the red brick building. We could even see the back of it from our balcony at the La Posada. She finally asked about it. Nobody was sure, but it was allegedly a notorious bar and maybe a bowling alley for many years. We were also told it once had an intimate stage for live performers, and secret passages used to transport booze and hide from the authorities during all night parties. Then an eye-witness told us there was a Model T sealed in the remains of a tunnel about 50 feet from the front door. Lori and I looked at each other. This could be it. Allan knew the owners and thought they’d lost interest. They were in the movie business and lived in So Cal, they adopted a couple of kids and didn’t have time to restore a building five hundred miles from home. We contacted them and a month later we were owners. We still weren’t sure if the legend of the Motor Palace in the desert was true or if this was really it, but we figured this was as close as we’d ever get and it was a great place to stage rides and hang out either way.
K.T., Al, and the stranger bearing gifts.
The previous owners gutted the interior and completed the hard work. When they lost the permits expired and we were working with Winslow city hall to have new ones issued. While taking measurements in the carriage house (it came with the Motor Palace) I clearly heard a sneeze. This was strange since I was alone and neither of the buildings were homes to ghosts. I looked around with my flashlight but saw nothing, I turned it off then stood very still and listened. After a short silence there was a faint, but very distinct footstep above me. I aimed the camera towards the sound and snapped. The picture on the display was of a cat looking through a hole in the ceiling at me and she looked exactly like our old cat K.T. Cat Ghosts, who knew?
About a month later we were taking pictures of the building just after dark. I was messing with some settings on the camera when this black cat trotted out of the alley into my shot. Another Cat Ghost, this one, Lori’s favorite cat “Al.”
Lori needed to see this but she’d wandered off so I quietly began shooting, sure he’d away. Instead of running he sat down and watched me while I struggled with the camera. He soon lost interest and walked back into the shadows. I followed him a few steps and froze. A familiar stranger holding a box in his arms entered the alley. He took a few steps, stopped, and asked…
Is this your place?”
I told him, “We just bought it.” He paused, looked me deep in the eye, put the box down and said,
This belongs to you.”
He stood, turned, and disappeared behind the building before I could say another word. I took the box to the front of the building as Lori walked back to see who I was talking to. I told her and showed her the box. There was no top and an old Pendleton covered its contents. We pulled the shirt back and stood speechless; inside were a couple old magazines, some toy cars, Bongo Drums, a dirt stained helmet visor with remnants of duct tape across the snaps and a few other things. As we stared into the box the wind stopped and we listened to the reassuring howl of a big two-stroke as it faded across the high plateau.