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. We were on a mission…to meet 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, 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 brought a feeling of security. Since it was too dark to see anything, we headed back to the Charger. 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.” I had no doubt he was 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 invited guests.
The Route: 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, teepees, 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 clue: Tune in, Turn on, and Drop out.
Jerry was a good friend of my Dad’s in the early ’60s. He was an aerospace worker. He had a Triumph TR2, and a nice wife named Nancy. He knew all about sports cars, radios and BB guns. All of a sudden one day, he quit his job, got a girlfriend, bought a Volkswagen, moved to the desert, opened a trading post, and I’m pretty sure smoked some marijuana. Hippies were common in SoCal 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 one of these “Love-Ins” my mom told us Jerry was in town and 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 his girlfriend and a bunch of other hippies. He put down his bongos and waved us into the group. He had long hair, a mustache, a head band, 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 place with a big Mercedes, a Corvette, an old pick-up, and a bunch of motorcycles with names I’d never heard. He told me the place was a Motor Palace. A Motor Palace! I asked in awe where it was and he said, “I could show you but I can’t tell you.” We moved to Texas about a year later and never saw or heard from Jerry again, but his description of the Motor Palace never left me.
The Message: I heard this song.
A few years later I heard a song “I was standin’ on the corner in Winslow’s Motor Palace saw a fine Mar-Say-Deez, and a girl my Lord with a Flathead Ford slowin’ down to take a look at me.” I swear that’s what I heard. I think, or I dreamed it. I’m not sure but after that Charles Manson thing with the Beatles I kept it to myself ’til now. Anyway by the 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 in San Luis Obispo, California. I moved to Los Angeles to study at Sci-Arc and met a nice girl. I moved back in 1993 got a job in a motorcycle shop and dropped out of Cal Poly for the last time in 1995.
During this period I rarely traveled east of Death Valley or South of Los Angeles. The riding’s good on the Central Coast and the Motor Palace faded from my thoughts.
Nice Girl: Resurrects ghost from the past.
The Nice Girl is Lori. Shortly after we met she was on a business trip and decided to make 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 Dustbowl, 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 were tired of Bakersfield.
Mission: Find a section of Old Route 66.
One summer Lori and I were headed to Phoenix and decided to take old Route 66, eager to see all the diners, cool gas station/cafes, and trading posts. The AAA map showed a section of it between Barstow and Needles. We peeled off the 40 to Ludlow and there it was: Route 66. Cool gas stations, a cafe, 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. We stopped to eat hamburgers and the guy working 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 Man.
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 the 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 duffle bag, water jug, and a small fuel can. The number plate was worn smooth other than remnants of an eight made with electrical tape. 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. He dumped the clutch just as I asked where he was headed. He shouted, “Motor Palace!” 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 Moonchild’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 when we stopped, but the best I ever got was “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 it. 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, car shows, Doughnut Derelicts before work on Saturdays, Long Beach and Pomona swap meets, and regular trips to El Mirage. We ran into Ed almost every weekend and he’d visit the shop once or twice a week. 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. I almost felt sick, could it be? I asked him the name of the place and he started making jokes and changed the subject. I asked him where it was. All he said was, “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 cars out front, but when I approached, the place was empty. I tried the door and it was locked. I saw a Ducati Monster in a lot next to a cinder block building–no Motor Palace. 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 knew of the Motor Palace. He told me we were only about a block away. It had been 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 , “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 used to be 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.
Route 66 was torn up so we had to 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 facade, 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. Years ago it had been buttressed to keep it standing and had 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. We learned the Babbitt building was purchased by an Architect eager 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 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.
KT, Al, and the stranger bearing gifts.
The building was gutted and most of the restoration was completed by the former owners. When they quit work on it the permits expired and we were working with the city of Winslow 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 because I was alone and neither of these buildings were supposed to be haunted. 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 step above me. I aimed the camera in the direction of 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 KT.
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 “Al.” Lori needed to see this but she’d wandered off so I started taking pictures before he ran off. Instead of running he sat down and watched me while I struggled to photograph him in very low light. He eventually lost interest and walked back into the shadows. I followed him a few steps then froze as a man holding a box in his arms stepped into the alley from behind the Motor Palace. We took a few steps toward each other then he stopped and asked, “Is this your building?” I told him we just bought it then he put the box down and said, “This belongs to you.” He backed up, 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. Its top was missing and the contents were covered by an old flannel. 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.
We stared into the box as the wind stopped and listened to the howl of a two stroke fade across the high plateau.