Amboy: Where the Past Meets the Present

Every desertphile and thriller aficionado recognizes iconic Roy’s Motel sign. In addition to the 1986 motion picture ‘The Hitcher’, Roy’s played a role in 1993s psycho-thriller movie ‘Kalifornia’ starring Brad Pitt and David Duchovny.

 

It was also used in Enrique Iglesias’ 2001 music video ‘Hero’ and the 2008 vampire thriller ‘Live Evil’.

 

A large portion of the 2010 thriller ‘Beneath The Dark’ was filmed in Amboy too. ‘The Caretaker’, a micro budget film, also predominately featured Roy’s as their prime location. Many automobile commercials and music videos have also been shot here.

 

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Brilliant ocotillo cacti frame iconic Roy’s Motel bungalows in Spring, 2014.

 

Times have changed since my first trip through Amboy at about 90 miles an hour. It was 1970 and I was 16, traveling with friends to camp out at Hole in the Wall rustic site in the Providence Mountains.  After a few days we were running late. A stop at Essex to call home from a phone booth with a hand-crank telephone that connected to an operator and we were racing down Route 66 in an Oldsmobile Rocket 88.

 

Passed by Roys when this sign usually read, “No Vacancy.” Over the years I’ve seen it turn into the de facto ghost town that it is today.  Although Amboy was first settled in 1858, the town was not established until 1883.  Lewis Kingman, an engineer for the Atlantic and Pacific Rail Road, created the town as the first of a series of alphabetical railroad stations that were to be constructed across the Mojave Desert.

 

In 1926, Amboy became a boom town after the opening of U.S. Route 66.  In 1938 Roy Crowl opened “Roy’s” as a service station on Route 66 in Amboy.  When we visited in 2014, “Golden Smile Salty Tears” art exhibit by Severin Guelpa was on display in one of the open bungalows at Roy’s Motel.

 

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“Golden Smile Salty Tears” art exhibit by Severin Guelpa

“The four elements make up each object, deciding its appearance or qualities. Hot, cold, dry…liquid, volatile or rigid.

Amboy, white like salt, reminds us more than anything of the force of these elements and the fragility of the hopes they arouse.”

~MATZA Amboy, Golden Smiles Salty Tears by Artist Severin Guelpa, Switzerland.

 

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The suspended objects moved and swayed to and fro, as if toyed by an invisible child’s hand.

 

Those sure were some fancy words on the artist’s postcard but different allusions bounced around like tumble weeds in my mind as I stared into the room, vacant all but for non-sequitur items hanging from strands of mono filament, dancing between sun and shadows.

 

The intensity of the sun was alleviated somewhat by the gentle breeze drifting in thru the door-less entry and broken window panes within the iconic backdrop, one made so popular thru pop culture and terrifying indie movies.  What was this madness?

 

As I was peering into the recesses of the bungalow, the heat seared the back of my neck.  I could feel the familiar hot breath of the desert as my lips became salty and dry.  By god, it was only February. What would it feel like at the height of summer, or worse yet, in September, when temps peaked?

 

Purgatory for some, perhaps.  True desert rats define the extreme heat as Heavenly.

 

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Contemplating life with a cold diet Root Beer. Kind of like Heaven.

 

In the distance, the sound of a train snaking through the desert filled the air. Once it was gone, I was struck by the pristine quietness.  Route 66 is all but deserted; you can hear the roar of an approaching car long before you see one.

 

In between trains and cars, there is utter silence.  Even the sound of a bird’s wings seems intrusive.

 

The roar of silence is deafening.

 

 

The iconic sign enigmatic of the Mojave Desert, with a ribbon of Route 66 in the background snaking into oblivion.

 

Your ears search for something to listen to besides your own pulse.  The moving objects, each unrelated yet trapped, push against the air as if vying for freedom.  I think I got it. I really, really got it.

 

The smell of old walls and tiles, infused with countless guests from yesteryear merged with the faint odors of dried out plaster juxtaposed in the baking desert surrounding the smattering of old buildings around Amboy.

 

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There is the tapping of your own foot falls on the old linoleum floor then the crunch of sand and pebbles under your boots as you head back towards the towering enigmatic Roy’s Motel sign under the unrelenting stare of the sun in a cloudless azure sky. You drink in the hot air while surrendering to its embrace.

 

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Trains on the nearby tracks are omnipresent in Amboy.

 

A defiant lizard does push-ups in a nearby cactus planter as another train rumbles across tracks into oblivion.  The desert has triumphed, as the ghost town of Amboy lacks water, but its meager inhabitants cling on, at the mercy of the elements as much as the exhibit.

 

For that I am deliriously grateful, just as much as I am for the voracious heat, the poignant austerity, and the dead silence.  And all at once I understood you can’t possibly translate all those soulful feelings onto a meager postcard. 

 

Staying within that esoteric realm, across the highway from Roy’s Motel is the abandoned St. Raymond Church.

 

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St. Raymond Church, Amboy, California in 2015. The dramatically leaning steeple had by then been the victim of high winds and toppled to the ground in 2013.

 

Roy Crowl, owner of many properties in Amboy, including the iconic Roy’s, donated the land for the church. St. Raymond Church closed Aug. 3, 1970. Amboy’s economy plummeted after Interstate 40 bypassed it in 1973. The church property was returned to Crowl in 1981.

 

The first ‘church’ in Amboy was a vacant house owned by Roy Crowl.  No sign of the temporary church remains today. Two local Amboy ladies, Francis Staple and Josephine Gonzalez worked to get the church built by fundraising. The church was eventually built in the late 1940s. 

 

 It was dedicated March 8,1951. The Catholic parish initially was named St. Bridget’s in 1950, but renamed St. Raymond the following year.  Josephine Gonzales’ adopted son Raymond is sometimes mentioned as the source of the church’s name.

 

The first wedding in the church was held January 10, 1959 when Coy Limon married Ramona Martinez from Siberia, California. The interior of St. Raymond’s boasts a beautiful mural reported to have been painted by an anonymous soldier stationed in the area during training exercises.

 

The Rectory is to the west of St. Raymond’s. A rock garden and fountain in-between the two structures used to harbor a statue of the Madonna.  Only the rock garden remains.

 

 

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Student hand prints adorn this large piece of concrete near the entrance of Amboy School.

 

At its peak in the 1930s and 1940s, Amboy supported a permanent population of about 200 people.  The roadside businesses included three service stations–Roy’s Shell Station, Bill Lee’s Texaco and Conn’s Standard Station, two cafes, three motor courts, four garages, a post office, a church and a school. 

 

The homes in Amboy housed people working at the salt mill in Saltus, at the gas stations or cafes in Amboy, or for the Santa Fe Railroad. The tiny population continued to dwindle.

 

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The site of the original school, built by Santa Fe in 1903 in an open field between the railroad tracks and National Trails Highway on the West side of town, is shown on maps as Old School, but there is nothing left at the location to indicate that there ever was a building there. All that remains is a single tree that used to stand in the school yard. The original school building was physically moved North of the highway to its present location adjacent to the new school in Amboy.

 

Students came from Bagdad, Saltus and Cadiz. Later, high school students were bused in daily from Needles, a three-hour round trip. In its heyday, Amboy School had four full-time teachers, including the principal who also taught classes, and about 60 students. The student population dwindled and Amboy School closed in 1999.

 

In 2005, Juan Pollo restaurant chain owner Albert Okura bought the town on e-Bay, including the church, for $425,000.

 

The deal included about 490 acres, including the town as well as Amboy and Route 66 landmark Roy’s Motel and Café, the church, post office, three gas pumps, two dirt airstrips and other buildings in the town.  On April 28, 2008, Roy’s reopened. The renovations and repairs cost $100,000.

 

We listened when Albert Okura featured in an interview on KFI640 with Bill Handel about entrepreneurial success some years ago.  Albert is an inspirational and amazing gentleman.  Some will argue he’s a dreamer but Albert is a man on a mission.  There is a fine line between a dreamer and a visionary.

 

 

Albert Okura and yours truly. Guess where.  March 2018.

 

You may want to read the book, Albert Okura: The Chicken Man with a 50 Year Plan.  Okura’s vision has pumped renewed life into Amboy.  Okura also plans to open a museum, much like he had with the the original McDonald’s in San Bernardino, turning it into an unofficial museum.

 

Amboy even has its own post office. Former resident Ramon Lomeli planted the palm trees in front of the post office in the 1960s. St. Raymond Catholic Church with its restored cross is in the background, 2017.

 

The original post office was in Conn’s Cafe, but it was later moved out to one of the motel cabins.  Conn’s burned down about 1960 but the cabins and the post office survived the fire.

 

The post office continued to operate but was moved to a trailer near to where the present day post office is located.  In 1965 Buster Burris built a modern post office building across the highway from Roy’s Cafe and it is still in use today.

 

 

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The way auto mechanics used to work in Amboy, California. You drove your vehicle up a dirt ramp on the other side onto the wooden ramp. The grease monkey then worked underneath. A wooden ramp to the left made getting under the hood a cinch. There was even a small snack shop next door for thirsty customers.

 

Roy’s wasn’t the first cafe and  gas station in town. An Asian businessman by the name of Lee Yim, or more commonly known as Bill Lee or Bill Yim,  and his war bride, Hilda, owned a cafe and Texaco filling station in Amboy. This was about 5-7 years before Roy’s Cafe. In the mid-1930s Bill Lee’s Texaco was the only building on the north side of the road in Amboy. Bill grubstaked prospectors and he had financial interests in some mines in the area.  Bill and Hilda had one daughter, Dorothy.  The Lee family remained in Amboy until 1957 when Bill retired and moved to Barstow. 

There is no potable water in Amboy. However, you may purchase beverages and food at the mini mart and café  at Roy’s gas station. Free clean restrooms are out back, guarded by a tall horse statue.

 

 

Actors Harrison Ford and Anthony Hopkins have autographed photos on the walls of the café and visit whenever their schedules allow. Ford frequently flies in and lands his plane on a nearby landing strip, one of the first ever built in California.

 

The dramatically leaning steeple of the long-closed St. Raymond Church toppled in the Spring of 2013. The constant wind had finally won.  When we again visited in 2015, all that remained of the steeple by then was a pile of wood on the ground near the building.

 

UPDATE: When we last visited in the summer of 2017, we were overjoyed to find St. Raymond’s steeple was once again standing tall. 

 

We wandered back to Roy’s sparse cafe and convenience store across the road and bought two cold cans of diet root beer. The kitchen is permanently closed, but the red and white checker themed 50s diner bar remains. 

 

The air was a little cooler but heavy with a struggling swamp cooler but it was just enough for a little respite from outside.  The cans instantly starting sweating with condensation once removed from the reefer. I rubbed my can against my cheek for sweet relief.

 

 

 

One of our discoveries was a new little yellow guidebook called Desert Oracle, we had not seen before. The cashier informed us it was the first edition and brand new.  We were instantly smitten and gladly forked over $3.75 for the issue.  A book about the desert, found in one of the best places in the desert.

 

We sat at a table under the shade in front near the gas pumps and devoured our drinks and our newest discovery. Occasionally a car passed by without stopping. Eventually a tour bus full of German tourists pulled into the parking lot and discharged its excited passengers, all speaking in their native tongue. 

 

We spoke briefly with the friendly tour guide who told us their tour bus had originated from Seligman, Arizona.

 

 

Roy’s Cafe offers merch and a nice view in air conditioned comfort.

 

Amboy Cemetery is on the outskirts of town. Most of the graves are of children, which gives it an even more somber tone. In the distance, the black crater of the long dormant Amboy Crater. In the foreground, the diligent photographer at work, gainfully supervised by Mrs. Desert Way behind him.  Read our 2018 article about Amboy Cemetery here.

 

 

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There are about 47 graves inside the fence at Amboy Cemetery East of Amboy, but since only two are marked with names, it is truly a population known only to God and their families.  Most are believed to be infants and children. There are eight graves outside the fence. There are no stone markers in the cemetery, all markers are wooden crosses bearing no names.

 

Amboy Cemetery is a profound reminder of the town’s rich history. The cemetery is well-maintained and in good condition. Many thanks to the unsung heroes who tend to this historic place of eternal rest. Two crosses to the north side of the cemetery have tin plates nailed to them with inscriptions in Spanish, belonging to a five year old and 62 year old persons. Two infants lie in anonymous graves. A stillborn baby born of the Gutierrez family is buried outside the perimeter fence on the East side.

 

The Amboy Depot was south of the railroad where the old road from Twentynine Palms crossed the tracks. Two trees are all that remains to mark the site of where the Amboy Depot once stood.

 

Amboy Crater, located two miles west of town, is a 6,000-year-old cinder cone volcano, made largely of pahoehoe lava.  Some speculate it could be 50,000 to 100,000 years old.   It is considered dormant but not extinct.  Pisgah Crater, also a cinder cone volcano, is located near Interstate 40.  Because of quarry operations, the crater is not as well preserved as Amboy Crater.

 

John enjoyed the splendid scenery from his lavic throne.

 

Amboy Crater is about 250 feet tall and contains four distinct vents inside the crater. The view of Bristol Dry Lake and Amboy from the summit of Amboy Crater is well worth the effort of making the short hike to the top.

 

The continuum of life as exampled by Spring wildflowers amongst ancient lava.

 

The field of black lava that surrounds the volcano, principally, porphyritic olivine basalt, covers about 28 square miles and records six or seven eruptions. 

 

 

AAA vintage map. The majority of these alphabet towns named by the railroads are now ghost towns or nonexistent. 

 

Someone mysteriously left a male and female pair of these majestic Chinese Guardian Dog statues a quarter of a mile from one another in 2013. They are about 400 feet off Route 66 between Amboy and Kelbaker Road.

 

There is no doubt the large number of Chinese tourists who eagerly visit Amboy every year enjoy their eternal presence.

 

 

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How many people can say they’ve watched an 8 foot tall Chinese guardian dog gobble the sunset in the middle of the desert? We can. And it was awesome.

 

A lone sign advertises acreage for sale along Route 66 between Amboy and Kelbaker Road, with a dissenting opinion from the gallery.

 

 

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The “Beware of Dog” sign apparently refers to the gigantic guardian foo dog nearby. Nice touch.


Ever heard of Amboy’s famous shoe tree? It’s located east of Amboy next to a bridge in the wash. Sadly, this iconic landmark is not really one tree anymore. The old tamarisk tree fell over in 2010, causing part of the trunk and hundreds of shoes to be scattered down the wash.

 

Some call it art, some call it junk. You decide.

 

 

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Leaving shoes has been a tradition here for many years.

 

While you’re there, don’t forget to check out the Bra Tree about 1.8 miles farther east away from town, on the opposite (north side) of the road.  This smaller tree boasts about 50 variously colored brassieres waving like proud flags in the stiff breeze.

 

As you travel further east, you will notice words spelled out with rocks on the side of the road. Many depict names, initials and tributes. It is so much more evocative than graffiti.

 

Like dreams on the wind of a town that once was, what is, and a rising phoenix re-birth to possibilities of what could be.  Somewhere between golden smiles and salty tears.

 

 

 

Citations and Suggested Reading:

 

 

The Silence and The Sun by Joe De Kehoe, Trails End Publishing Company, 2007.

 

 

 

Jaylyn

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comments
  • Linda Kruse Crandell

    February 5, 2016 at 6:11 pm

    Great pictures……………………!

  • Thanks so much for your kind comments, Linda!

  • I have a photo of the Roy’s sign with the old Dodge police car for Amboy. Also a photoo of the shoe tree when it was still standing.

  • back in the 50’s we stopped at the place to eat and gas up and I was about 10 yrs old,but I remember the water cost more than the gas,,they had to always truck it in,,even then I never understood why they did not dig a well,,anyway we went to the crater and elsewhere around there rockhunting,,then in the 60s a friend and I use to fossil hunt in the area by amboy and Calico Ghost Town…got some great honey onyx and fossilized palm root. great area…

  • Thanks for a great article. I lived in Cadiz Summit for many years. (Gone now) My parents (Floyd and Josephine Wiley) had gas station and garage in the 50/60’s. My Mom drove the school bus locally and then took over the route to haul the high school kids to Needles. The kids did have the option of boarding in Needles for the week and then coming home. I am an Amboy Elementary School graduate. You won’t meet many who can say that. We had no TV and no telephones. Hauled our water from the Santa Fe siding at Cadiz to the gas station at Cadiz summit. The school took the 6th, 7th and 8th grade to Disney land and paid for everything. Good Memories. I’ll look for pictures.
    The original Journey to the Center of the earth was filmed at the Amboy Crater. The stars, Pat Boon and Arlene Doll stayed at Roy’s Café. Big excitement back then.

  • Lived in Amboy about 6 yrs , my dad had a gas station and small cafe on south side across from the Texaco. Went to school 1st – 6 th grade. All the buildings taken down many years ago, tons of fond memories.

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