Lori Carey Photography

Friday, January 9, 2009

Black Mountain Rock Art District, Part I - Casa Del Desierto and the Route 66 Museum

The fickle southern California winter weather we've been experiencing lately has put a bit of a damper on our trail schedule this year. Between rain, snow, wind, wildfires and the holidays things never seemed to work out. So it was with a severe case of cabin fever that we found ourselves meeting up with the WayOfLife family in the bitter pre-dawn hours a few days before Christmas to head out to the wilds of the Mojave desert and brave the unknown elements. A rare winter storm had brought heavy snow to southern California as low as 2,000 feet and we had no idea what conditions would be in the desert. Destination: the Black Mountain Rock Art District, known to have the largest concentration of petroglyphs in the Mojave.

My jeep knows the route by heart; the 5 to the 405 to the 133 to the 241 to the 91 to the 15 to the 40. Stop at Coco's in Barstow for breakfast, where the food is good, the service is friendly, and they never have a problem fitting in a group of rowdie jeepers excited to get out on the trail. It's more relaxed than usual this time; just the five of us before we head off to meet up with two more couples suffering from cabin fever and bold enough to brave the weather. Barstow is snow-covered, a first for us and a sign of things to come. (Interesting note: Barstow was named for the president of the Santa Fe Railroad, William Barstow Strong.)

After our leisurely breakfast we drove over to the Route 66 Museum housed in the historic Casa Del Desierto Harvey House at 681 N. First Avenue. It's still early; the museum is not yet open and the rest of our group hasn't arrived so we spend some time exploring the gorgeous architecture of the building. The original alignment of Route 66 - The Mother Road - ran in front of this magnificent building listed on the National Register of Historic Place, that is, until the Sante Fe Railroad actually bought the road and moved it to it's current location.

Harvey Houses were a chain of railway hotels and restaurants built by English immigrant Fred Harvey in the American Southwest. Harvey began the chain in 1870, and at it's peak there were 84. Opened in 1911, Casa del Desierto (House of the Desert) was the jewel of the chain and provided luxurious rooms and gourmet food to Sante Fe Rail travelers stopping in Barstow. It had replaced a previous Harvey House that was built in 1887 but burnt to the ground in 1908. During the heyday of Route 66, the grand ballroom was host to many of the town's dances and social events. Female employees, called Harvey Girls, were renowned for their friendliness and hospitality. They were required to take a vow not to marry while employed and their contracts contained other morals clauses.

WWII started the decline of the Harvey Houses; food rationing, a decline in standards, quality and practices all contributed. When trains began serving meals on board the Harvey Houses fell into further decline. The train ticket office closed in 1973 when air travel overtook rail travel, and Casa Del Desierto became yet another abandoned and derelict building along the historic Mother Road. The Sante Fe Railway wanted to tear it down in the late 1980s, but public outcry urged the city of Barstow to save the building and restoration began. It was rededicated in 1999, and now houses the Greyhound and Amtrak stations, the Western American Rail Museum and the Route 66 "Mother Road" Museum.

The museum, founded in 2000, is only open Fridays and Saturdays 10-4 and Sundays 11-4. It charges no admission but does accept donations. It contains a wealth of Route 66 memorabilia and artifacts and some fantastic displays of Route 66 photography, both old and new. They have a very large selection of books containing everything from Route 66 history and photography, field guides for the local area and trail guides for the Mojave desert including autographed copies of the Bill Mann series. The volunteers staffing the museum are friendly and knowledgeable and I engaged in a lengthy conversation about the best trails and places to offroad near Barstow to see more interesting historical sights. WayOfLife bought a few more Bill Mann books (see sidebar) and I bought a Mojave Desert wildflower field guide (one can never have too many field guides!).

After spending much longer than we had anticipated exploring the museum, we headed back to our jeeps to find the trailhead that would take us to the Black Mountain Rock Art District.

To be continued....

nothing after the jump

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