There is something slightly alien about the Arizona landscape. The flat desert plains and red cliffs remind me of lunar photos, harsh and lonely. If it weren’t for the low dry shrubbery peppering the ground there would be nothing to differentiate it from some alien world. I had only ever seen the South West as it’s depicted in movies and postcard photographs. The classic image of tumbleweeds rolling past in Westerns seemed to me like the exaggerations of an imaginative mind.
I remember watching the movie “Cars” and wondering if places like Radiator Springs actually existed. It turns out that this fictional town with its colourful buildings and dry desert landscape was based on Seligman, a tiny town off of route 66 in Arizona. It has a population of less than five hundred but the main street compensates for that with colourful buildings and outrageous decorations.
…they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads, 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.
—John Steinbeck from “Grapes of Wrath”
Route 66 used to be an important roadway for people heading West but was eventually bypassed with the safer and more efficient Interstate Highway System. Recently Route 66 has undergone a revival as a historic route with the surviving towns such as Seligman embracing and restoring their older buildings. Some tour groups, like “Grand Adventures Tours”, stopover in Seligman on the way to the Grand Canyon to give visitors a chance to stretch their legs before getting back on the road. My friend and I took their tour to see one of the seven natural wonders of the world but Seligman was a wonderful surprise pit stop.
Along Seligman’s main street there are a couple quirky shops that sell souvenirs and Native American crafts. Outside the storefronts a few old cars have been fixed up to resemble the characters from “Cars” — they even sport gigantic googly eyes and in the case of the pick-up truck, a pair of buckteeth. Off to the side there is a place to get food called Delgadillo’s Snow Cap Drive-In. The roadside eatery was built in 1957 by Juan Delgadillo, who had very eccentric decorating tastes. Inside the Snow Cap the walls and ceiling are plastered with thousands of business cards like some sort of papier-mâché wallpaper.
The ridiculously flamboyant signs and architecture of Seligman pay tribute to the road culture before the 1950s, back when people stopped to enjoy small town colour instead of speeding past on the highway. Walking down the main street in all its kitsch glory is a fun experience but you should also take a moment to take a look down one of the side streets. When you step away from the main street you have a clear view of the endless stretch of yellow sand and dry grass. Seeing the harshness of the landscape gives you an appreciation for the town’s colourful perseverance. You might even spot a tumble weed or two.