I’ve considered writing a blogpost about Barstow, CA before; after all, I’ve driven through this 20,000-person desert city about eight times in the last year and a half. But I’ve also had more than a little bit of attitude about the place. Suffice it to say that I’ve said “Barstow” in conjunction with multiple four-letter words more than once. This mindset does not inspire me to blog. The time has come, however. I’m hoping that by writing about this remote outpost, its curse over me will be broken.
Barstow, California is the western terminus of Interstate 40 – a road that begins in Wilmington, NC and passes through such major cites as Nashville, Little Rock, and Albuquerque. It also passes through Flagstaff, Arizona, where I currently reside. For me to get from Flagstaff to just about anywhere in California, I’ve got to get on I-40 and make a beeline for Barstow. From there I can keep heading due west to LA, or I can head up and over the mountains to the central coast or the Bay Area. While its placement at the end of I-40 is responsible for Barstow’s current highway fame, its more notorious reputation comes from its location along Historic Route 66. Before I was old enough to know what Route 66 was – much less what a twelve-bar blues song was – I remember my father reciting (it wasn’t quite singing) “Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino,” a lyric from the Nat King Cole song, “Route 66.” My familiarity with this lyric suggests that an awareness of Barstow’s existence was subtly embedded into my brain before I was old enough to read the map I could have found it on.
Fast forward to summer 2017. I packed the contents of my Santa Cruz storage unit into a UHaul box truck and cried as I left the coastal town I’d grown to love. Rent had gotten too pricey for me in California, and I had a combined job and grad school opportunity in Flagstaff. The trip between the two cities couldn’t reasonably be done in one day, so I stopped at the obvious halfway point: Barstow. The temperature was still over 100 degrees when I pulled into town at sunset, and I’d paid for a room in the Motel 6 before I realized that it was the chosen sleeping site of a somewhat seedy collection of locals. The next morning, the clerk told me that welfare and social security checks had just been issued, and that the motel was generally quite popular on those days. She intimated that there was also a correlation between meth use and check days as well. My UHaul was parked under a sodium lamp and secured with multiple padlocks, so I bolted my room door and slept just fine.
Two days later, however, red welts began to appear all over my body. They were particularly concentrated on my face, chest, and stomach. They were itchy, but more than that, they hurt, and when I scratched them, they wept a yellowy pus. A little internet investigation confirmed my suspicion: bedbug bites. To be honest, I had always thought bedbugs were a myth – perhaps because my father, the same one who sang the Route 66 song on a regular basis – was also known for saying, “Good night, sleep tight, and don’t let the bedbugs bite,” nearly every evening of my childhood. I quickly learned that these pests are very real, and that, in my body, they cause a fairly violent reaction. I vowed then and there never to sleep – or even stop – in Barstow again.
During my brief stay, I had wandered around town and found some cool murals and a couple of interesting 1950’s buildings – not to mention the railroad depot that was, at one point, one of Barstow’s main economic drivers. I had plenty of material. But under no circumstances was I going to write about a town that threw me into a week of inflammation and misery. (Incidentally, when I rummaged through my photo files for the pictures of Barstow I’d taken on that trip, I discovered I’d deleted them; that’s how angry I was! Thanks to Main Street Murals for the mural photos in this blogpost which replace the ones I trashed in my fury.)
Since then, I’ve made five or six additional drives that have required me to pass through Barstow, but I’ve engineered my departure times and routes to avoid the place completely. Until last week, that is.
Last week, I stopped for diesel – not in Barstow, of course, since I’d declared it off-limits – but in Newberry Springs, a two-gas-stations-and-nothing-else exit twenty miles east of the city. I turned off the engine, filled my tank, emptied my bladder, and got back in the driver’s seat, ready to drive the six hours to Flagstaff that remained. However, my beloved thirteen-year-old VW Golf (with 224,000 miles on it) didn’t start. “Really?” I said to the dashboard in front of me. “No, really? You’re going to die here? HERE, in (expletive deleted) Barstow, of all places?”
I called AAA and asked them to tow me to Needles, CA – the next city east on I-40, about 120 miles away. “I don’t know about that idea,” Miguel the driver said, once the Golf was on the flatbed and I was in the cab. “There’s not much in Needles.” I argued that it was closer to Flagstaff and that, well, it wasn’t Barstow, one of the few cities on the planet I refused to enter. “I know a good mechanic in Barstow. They can get parts from anywhere pretty fast at that place. It’s halfway between LA and Vegas, you know, so lots of cars break down there. Anyway, he’s a nice guy. Good reputation. And there’s a rental car place across the street. I really think we should go to Barstow.” He had good arguments. It was getting dark. I conceded. And, on the twenty-mile trip back in the direction from which I’d come, I got to ask Miguel all sorts of questions about his chosen hometown. He wasn’t a fan, he said, but he liked it a lot better than Lake Havasu, where he said people routinely referred to him using offensive ethnic slurs. We bonded over our dislike of backward Arizona. Miguel was born in South Central LA, where no one had ever called him a wetback or told him to go back home.
After a night in a fairly nice motel (not the Motel 6; I have since sworn off of those as well), I got up to go for a run around the Barstow railroad yard, a route I’d remembered from my prior trip through town. It’s an enormous collection of tracks and cars and engines (all belonging to the BNSF Railroad) that come together to form what is called a “classification yard” – the place where boxcars are disassembled and reassembled into trains headed for various destinations.
I stood on the bridge over the yard, looking down at all the metal, marveling at the logistics involved with transporting the contents of this assemblage of freight. I also watched a couple of moving trains glide beneath me. If I had been alive one hundred years ago, I might have thought about leaping down onto one of these trains, hoping it would take me where I wanted to go – probably as far away from Barstow as possible. I didn’t leap, of course, but I did gaze out at the vast empty expanse of brown – the predominantly barren desert that surrounds the town. It must take a special kind of personality to find this landscape welcoming.
At 8am, I showed up at the shop where the Golf had spent the night. I pushed the glass door open and announced that I was the proud owner of the dead VW in the parking lot. I was in the middle of explaining what had transpired when I noticed that Miguel’s “nice” mechanic friend was one of the best-looking men I’d laid eyes on in a long time. At that point, my storytelling became a little less fluid. Maybe Barstow wasn’t so bad after all; the motel staff was nice, I had a pleasant morning run, I’d found a cheap one-way rental car to Flagstaff, and the local mechanic was super hot. The Golf was pronounced DOA, however, and my new friend with the cute dimples and salt and pepper hair suggested that I just give the car to him in exchange for the $125 of labor I owed him for determining that the broken turbo (which I’d known about for months) had dumped fluids and metal shards into the engine, causing it to seize. “If I’m lucky, I can get $125 for some parts,” he said. “More likely, I’ll just keep it around for a pet project. I like diesel engines.” So that was that; the Golf, my inanimate soulmate, and I were going to part ways in the town I had chosen to serve as a metonym for all things hateful in the world.
As I was cleaning out thirteen years’ worth of first aid supplies, flashlights, old sneakers, grocery bags, and lip balms, I toyed with the idea of leaving something valuable in the glove box – something I’d have to drive back and get the next weekend, since I clearly wasn’t going to be coming back to get the car itself. Then I’d owe the guy a dinner, you know, in exchange for his taking this hunk of metal off my hands. Luckily (or unluckily; I’m not sure), his wife showed up during my purge and eliminated any further consideration of a return visit. Barstow was looking a little better after this experience, but not THAT much better. I made him take a final picture of me with my trusty companion, tapped it on the roof, and climbed into my midnight blue Toyota Corolla.
On my way out of town, I drove slowly past the murals on Main Street. Some of them are old and faded, but a couple of them are really nice. The city has also added some Route 66 commemorative signs since I was last there – old cars on signposts lining the main drag. I even stopped at the big donut shop on the way out of town, at the intersection of I-40 and I-15, since I’d noticed it had parking for multiple tour buses. I figured that after what I’d been through, I deserved my once-a-year raised glazed treat. It was decent, but I won’t be needing to veer off of I-40 for another one anytime soon.
Of course, now that I am carless, I might not be anywhere near Barstow anytime soon. Next weekend I am flying back to California, so I’ll give it a wave as we pass overhead. I think that will be good enough for now. Once I’m recovered, maybe I’ll get up the courage to explore the various other sites the Barstow Chamber of Commerce brags about…