In the middle of the Mojave Desert is a place called Roy’s Café. It appears before you like a mirage, an authentic Route 66 icon standing alone on the bone-dry moonscape.
I wasn’t expecting it the first time I saw it, in August 2008. I’d simply been driving West on my way to San Diego to start a new life, and when I saw the word “café,” I thought: “I could use a sandwich – I wonder if they have some kind of iced-mocha drink?”
There was only one other vehicle parked outside, but because it was a weekday in the middle of the desert, I didn’t find this to be unusual. I bypassed the gas pumps, having fueled up before venturing into the desert, and opened the door to the café.
Inside was barren. There were no customers, no food, apparently nothing for sale at all. There wasn’t even any décor. There was just this man standing behind what had once been a check-out counter. He had bright blue eyes and was very tan, which you would expect of someone who lives in a shadeless environment. He was just sort of chilling out, keeping an eye on the place.
Taken aback, I politely asked him if they had anything to eat or drink for sale. He explained, a bit apologetically, that they no longer had a food license, but there was a vending machine out by the restrooms and I could get a can of Coke there.
He told me that he “comes out here a few days a week,” I assumed on a volunteer basis, because the joint didn’t appear to bring in enough money to pay someone to do that. He mentioned that today – the day I stopped there in 2008 – was a good day, because there was a wind, and it “broke up the monotony.”
I thanked him and went around back to use the restroom and buy a can of Coke from the chained-up vending machine (chained up because of the wind? chained up to not get stolen or vandalized?). I took some photos – it’s impossible to not take photos of Roy’s Café, even though you know everyone has already beaten you to it.
Later I realized this happens a lot in the West – you see everyone taking the same pictures, in Arches National Park with its sheer walls of rust-red rock; at Monument Valley where the black asphalt dips down like a roller-coaster track running for miles between cowboyland structures sticking up like pan flutes on the horizon; at the Grand Canyon. Each person is thinking: This is my picture; I took it.
When I made the drive through the Mojave again in 2014, I was expecting Roy’s – I had my camera ready, and was prepared to step into that time warp. I was thinking it’d be neat if the same guy were there. He was the first person along that memory-lane trip whom I could have conceivably said hello to again.
But as soon as I saw the place, and the several cars in the parking lot, and the German tourists with backpacks lounging on the curb out front as if the place had been set up just for their touristic enjoyment – I knew time had passed through here.
I parked and made my way inside the café – which was still not quite a functioning café (i.e., no coffee or lunches, no menu to speak of) but did sell road-trip snacks, candy and chips and refrigerated beverages. Not only that – you could choose from among several styles of “Roy’s Café” T-shirts, and you could buy a postcard featuring “Miss Amboy,” a flagrantly skanky woman draped with a pageant-style sash and posing provocatively in front of the iconic Roy’s Café sign.
The other customers paid and stepped outside, and I felt it would be rude to not buy something. So I took a box of Junior Mints from a glass-fronted refrigerated case, and brought it to the wiry, leather-tanned, also bright-blue-eyed guy at the counter that now boasted an actual working cash register. I paid and he didn’t say much, probably figuring I was another gawker here to go, “Goll-ee, the desert! Wow! How about this place? Vintage Route 66 as all get-out! Gee!”
Hoping to lure him into some semblance of conversation, I told him I had last been here in 2008, when there was nothing but a vending machine out back. He opened up a bit, said, “Yeah, they used to have a guy who would come out here to keep an eye on the place.” He looked down quickly and said, “He’s gone now,” in a way that made me think the guy I’d chatted with in 2008 had not left town but was – gone.
Trying to quickly dispel the sadness, the guy said with a hopeful upward lilt: “Yeah, the place is coming along. It’s getting there.” He looked around and it sounded as if he thought this direction – with “Miss Amboy” and the T-shirts and the candy – were the way to go, the right track. On to bigger and better things. I mustered a small smile and lied: “It’s very nice.”
Outside a man driving an SUV with a Nevada license plate pulled up and saw me taking the perfunctory photo – again – and offered to take some shots of me in front of the sign. Never one to turn down being in a photo – it’s the curse of the non-photogenic; we’re always hoping there’ll be that one good photo to prove that, if only for one day, we looked OK – I agreed, told him to just push the big obvious button there to take the picture. The guy seemed a little off, told me to say “whiskey” instead of “cheese,” told me I was lovely, asked me to take a picture of him, too.
I pulled out of the parking lot and waved, and he stood by the defunct gas pumps and gave me a peace sign.
After I got home from my second trip I tried to Google the man who’d been watching over Roy’s in late August 2008, on those lonely days when he was just grateful for a little wind, before “Miss Amboy.” I found some articles and traveler reviews that mentioned a “caretaker” named Larry Stevens, a guy who’d fled Vegas and regaled travelers with stories about Roy’s like some pro-bono tour guide. But judging by a physical description of the guy in an L.A. Times article, the man I met was not Larry. Also, a message I found on a travel forum, dated August 19 of that year, mentioned that Larry was leaving town “the next week.”
I took my first photo of Roy’s on August 27, according to the time stamp in my Flickr album – a week and a day after the message was posted about Larry leaving “next week.”
The man I met must have been someone else. I don’t know who he was. He’s gone now.