The Lope: Amboy, California

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Amboy, California

If Roy's motel and cafe look familiar to you, chances are you either research Route 66 a bit, or you've seen it in one of the movies or commercials that have utilized this location.

But Roy's is a real place, loved by Route 66 "roadies" and tended to, neglected and perhaps resurrected by a short string of owners.

The googie sign is iconic in its retro-future appearance. I've wanted to see it for years, so please forgive my dotage.

When I saw a photo of it years ago, I thought of one of the uniform insignias on the original Star Trek. It ranged from sunny to cloudy the day we were there, and my companions were most patient while I walked about the area for over an hour, often waiting in place for a cloud to move.

I've read the sign was added in 1959 to the business, which had existed at least since the 1930's. Finally, in this shot, I got my full sunlight.

The office, with its boomerang roofline complements the sign very well.

Set against the Bristol mountains, Roy's is the best-known landmark along the Needles to Barstow stretch of Route 66. Amboy road, which runs north from Twentynine Palms, intersects Rt66 here.

Roy's Motel and Cafe was the only gasoline, food and lodging stop for miles along this stretch of 66, and was known for good food and somewhat pricy gasoline. A mileage chart on the back of a Roy’s business card reportedly shows Needles 73 miles to the east and Barstow 78 miles to the west, so I imagine the transportation costs for pretty much anything were a bit high.

The entire town of Amboy, including Roy's, was once owned by Buster Burris, a well-known Route 66 personality. In 1938 Burris married Bessie Crowl, daughter of Amboy owner, Roy Crowl (for whom Roy's is named), and later Buster and Bessie became the owners of Amboy.

Burris ran Amboy until 1995. During the heyday of Roy's, after WWII and before I-40 opened in 1974, Roys employed up to 90 full-time employees to service its garage, gas station, motel and cafe. By many accounts it was quite the hopping place, with people lined up to eat, drink, gas up and use the facilities. Michael Wallis, author of Route 66, The Mother Road, quotes Burris as saying: "I used to think everybody in the world was driving through Amboy." Burris went on to comment that after I-40 opened "the traffic just plain stopped" on Route 66.

After the traffic slowed considerably, the unique appearance and the isolation of Roy's appealed to Hollywood and bits of several films, commercials, music videos and reportedly at least one porn movie were made here. A good portion of the 1986 film, The Hitcher, with Rutger Hauer, was shot here.

In 1995, Burris leased the entire town to investors Walt Wilson and Tim White. He eventually agreed to sell the town to them and died shortly after the sale closed in 2000; he was 92. Wilson and White used the town not so much to service tourists as to capitalize on its value as a shooting location for Hollywood. At least some Hollywood types liked Roy's; Amboy was often listed as a destination for private flights and Harrison Ford was known to have flown into town regularly for a burger at the café, which caused the café to be called in some printed accounts as the “Home of the Hundred-dollar Hamburger” due to the added cost of flying in.

But, as for the common Rt66 traveler, during this period, Roy's amassed mixed reviews; many people found the new owners quite inhospitable. Wilson and White attempted to sell Amboy in 2003, an effort that ultimately landed the town on Ebay in March of 2003 and grabbed headlines, but not the asking price of 1.9 million; the highest bid was $995,000. Their venture ultimately failed, and Bessie Burris reposessed Amboy from Wilson and White in February of 2005.

Shortly thereafter, Bessie Burris sold Amboy to Albert Okura, owner of the Juan Pollo Restaurant chain of California. He has stated his plans are to slowly restore and preserve the town.

I am hoping he is earnest, as when I was there on August 3rd of 2005, the place was showing signs of neglect and vandalism.

This door on one of the motel cabins had obviously been kicked in.

We had missed seeing Bessie Burris by three days. I am truly sorry as I'd loved to have met a woman with such a strong tie to the history of a Rt66 institution.

As for the town of Amboy, its one of California's oldest, dating from 1858; it has a one-room schoolhouse from the 1900s. Its economic life springs from a large chloride works that expoits the many area dry lake beds. I presume most of the plant's employees live elsewhere, because Amboy's population was listed as seven in 2003, and probably fell by two if Williams and White were counted in that total. Here, a BNSF mainline train speeds past Amboy's abandoned church.

Looking to the west from Roy's, Amboy crater can be seen in the distance.

Amboy Crater is an extinct 10,000-year-old cinder cone which lies within a 70 square kilometer lava field; it is 945 feet high, dates from the Holocene period and was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1973. A foot path leads to the top of the cone and I've read that, in addition to great views of the surrounding area, wildflowers can be seen from late January through March. You can see ridges of lava in the foreground.

The crater was quite the tourist attraction when Rt66 was more of a main highway. It was the only lava field on 66, except for one in New Mexico, and many a traveler climbed to the top merely so he/she could brag that they had entered a volcano. I have read several different versions of a story in which the crater was seen to be billowing an ominous smoke, triggering the evacuation of nearby Rt66 as well as stopping the Santa Fe railroad while everyone prepared for an eruption. The smoke turned out to be the result of a trash and tire fire started by kids from Barstow (in some accounts) and the hoax was uncovered.

Oh, just an odd, cool fact about Roy's for those of you into numbers: the address is 6666 Old National Trails Highway; National Old Trails Highway is also Route 66...thats 6666, huh?

For our entire July-August 2005 Rt66/I-40 trip, see:
Joplin to Amarillo
Amarillo to Holbrook
Holbrook to Winslow
La Posada
Grand Canyon
western AZ

From the California border onward, we stayed to Route 66:
Colorado River crossing
Needles to Fenner
Fenner to Amboy
Amboy to Barstow
Barstow to Victorville
Victorville - California Route 66 Museum
Victorville to Rialto
Rialto Wigwam Motel
Outer Los Angeles
Los Angeles
Santa Monica Pier

Other posts concerning California:
The Future was so Cool in 1961
Goodbye, Sam's Seafood


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Absolutly beautiful photography!!
I too have photographed Roy's but nothing came out like these pictures. I am inspired which is saying a lot because photos by other people usually do not do much for me, but these, excellant! Thank you for posting.

Tue May 09, 11:20:00 PM  
Blogger Derek Bill said...

Great work...great story & photos. What a gem in the wilderness this place is. I've visited a couple of times, and find it particularly unique in that it is so iconic yet so solitary; one can visit it and not see another soul for the better part of an hour. Kind of like visiting an isolated cemetary.

Wed May 10, 11:31:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was born in 1948 and spent the first 20 years of my life in San Bernardino County.

These photos really bring back memories!

Thank you for a wonderful website.

Jim Newman

Tue Dec 26, 02:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How intresting. I live in Melbourne, Australia & after watching the movie 'Cars' I was intrested in the history of Route 66. It's sad that a whole town has been deserted. It must have been very chilling & emotional even, walking through a ghost town.

Wed Jan 03, 11:22:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I attended amboy school in the late '60's and early '70's. I was bussed in from Chambles, a small town 10 miles East of Amboy. I was there when the town just dried up as I-40 was opened. I graduated from Needles High School, joined the U.S.A.F., and spent a short stint with the C.H.P. My dream is to return to the area and enjoy the sunset of my life there.

Xavier, high desert resident

Wed Jan 24, 12:30:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm an old car lover and was driving a restored 1963 Chevy pickup back from Santa Fe, NM on Route 66. At Kingman I decided to go on I-40, missing Amboy and the rest as it was getting late. This town is just like others along the way..........once bustling but now slow and almost ghostlike. I've decided that there's more to life than the interstate at 80MPH just to get there. It was so nice to just travel at 60-65 with windows down and enjoying the road before me. So great to just stop and chat with people along the way.......just how it used to be. Hey! thanks for the sight and I'm looking forward to Amboy getting back on the map. If it doesn't....I'm stopping there anyway!

Sat Apr 14, 08:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi! I was surprised that you knew so much about Amboy. Bessie is my Great Grandma. I spent many years having Thanksgiving there with buster and Grandma. I was also pleasantly surprized that you included the old volcano, most other sites on Amboy dont include it. Thanks for all the pictures they definatly brought back lots of memories.

Tue Sep 04, 04:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We hope Amboy is not truly abandoned or dead--just in limbo! Mr. Okura has tried hard to get permits, etc., but faces many obstacles in trying to bring the place up to code for electricity. Also, the RR quit delivering water to the towns along its tracks. His staff did a lot of cleanup and painting, and they provide postal service and emergency water and gas.
Amboy holds many fond memories for my family--like climbing the crater, touring the chloride co. operation, breakfast at the cafe with Buster and Bessie, and later, lunch with Walt and Henry, visiting friends who lived there, and exploring the area--so I hope these obstacles can be overcome, and Amboy could be a thriving town again!
As for "a cloride works" "exploiting" the dry lakes..there are at least 2 companies at Bristol Dry Lake. These companies do not mine other lakes in the area, as far as I know. Calcium chloride and sodium choride are useful products. The men should be commended for their hard work. It is a tough job in a harsh climate. School children and others come to the job for tours; it is a fascinating operation!
When the Amboy school was closed in the 1990's by the Needles School District, more workers left the town. It seems most families prefer the convenience of living in 29 Palms or Needles to Amboy in its present state. It's easier to commute to the job in these times, because the roads and cars are more reliable. Shopping, schools, gas, power, and water have been suspended at Amboy townsite right now. Nearby, though, there are some private homes and company housing in use.
I really enjoyed your pictures and travelogue--thank you!
Salt Miner's daughter

Mon Oct 22, 04:31:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Wed May 28, 09:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this site! We just drove through Amboy and I came home and googled to learn more. I very much appreciate your pictures, narrative, and the useful comments of others! As of today, August 6, 2008 -- the gas station was open (5.29 per gallon!), and it looked like the store and cafe were running. This is the first time we've passed through when things seemed to be open. I hope there's enough business to keep things afloat - Americana at it's finest! Thanks again.

Michelle Onsaga

Wed Aug 06, 07:10:00 PM  
Blogger citygirl said...

Amboy's story is so amazing! Anyone know if there are any ghost stories about Amboy?

Tue Sep 16, 09:39:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember coming out to Amboy as a geology student from UC Riverside in the early to mid 1980s and stopping off at Roy's for the best strawberry milk shakes in the desert. (Coupled with the best lemonade in the desert sold at the old Kelso Depot lunch stand, but that's another story.) I hope the renovation is successful and long-lived; I still bring my boys out here on Scout trips to the crater and they are always hoping to find Roy's open so they, too, can have a shake.

Mon Oct 06, 08:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just a little correction to your article, Buster married Roy's daughter "Betty". After her death he then married Bessie.

Mon Feb 16, 06:09:00 AM  
Blogger MrZIp66 said...

I met buster burris in 1990 on my first visit to Amboy. He was great. Sat and talked to my wife and I and told us about the glory days and gave us some tips on what to look for on route 66.

Great site, great pictures.

Sat Feb 28, 11:03:00 PM  
Blogger Dianne said...

Is it Amboy in the rock band Saftey Suit's music video currently being featured on VH1's countdown? It looks like it but the word Roy has been erased from the sign. If you get a chance, to take a look, let me know what you think! I think the song is called Stay. Have been through Amboy many times on the way to Needles, but my old favorite desert relic is Oatman.

Sat Jun 13, 03:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great pictures. I´ll drive there someday.

Sun Nov 22, 08:22:00 PM  
Blogger KurtfromLaQuinta said...

Great pictures and history lesson there.
I've been through Amboy many times now. The first time was in '59 with my parents. We were going on a vacation somewhere. I remember Amboy as a very busy town with lots of big trucks there. Since I live in the southern California desert, I travel through Amboy whenever we head north.
I've met both Walt Wilson and Albert Okura because I own some very old, 1914 "top secret" military aerial photos of Amboy. My grandfather "acquired" them way back and gave them to me in the early sixties. I made them both a set of copies and Walt had them posted on his old web site a few years back. Mr. Okura said he'll have them in the cafe one day.
So the next time your traveling through there, hopefully they'll be up.

Wed Dec 30, 03:16:00 PM  
Blogger KurtfromLaQuinta said...

Great pictures and history lesson there.
I've been through Amboy many times now. The first time was in '59 with my parents. We were going on a vacation somewhere. I remember Amboy as a very busy town with lots of big trucks there. Since I live in the southern California desert, I travel through Amboy whenever we head north.
I've met both Walt Wilson and Albert Okura because I own some very old, 1914 "top secret" military aerial photos of Amboy. My grandfather "acquired" them way back and gave them to me in the early sixties. I made them both a set of copies and Walt had them posted on his old web site a few years back. Mr. Okura said he'll have them in the cafe one day.
So the next time your traveling through there, hopefully they'll be up.

Wed Dec 30, 03:17:00 PM  
Anonymous STELROSE said...


Mon Jan 11, 04:24:00 PM  
Blogger CHARLIE ROUTE 66 said...

Hello Route 66 fans, my name is Charlie I am a writer and researcher of the Route 66 town of Amboy. I have some cool new facts for fans of Roy's. Did you know in 1969 Buster Burris purchased 10 acres of land near Interstate 40 south of the Kelbaker off ramp. He was about to build a new business and was going to be the only one in the area. it was to be called "Buster's" the purchase was made to southern land co for $10,000 a new street and utilities were going to be done before the opening of the I40 During this time the current owners of Roy's left town and Buster had to come back and resume the Roy's business so the new business never got developed. Please email all and any old stories you may have on amboy send them to

Thu Apr 14, 09:28:00 PM  
Anonymous Holly said...

I'm so happy to see Roy's cafe making a come back. My husband and I have been there a few times. The last time we stopped in was July of 2011. There had been alot of progress from the last time we were there. They were selling gas and the public restrooms had been reopened. We are looking foward to the day where we can stay there a few nights.

Thu Dec 08, 04:04:00 AM  
Anonymous Stan said...

A Hoosier by birth, I spent the summers of 55,56 and 57 (aged 7,8 and 9)living with my grandparents who maintained the Amboy School. We lived in the house which is just to the East of the main school building. It was a one-room school but later additional classrooms were added. Pictures from the air show concrete pads next to the house. These were used to sit two house trailers, to be used by teachers of the school. Later, three permanent homes were built at the far back of the school property. I had a 18-inch deep, 6 ft diameter Doughboy pool under the shade of the verandas and friends, children of California Highway department employees who lived in Amboy, would come down and spend hours just keeping cool. One morning I woke up and a Malard Duck was enjoying the water. Saturday nights were really special as it was 35 MM movie night at the Catholic Church's All-purpose hall. Still mostly all black and white movies back then. Best part was the food. Pot luck it was and as diverse as was the population back then. One summer a film crew came in to film a couple of scenes for the original JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, with James Mason and Pat Boone. Cast and crew stayed at the Roy's Motel and I got to play checkers with Pat Boone. The scenes showed the cast hiking up the silloueted side of the Amboy Crater. It is hard to see now but back then there wer two very active sides of RT 66 in Amboy. Both sides of the road had a gas station, motel and cafe. The Chinaman's side, which is what it was called back then, also had a small general store. Thank all of you, before me, for sharing your stories. For a boy of 7,8, in the mid-50's, Amboy was a paradise. Oh ya, one of the ladies who brought food to the Saturday Night Movies is named Ramona. She eventually opened a restaraunt in 29 Palms...named Ramona's. Is my understanding it is still there.

Fri Jan 06, 07:56:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amboy has been fixed up a bit more. My daughter and I stopped here in 2009. The motel sign now has a woman on it and the gas pump is working. There is also a small store that sells snacks and drinks.
The guys in the store love to tell tales of Amboy from when Route 66 was a major highway.
We also climbed the volcano, which now has a nice picnic area near the base.
Be sure to stop and buy something from Roy's store.

Fri Feb 10, 06:09:00 PM  
Blogger burnerfinger said...

days before my Dad died in August of 2000, he promised to be "waiting for me in the shadows of Amboy" (we had brought our telescopes there more than a few times to take advantage of the dark skies)

Thu Apr 05, 05:17:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

I stopped there many times when I drove a truck. Had to spend the night in the motel once when my truck broke down. There was a cafe about two miles east of Roy's that we called East Amboy. The one thing I really remember is a waitress told me that all the water had to be brought in by rail tank cars. Merle Haggard stopped there one time when I was there . The reader sign on the front of his bus read " Gone Fishing". This was in the early seventies and a lot of 66 was still two lane.

Wed Jan 09, 08:37:00 PM  
Anonymous France's try back segal said...

I left saltus when I was 12. I am now 76 and plan to drive thru the Mohave desert in March after a trip thru the Panama Canal. I am hoping that I will be able to see something that I remember. Amboy school only had two rooms And I was the only gringo.

Sat Sep 19, 08:40:00 PM  
Anonymous Dean Westerfield said...

Hi we finished a 200 page comic book very loosely based on Amboy. I took a lot of liberty simplifying the town, but hope it captures the feel. I've posted nearly half the book for all to read and will post the rest by the end of the week. It's free and hope you guys enjoy it.

Tue Jun 20, 01:17:00 PM  

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