Destiny in the desert

Times Staff Writer

BEFORE Interstate 40 bypassed them and drove a stake through their heart, this broiler of a town on old Route 66 and its modernist landmark, Roy's Motel and Cafe, thumped with life day and night.

Roy's atomic-age neon sign competed with the stars three hours east of Los Angeles. It was a beacon of civilization to weary travelers rocketing along America's Mother Road, a sign of hope to motorists whose cars had croaked in the desert heat.

Amboy was the domain of Buster Burris, a rough-hewn entrepreneur with flinty eyes, sun-toasted skin and strong opinions about rowdy bikers and men with long hair. Burris and his father-in-law opened Roy's in the 1930s and for decades did brisk business selling tires, thick malts and overpriced gas. At times so many cars awaited service that one might have thought they were running a used car lot too.

Today, Amboy and Roy's are the only tourist stop for about 100 miles that didn't disappear after progress shut off the flow of customers in the 1970s. But it's fair to say they're on life support. The town's population is approximately four, the school closed years ago, birds have turned the church into a poop-caked aviary and the post office barely survived.

Roy's, shuttered for about two years, is a mess of peeling paint, rotting floors and broken glass. Each windstorm takes another piece of the Cafe sign with it.

Burris, who sold Amboy before he died at 92 in 2000, would have been heartbroken by what has become of his creation.

For fast-food chicken baron Albert Okura, it was love at first sight.

"I believe in destiny, and I believe my destiny involves that town," said Okura, 55, who got rich by founding the Juan Pollo restaurant chain in the Inland Empire. "It's hard to explain. How many people can say they own a whole town?"

IN 2005, Okura bought Amboy from Burris' second wife, 90-year-old Bessie, who regained ownership of the property after the previous buyers lost it in foreclosure. Okura convinced her to sell him the town because he pledged to restore and reopen Roy's -- and because he had $425,000 in cash.

For that, Okura got the hotel and cafe, the church and post office, four gas pumps, two dirt airstrips and a variety of scattered buildings. (Burris is said to have been the one who bulldozed the rest of Amboy after I-40 wrecked his business.)

Okura also got several hundred acres of adjacent desert that he believes could skyrocket in value if development in the Inland Empire continues to push east.

"There were better offers, but they didn't want to run a hotel and diner. They were going to tear them down. I didn't think that was a good idea," said Bessie, a city girl who embraced Burris' love for the remote outpost he rarely left. "We were married in 1982. I was from Hollywood. I didn't know anything about living way out there. I didn't even know how to fry eggs. Buster showed me."

AMBOY had long been a railroad town when Route 66 put the place on the map during the Great Depression. Roy Crowl saw gold in the parade of migrants escaping the Dust Bowl. He began buying land in the area and opened a service station in Amboy in 1938. Texas-born Burris, a civilian Army Air Corps pilot whose first marriage was to Crowl's daughter, joined him a year later.

Their place hummed 24/7 with broken-down cars -- so many that customers often had a long wait. So Crowl and Burris opened a diner to feed them double cheeseburgers and homemade chili.

The boom in tourism after World War II brought even more stranded motorists. So Crowl and Burris built the motel and in 1959 erected the Roy's sign.

Through the years, the hotel's modernist flourishes and stainless-steel diner have been a magnet for fans of kitschy Americana as well as an artists' muse.

Filmmakers commonly see Roy's as a dark, forbidding hangout for psychopathic killers -- e.g., "Kalifornia" and the 1986 version of "The Hitcher." Commercial photographers find the hotel's weathered, angled facade and primitive surroundings an edgy backdrop for cars and clothing. The Internet is lousy with images and paeans to Roy's Googie architecture and the role it played during Route 66's glory days.

"It's modernism as nostalgia," said Taylor Louden, a Culver City architecture consultant who recently toured Amboy and is developing a renovation proposal for Okura. "It's a landmark. Classic Route 66 roadside architecture. It's a real survivor of that period."

When Larry Stevens read that Okura had bought Amboy and planned to restore Roy's, he knew he had to be a part of it. A construction superintendent in Las Vegas, he was sick of crowds, traffic and smog. Amboy has none of those. "Good place to get away from the paparazzi," Stevens said. He drove to San Bernardino and all but begged Okura to hire him as the town's caretaker.

Restoring Amboy was his destiny too, says Stevens, who traded Vegas for a double-wide trailer behind the cafe.

"The first few weeks were tough. There was no power and it was as dark as a tomb out here at night," said Stevens, 52, a weathered, wiry chain-smoker who seems to be channeling the actor Harry Dean Stanton. "It would have been bad if I didn't have Jackson here."

Jackson is one of Stevens' two dogs. He came in handy as Stevens went looking behind the closed doors of Roy's and Amboy's other abandoned buildings. "I'd always send Jackson in first. My biggest fear was stumbling onto a dead body."

Instead, what Stevens discovered is that Amboy is a busy place for a ghost town. Even on a slow day, scores of motorists stop at Roy's. A few free spirits have wandered in on foot.

"You never know who's going to show up," he said.

For all the straight-shot convenience of the interstates, Route 66 -- or National Trails Highway as it's now called -- remains the preferred link between Southern California and points east for people who appreciate its light traffic and stark beauty, a Mars-scape of volcanic mountains, black lava fields and dry lake beds.

"I've always enjoyed Roy's. Had the best milkshakes in the state," said Larry Suplinskas, 75, who stopped recently on his way to Laughlin, Nev., and has been traveling the route for decades. He recalls chiding Buster Burris for posting a sign that read, "No Water Unless You're a Paying Customer." "Buster explained he had to truck in all his water -- that it was expensive,"

Suplinskas said. "He was a cantankerous old guy."

SPRING brings a steady stream of people hauling boats to the Colorado River. Summer is the season for Europeans drawn by the Route 66 mystique who roar up to Roy's on rented Harleys. A couple nearly collapsed at Stevens' feet last summer after underestimating the effects of riding in 120-degree heat.

"First-timers," Stevens said.

Others stumble onto Roy's frightened and grateful after overestimating the number of gas stations on this lonely highway. (Answer: zero.) Until Okura can get the gas pumps working again, Stevens keeps drums of emergency fuel on hand that he sells at cost, along with bottled water and Roy's Motel and Cafe T-shirts.

Austrian tourist Martina Differenz and her boyfriend recently eschewed the last gas stop on I-40 because it was nearly four bucks a gallon. They headed west on old Route 66 with less than half a tank and a guidebook showing plenty of towns along the way -- Essex, Danby, Cadiz. They pulled into Amboy with the needle on empty.

"The map showed villages along the way. But they're all empty," said Differenz, 23. "Are there people living here?"

For Okura, buying Amboy and Roy's wasn't about short-term profit but about his fascination with Route 66. A few years ago, he bought the San Bernardino storefront on Route 66 that was the site of the original McDonald's. He opened a museum dedicated to the burger giant there alongside his corporate offices. McDonald's lawyers weren't happy. But the unofficial association, Okura says, has been good for the chicken business.

Roy's will be too, he says.

"I want to keep the atmosphere the way it is. I don't want to make it into a tourist trap," Okura said. "I don't want to ruin it. By restoring it, I'm just looking for goodwill for my company. I know I'm not going to make any money there."

But Okura will be spending it -- far more than he anticipated.

Turns out Buster Burris' desert oasis isn't up to code. The county told Okura he'd need to redo Amboy's electric, water and septic systems -- all fashioned by Buster himself. The motel rooms may have a problem with asbestos and lead paint.

So far, Okura has spent $100,000 on upgrades and hasn't even scratched the surface. He recently fired a second contractor. Resuscitating Amboy could easily cost a million or more, Louden estimates.

"It's been a struggle," Okura said. "It's been difficult for me to even get anyone to work out there because it's so remote."

Meantime, Larry and his dogs look after the place, greeting customers in search of a business and escorting filmmakers and artists who see something profound and quintessentially American in Roy's.

Artists such as the photographer from Hustler who shot Stefani Morgan, the magazine's October centerfold, posing with a guitar, a mint 1950s Cadillac and little else outside the Route 66 icon.

Wide Open Road, they called the spread.

"That was a rough day," Stevens said unconvincingly. "This German couple stopped and they had their 18-year-old daughter with them. Stefani took a picture with the husband. It'll be a nice memory of their American trip."

mike.anton@latimes.com

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