Something strange happened the day Angel Delgadillo came into this world in the tiny railroad town of Seligman, Ariz. Born in a house of eight kids on April 19, 1927, he took his first breaths just a few feet from Route 66, a nascent national highway established five months earlier. Maybe it was the fact they were nearly the same age or both new to the world, but Delgadillo’s fate would become inextricably linked to the road for the next 89 years.
Stretching from Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif., the 2,448-mile road was a patchwork of existing roads, sewn together by the federal government to help move people and goods across the country. Before long, eccentric signs, quirky sights and a mom-and-pop service industry sprouted in the small towns lining the route. It became one of the nation’s most iconic roads, popularized in books, songs and a TV show. As the road grew up, so did Delgadillo, who fresh out of high school, opened up a barber shop to reel in the steady stream of customers driving Route 66.
For years life was good for the road and Delgadillo. And then things went terribly wrong. At precisely 2:30 p.m. on Sept. 22, 1978, traffic stopped coming through Seligman. Bypassed by a faster I-40, towns like Seligman began to die as did Delgadillo’s livelihood. Even the signs for Seligman were removed from the new interstate, erasing it from existence.
“It was like an old shoe,” the 89-year-old says, referring to Route 66. “Once it is not needed, you throw it away. People don’t understand what it is to be forgotten and ignored.”
It was Delgadillo who saved his old friend. Amid skepticism from many, he met with business owners along the route in 1987 to rally support for state designation of the historic route. They created the Historic Route 66 Association of Arizona, an organization that would spark an eight-state movement to literally get the road and the towns along it back on the map.
By the end of the year, the state of Arizona preserved a 159-mile stretch of original Route 66 by designating it a historic highway. And Delgadillo and his wife Vilma, opened up The Original Route 66 Gift Shop, donating all proceeds that first year to the Historic Route 66 Association of Arizona.
These days, Delgadillo’s gift shop is packed by 9 a.m. with people speaking a dozen languages, including English, French, Japanese and German. Delgadillo and his daughters, son-in-law and staff greet every single person who walks in.
“If you’re a barber and you are gone, you’re not making any income, so he never got to travel,” says Mauricio Perez, Delgadillo’s son-in-law who helps run the family business. “But Angel will tell you he’s so blessed. The world comes to him.”
With tourists flooding his shop, Delgadillo takes a break and sits on his black leather barber shop chair in the next room. He leans in close, his broad shoulders narrowing, his hands clasped in his lap.
“You know what?” he asks. Then, he turns his head and looks out the window just several feet from him. On the other side of the window is a sidewalk, the only thing separating Delgadillo from the “Mother Road,” named by John Steinbeck in his 1939 book Grapes of Wrath.
He stares at it as if the road is a confidant sitting beside him, helping him collect his thoughts or recall a certain memory. When he turns back, his eyes are gleaming, the bright-colored trappings of Route 66 caught in the lenses of his glasses.
“I’ve been interviewed roughly 1,000 times since 1987 and everyone asks me, ‘Why do people get off I-40 and come here?’ ” Delgadillo says and pauses. “They miss America of yesterday. We are moving so fast we don’t have time to smell the roses. But Route 66 gives them that moment of reliving yesterday. It’s alive.”
He’s still moved over what happened, how the signs went back up on the highway, how the kitchy businesses re-opened, how the ‘50s music started playing again on street corners, how a trickle of travelers’ headlights became a stream and today, sometimes, a torrent. Outside his barber shop window, tourists are strolling up and down Seligman where the Deluxe Inn Motel has a sign telling customers to “Ring the bell for service.” Down the street, a more esoteric outdoor store sign reads, “When the horse dies, get off.”
It’s Americana at its best, as are the legendary historic Burma-Shave messages that line Route 66. They popped up in the 1920s to promote Burma-Shave shaving cream to drivers, and you can still read their playful, Zen-like messages today. Outside Seligman, one such message reads: “If you don’t know whose signs these are, you haven’t driven far enough.”
Beyond the signs rolls a sagebrush-speckled landscape, green with August rain, the blue sky towering above. What lays before you is equally as mesmerizing as what is absent. No shopping centers, traffic, parking lots. So much room to breathe.
And the whole scene begs a disquieting question. What if Burma-Shave is right? What if we haven’t driven far enough, metaphorically? What if, in search of a faster, better, newer America, we took a wrong turn? In place of whimsical mom-and-pop stores and spirited humor, we have sanitized suburbs, shiny national chain stores and giant movieplexes where no one, except the Walmart greeters, welcomes you at the door.
Sure many of us are making more money than Delgadillo did in his best year, which was $11,000. But Delgadillo’s vision of the American Dream isn’t about living in a huge house with a pool. It’s the dream that one person can change the lives of many through simple conversations, dedication to his or her passion and perseverance.
New light bulbs are finding their way into old neon signs along Route 66 from Illinois to California. And at least some of them are because of one man, whom some call an angel, who believed in the road as much as he believed in himself.
“It wasn’t the government or companies or a brilliant history professor from over at the university that did it,” he recalls incredulously, with his large teeth forming a wide smile across his face.
Then he pauses, turns his head to Route 66 just beyond his window and smiles even more broadly. “It was just we the people. The American Dream is alive and well.”
Tori Peglar is editor of National Park Journal. She says meeting with Angel Delgadillo was one of the most inspiring moments she has had as a writer. She hopes to one day travel the entire Historic Route 66.