VICTORVILLE – They were in their early 20s, hip in that effortless European way. He wore cool shades and a three-day stubble; she bore piercings in all the right places – lip, eyebrow, helix of the ear lobe. They said they were from Pamplona, Spain, but rolled their eyes at mention of the running of the bulls.
Too touristy, the gesture meant.
Yet Borja Marcos and Oihane Almagro were standing in front of one of the West's monuments to touristic diversions – the curio- besotted California Route 66 museum – snapping photos of each other before a giant mural.
All of which perhaps proves the theory that sneering locals just fail to appreciate what visitors embrace as noteworthy, exotic even.
"Route 66 is known well in Spain," Marcos says. "We were in Los Angeles, and we're going to Las Vegas. We wanted to stop."
Well, of course they did.
As Sharon Foster, the marketing director of the California Route 66 Museum in this low-rise San Bernardino County town, happily points out, more than 10,000 visitors a year grace the two-room shrine to a more quaint era of pre-freeway transportation.
"That's a lot of people for little old Victorville," she says.
Foster leads you over to a map of the world, where museumgoers are encouraged to plant a pin in their country of origin. The map is peppered with pins, giant clumps from Great Britain and Eastern Europe. And who knew a two-lane road that reached peak popularity in the 1950s could draw such a contingent from Tanzania and Kenya?
Two tourists from Curidiba, Brazil, Rui Caramori and Palo Rodriguez, are taking smartphone photos of a big blue Pepsi vending machine (10 cents), circa 1940, and ogling roadside billboards from back in the day. They, too, are on their way from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. They, too, just had to stop.
"It's famous," Caramori says. "Much (Route 66) merchandizing in Brazil."
Much merchandizing is on display in the museum, too. You can buy T-shirts, mugs and reproduced road signs – the usual stuff – and even a cool neon wall clock. But it's what's not for sale, the memorabilia, that makes this a must-stop.
Schmaltzy as it may sound, Route 66 once was the heartland of America – or at least one of its major arteries – running through eight states and opening the world of the great Southwest to East Coast city slickers. John Steinbeck, in "The Grapes of Wrath," called it the "Mother Road," leading Dust Bowl refugees from Oklahoma to California.
The road's charms were burnished by Hollywood in the early 1960s with a TV show, "Route 66," in which Martin Milner and George Maharis cruised in their Corvette convertible.
By the late 1960s, however, the interstate highway system was such that Route 66 became something of a sad frontage road, dotted by water towers and motels with missing letters.
People still travel on it. Some make it an annual pilgrimage. Others, like most of the tourists haunting the museum on one recent afternoon, simply take a detour off Interstate 15 and have a look-see.
To Victorvilleans, the museum is a point of pride. Volunteer docents acknowledge there is another museum up the road, the Barstow Route 66 "Mother Lode" Museum, but they boast that the Victorville shrine was there first.
"Even as broken as the road is, as bad as the road is, I think it's the mystery of the road that draws people," Foster says. "To visit 2,248 miles, you see it all. (People) go through the plain states, the mountains, the desert to the beach. It's more than a road; you get to see the people element as you go through.
"I've found most of our (international tourists) actually want to travel the road. But we've made it so that everyone can see the kind of stuff exactly as you would've found (it) as you traveled along the road."
Stuff like old gas pumps, a re-created soda fountain diner, a tricked out, hippie/ flower power VW bus, a 1949 five-cup milkshake machine from Sparky's Drive-In in Victorville, old telegraph machines, phonographs, an eight-track tape player with Barry White's "Greatest Hits" cued up, and remnants from what once was a major roadside attraction, Mahan's Half Acre, in Hesperia.
Mahan's was something you won't find off a freeway exit these days. It was a folk-art space doubling as the home of the eccentric Miles Mahan. It featured everything from painted signs of hula girls to bottle trees and a miniature golf course, but closed after Mahan's death in 1997. The Hula Girl and Giant Cowboy wooden cutouts now grace the back walls of the Victorville museum.
Newer items make the biggest splash with the under 4-foot demographic: a bevy of bigger-than-life-size models from the movie "Cars."
The popularity of the 2006 Disney-Pixar computer-animated blockbuster jump-started interest in Route 66, Foster says. In the film, the road is home to "Radiator Springs," which was sadly neglected after construction of Interstate 40.
"Thank goodness, 'Cars' was regarding 66, because that did bring the younger group into us," Foster says. "But I'm the last generation that really traveled the road when it was the primary route getting to California.
"We've lost a generation, some of the late baby boomers, but hopefully, we'll make up for it when the kids want to bring Dad and Mom in here."
CALIFORNIA ROUTE 66 MUSEUM
Location: 16825 D St., Victorville
Phone: (760) 951-0436
Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday; 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday; Tuesday and Wednesday by appointment.