Everywhere I go I see old neon. These signs remind me of the my youthful days in the 1960s and 70s when we traveled. Alas, for many, the only signs they see are the same unoriginal fast food, gas station and motel chain signs all over the place. But, in the by gone days there were few McDonald’s and Motel 6 spots. Instead, there were the little cozy motels with the old metal chairs in the front and the unique neon signs. There were the local burger joints with their big shiny signs. And there were the drive in movie theaters and the downtown theatres with their unique names. Here is a trip down memory lane with neon I have captured along the less beaten paths and just a few comments, when appropriate.
Of all of the unique neon signs, perhaps the hotel and motel signs are the most fun and bring back the fondest memories. My first ever motel stay was in some non-descript motel in Amarillo, Texas in 1968. At the time I was only 12. It was exciting to sleep in a motel bed, see the paper covered drinking glasses, taste the strange tasting water, sit on the metal rockers on the front porch. We watched the news and stock reports on the local television and ate pancakes at a local cafe before heading to our new home in Richardson, Texas (we were moving from Albuquerque, so yes, we were on Route 66 back then).
And to round off the trip, how about one of the more famed ones….
CAFES AND RESTAURANTS
After a nice evening a a comfy motel, what is better than starting the day off with a great breakfast at a diner, a pancake house or a local cafe. The servings are always big, the mom and pop service is better than any fast food joint. Of course, while on the road you can also stop for lunch and even a big dinner, in some cases even more than you can manage if you are willing to take the chance (think Amarillo, Texas!!)
How about some burgers for lunch?
Perhaps you want to try an ORIGINAL Cozy Dog….a Route 66 Classic indeed. This one deserves two photos
Don’t want a burger or a corn dog? How about a Maid-Rite Sandwich?
Or perhaps some great authentic Bar-B-Q?
And a little Ice Cream for an afternoon treat….
Okay. So this next one is not neon. But it is certainly Vintage. And who can resist stopping for an ice cream at a place that LOOKS like an Ice Cream?
There are lots of places that you can get dinner…many of the old neon places are a combo bar/grill or bar/restaurant. And many have unique signs. Personally, I don’t drink alcohol, but I have certainly enjoyed a few good meals at some of these kinds of places.
And let’s not forget two of the most iconic vintage neon places for travelers….
Maybe you prefer something a bit more ethnic in the evening….
Or perhaps just a late night Philly Cheese Steak? How about two choices and they are just across the street from each other in the triangle….(I actually tried one at each place on the same evening – add the whiz!)
Movie Theaters, Drive-In Theaters and Music Halls
Perhaps you have had a long day on the road and need a break from motel room TV. A visit to an old drive in theater with some popcorn and thus fuzzy little speakers hanging in your window will do ya.
Too cold outside? Then there are some classic old movie theaters around that show some cool movies or maybe even will have a live band playing in them. Many of the old theaters are multi-purpose nowadays, but their old neon signs still draw you in and bring back the memories of 1960s childhood.
Following are a few classic looks with neon I have seen over the years as I travel the back roads of America.
VARIOUS AND SUNDRY OTHER PLACES
Sure, I meant it when I included “Sundry” in this section. That term seems old fashioned now, but the old five-and-dime shops had “sundry” items. There were also the old drug stores that sold magazines, had fountains in the shop and they sold “sundries.”
I also include the “various” in here since there are a few odds and ends neon signs that I want to include in this section.
Now, wasn’t that just a yummy adventure through the past?
On June 12 I commenced on a trip to Dallas, Texas from Idaho Falls, Idaho. This would be a long two day trip, but I certainly wanted to hit some places I had never been before. So, on Day 1 I ventured south through Pocatello and then onto Eagle, Colorado, about 588 miles. Following is my route map for Day 1.
Just near the hotel I stayed at in Idaho Falls, there was an amazing Eagle Sculpture in a roundabout. This is a HUGE work and is quite stunning. Called “The Protector”, it is touted as the “World’s Largest Eagle Monument” and was unveiled in the fall of 2006. The work was done by Wyoming artist Vic Payne and portrays a mother eagle perched to feed her two young eaglets with a salmon that is held in her great talons. The father, “The Protector”, circles around his territory in majestic flight keeping a vigilant watch for anything that may bring danger to his family. Payne created the eagles 3 times life size with a 21 foot wingspan. Each of the eaglets are 4 1/2 feet in height.
Go figure…I will start the morning off with an “Eagle” and end the day in an “Eagle.”
I then proceeded south on I-15 to Pocatello. This drive goes through volcanic fields and other geology. An interesting drive. As I approached the crest of a hill though, there was a stunning change in scenery as the lava fields turned into a huge field of yellow.
From Pocatello I continued south until I hit US 30 and then proceeded east towards Lava Hot Springs. This road leads into the hill country and offered more great views of flowery meadows.
I rolled into the small resort town of Lava Hot Springs, which is nestled in a nice little valley. I didn’t have time to stop except for a photo or two. But the Welcome Sign pretty much says it all.
This area was frequented by pre-historic Indians long before the white men arrived in 1812. They used the hot water for bathing and processing hides. It was also a major campground during the winter. Now the town touts itself as a “Vacation Resort” with spas, water slides and more.
Not much further east is the town of Soda Springs. Like Lava Hot Springs, it sits atop of hot springs and has a geyser too!! There is a lot of history here. In fact, Brigham Young, the great Mormon leader, even had a home here. as noted, Soda Springs has the only captive geyser in the world. It was discovered in an attempt to find a hot water source for a swimming pool. On November 30, 1937, the drill went down 315 feet and unleashed the geyser. The extreme pressure is caused by carbon dioxide gas mixing with water in an underground chamber. The water is around 72 F. It is now controlled by a timer. It erupts every hour on the hour and reaches heights of 100 feet year round.
I really would have liked to have spent a couple of hours here. It is a nice little town with some great history. But, I had to press on to Montpelier, which is “Pioneer Central”.
Montpelier, Idaho was founded in 1864 and received its name from Brigham Young in deference to his birthplace in the town of the same name in Vermont. Mormon heritage in the Bear Lake area of Idaho. Many Mormon families moved and settled in this area in the 1860s and 1870s. Indeed, my wife’s direct ancestors were some of the families that came to the area. In her case, her great great grandfather William Shepherd migrated from England and settled in nearby Paris, Idaho, which later became the county seat of Bear Lake County. He was a shoemaker and a farmer and was considered a “leading citizen” of the county (see this article for more on the Shepherds). My wife’s grandfather Rulon T. Shepherd was born in Paris as was her mother Arlene. Rulon and family eventually were some of the original settlers in Mesa, Arizona. So, the Pioneer Heritage of this area has a special place in the hearts of my family.
Montpelier is home to the National Oregon/California Trail Center, which is all about the pioneers. The Trail Center was built to preserve, perpetuate and promote the pioneer history and heritage of the Oregon/California Trail and the Bear Lake Valley.
I had to move on and into Wyoming. I got to the border via US 30 as it wound through areas trekked on by pioneers
From the border I headed into the small town of Cokeville, Wyoming.
Cokeville, Wyoming is a small town of about 535 people. The town got its name from coal deposits found in the area. The railroad arrived in 1882 and the town incorporated in 1910 and, in the early 1900s, was called the “Sheep Capital of the World” due to the number of sheep ranches. (Newell, SD is now called the “Sheep Capital of America”). Perhaps the only really interesting thing I saw in Cokeville was the non-descript sign for “Blondie’s Cafe”.
From Cokeville I continued s outh on US 30 until it turned east and then followed it on to Kemmerer.
Kemmerer, Wyoming and Diamondville, Wyoming are basically twin cities that reside in what is called “The Fossil Basin” due to the abundant fish fossils in the area. On the way into Kemmerer I passed Fossil Butte National Monument, but did not have time to stop there. Some of the world’s best preserved fossils are found here including fossilized fish, insects, plants, reptiles, birds, and mammals. They are apparently exceptional for their abundance, variety, and detail of preservation. There are also “Dig-your-own” fossil quarries located in the hills surrounding ancient Fossil Lake, just west of Kemmerer and Diamondville. So, this is a haven for fossil enthusiasts.
The two towns boast a number of beautiful wooden signs that dot the area. A few samples are above.
Kemmerer, Wyoming has about 2,700 residents and is the county seat of Lincoln County. The town was established as a result of the discovery of coal deposits by explorer John Fremont. In 1881 the Union Pacific Coal Company opened an underground mine in conjunction with the newly added Oregon Short Line Railroad. The actual town was founded in 1897 and was named after Pennsylvania Coal Magnate Mahlon S. Kemmerer, who provided major funding for the mine operations. As a result of the mines, the town grew rapidly.
In 1902 James Cash Penney came to Kemmerer to open a business. He set up the “Golden Rule Store” and opened its doors on April 14, 1902 in partnership with two other individuals. The partnership later dissolved, and, in 1909 Penney moved his headquarters to Salt Lake City to be closer to banks and railroads. By 1912 he had expanded to 34 stores in . In 1913 he made the decision to change their names to J.C. Penney Company. and the company eventually moved its headquarters to New York. An interesting side note of history: In 1940, Sam Walton began working at a J. C. Penney in Des Moines, Iowa. Walton later went on to found future retailer Walmart in 1962. The “Mother Store” still operates in Kemmerer.
The town has a beautiful (and large) wall mural in the downtown area depicting the history of the area. It was done by mural artist Harvey Jackson in 2006. I have wrote about another of his murals in Gillette, Wyoming in an earlier post.
I found this old wooden couple outside of Bob’s Rock Shop in Kemmerer. I didn’t stop in due to time constraints, but I had to get a shot of this fun couple!
Like Kemmerer, the small town of Diamondville, Wyoming got its start from Cole Mining when coal was discovered nearby in 1868 by a man named Harrison Church. A tent town soon formed and eventually the town was established in 1896. The town apparently got its name from the quality of the superior-grade coal that seemed to resemble black diamonds.
From Diamondville I proceeded east on US 30 towards the small town of Opal, WY.
Opal, Wyoming is practically a ghost town. There are only a few occupied buildings and a number of old run down houses. It was originally an old railroad town and is also a center for sheep and cattle ranching. According to one site, the town ships 10,000 head of cattle annually.
Continuing eastward, US 30 moved southeast towards Interstate 80 south of Granger, Wyoming. From there it was on to Little America, Wyoming.
Little America got its name from the Little America motel, which was purposefully located in this remote location as a haven, not unlike the base camp the polar explorer Richard E. Byrd set up in the Antarctic in 1928, thus the use of penguins as the icons. However, being situated on a coast-to-coast highway and offering travel services, it thrived, launching a chain of travel facilities by the same name. Its developer, Robert Earl Holding, who died on April 19, 2013, with a personal net worth of over $3 billion. Holding was the owner of Sinclair gas, the Little America hotel chain and the Sun Valley and Snowbasin ski resorts, among other businesses.
In 1974 I began work with a company in Salt Lake City called Alta Distributing. It was a record and tape rack jobber and I was given a sales territory that included southern Utah, eastern Utah and southern Wyoming. Once a month I made way from Vernal, Utah to Rock Springs, Wyoming and then west to Evanston and back to Salt Lake. I always stopped in Little America…it was truly a haven and they had a great dining facility with amazing portions. It was one of my fonder memories. Later, while in college, I worked for a short time at the Little America in Flagstaff, AZ and then, as a tour guide, made frequent trips to this classy hotel to pick up guests.
Heading east on I-80, the landscape is fairly bleak. Lots of sage brush and high desert landscapes. To some it is likely a boring drive. But, there is plenty of life out there and, as one gets closer to Green River, the scenery starts getting more interesting.
From Green River it is a hop skip and a jump to Rock Springs. I always remembered Rock Springs as a town full of singlewide trailers, but the town of 23,000 is actually quite vibrant due to the energy-rich region that contains numerous oil and natural gas reserves.
I continued east on I-80 until I got to exit 187 which linked with Wyoming HWY 789, which headed south towards Colorado. This exit had a couple of old gas station signs, remnants of a vibrant time now long gone.
The drive to Baggs, Wyoming on WY 789 is a 50 mile drive through some pretty amazing desert scenery. including colorful buttes, badlands, arroyos, wild horses and antelope. I was quite thrilled to take this drive on a road I had never been on and on one that is obviously not heavily traveled. At one time this was part of the Overland Trail and there are apparently still some ruts visible from the late 1800s when the trail was used.
The drive down Hwy 789 is also historic. It is reputedly where the famous Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid and their “Wild Bunch” hung out. Baggs is one of many towns in scenic Carbon County, Wyoming, which includes the towns of Rawlins, Baggs and a number of others.
Baggs, Wyoming is a short drive from the Colorado border and is only about 40 miles or so from Craig, Colorado. To get there I continued south on 789 which turns into Colorado Hwy 13 heading into Craig.
The drive down Colorado 13 is scenic with rolling hills and lots of antelope. I saw quite a few including the two below and then the amazing scene of the mother and two calves.
Along this highway one can see the “Fortification Rocks” which is an old basalt pillar that is believed to be used by Indians as a fortification. The historical marker for Fortification Rocks thew in some humor noting that “this area is better known as home to a large number of rattlesnakes.” This structure juts out of the prairie like a sharp razor back and is fairly impressive.
Continuing southward towards Craig the scenery continues to get more impressive.
And, of course, my GPS knows me well as it sent me on a gravel road bypassing Craig and heading towards US Route 40 and Hayden, CO.
Hayden is a small town of abut 1600 people just a few miles east of Craig, CO and west of Steamboat Springs, CO on US Hwy 40. The area was first settled in 1875, with the town established in 1894 and incorporated in 1906. Hayden was named for F.V. Hayden, head of a survey party for the U.S. Geological & Geographic Survey in the late 1860s. Hayden explored western Colorado during the late nineteenth century. It has a small mainline passenger airport due to it’s proximity to some major Colorado ski resorts.
I continued east on US 40 a few more miles until I hit Colorado Hwy 131 which headed south towards Eagle through the Yampa River Valley and some wonderful late spring scenery of wildflower covered hills, as well as a drive by a huge Peabody Coal operation near Oak Creek, Colorado.
From the Peabody Coal facility, CO 131 winds its way down into the small town of Oak Creek. Funny how it reminded me of the drive from Flagstaff, AZ to Sedona, AZ thorough Oak Creek Canyon with the sharp curves.
From Oak Creek I proceeded south to Phippsburg and then into Yampa, CO, where I caught a pretty amazing sunset.
I finally arrived in Yampa, Colorado at around 8:30 PM in time to catch a glimpse of a wonderful sunset on the hills.
The remainder of the drive was in the shady light of sunset as I continued south and crossed over the Colorado River at State Bridge Landing south of Bond, CO. It was too dark to get any photographs but it was lit enough that I could imagine that it was a spectacular scene. I eventually made my way to my hotel in Eagle, CO. It was a long day after nearly 600 miles of driving…but left some lasting memories.