August 18, 2012

The El Trovatore: Beacon of Light and Hope

The magnificent 100-foot neon tower at sunrise.

Route 66 travelers who chase the sunset into the city of Kingman, Arizona, compare the experience with a long, slow airplane descent. The lights of distant motels and restaurants beckon travelers for miles, and those lights grew a little bit brighter this year thanks to the efforts of Sam and Monica Frisher.

This spring the Frishers accomplished a feat that I never dreamed possible: restoring the battered El Trovatore Motel and its spectacular 100-foot neon tower. Built in 1937 as a service station on a stony bluff, the tourist court was added in 1939 and offered travelers stunning views of the Hualapai Mountains to the east. Its first owner was John F. Miller, who famously built the first hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada, the Sal Sagev (Las Vegas spelled backwards). When Route 66 was bypassed, the El Trovatore fell into disrepair and eventually became apartments.

On a warm May night I arrived via Andy Devine Avenue and immediately savored the motor court's pre-World War II atmosphere. Sam and Monica greeted me warmly and I unloaded my things into the Marilyn Monroe room before returning to the office to snap pictures of the Frishers and their dog Taco. Sam agreed to keep the neon tower lit until morning so I could view its glorious colors in the pre-dawn light (click photos to enlarge).

The Marilyn Monroe room: simple and comfy.
For 20 years I'd passed this old jewel of the desert and dreamed that a savior would one day restore her midcentury glory. Thanks to the Frishers, the dream is coming true. The soaring red and green neon tower was re-lit in March and 20 rooms have already been refurbished in old-school Hollywood themes. Eventually the entire motel will be restored; with so much open space, it's an ideal overnight stop for tour buses from Vegas and Laughlin. Sam is also planning an observation deck that will treat guests to a panorama of the Hualapai mountains and the parade of BNSF trains in the cut below. To book a room, visit their website at

Sam and Monica Frisher in the motel office, May 2012
 The Frishers have already overcome tremendous odds by saving the El Trovatore and these images are a tribute to their vision. These are the road warriors who keep the spirit of Route 66 alive, preserving the Mother Road as a lifeline for those seeking the true character of America, far from generic chains and interstates. Spend an evening with Sam and Monica at the El Trovatore and you'll quickly spot the qualities that make Route 66 special: individuality, community, and a bold vision of what lies around the next bend.

A guest's view of the neon tower. The LED lighting is temporary.

Only on Route 66 can you get a welcome like this!

The Frishers' dog Taco provides some evening entertainment.

May 17, 2012

Steaming Through Arizona

Santa Fe 3751, Miramar, Cal., 2008
I'm writing from the restored El Trovatore Motel in Kingman, Arizona (watch for a post soon!), en route to meeting Santa Fe no. 3751 in Williams and covering her westbound trip to Los Angeles. Click here for the full schedule. This is the big 4-8-4's first big road trip outside California in nearly 10 years -- she powered a similar odyssey to Williams in August 2002. Since then she's handled excursions to San Diego, San Bernardino and around the Los Angeles basin. On Friday she'll take her train down the BNSF line towards Phoenix and turn west to Parker via the Arizona and California Railway (a former Santa Fe route). After staying the night in Parker, she'll cross back into California and rejoin BNSF rails for the return trip to LA. 

Appropriately enough, Amtrak No. 66 is one of the two helper diesels assigned to the train. You can bet I'm looking for a good Route 66 photo op! To celebrate 3751's return to her old stomping grounds, here are a few photos of the 1927 Baldwin during recent travels.

 Steaming past an old packing house in Upland, Cal., on the old Pasadena line, May 2010.

In September 2008, 3751 leads a private car owners' excursion through Torrey Pines Park near Del Mar, Cal. at dusk.

No matter where she goes, 3751 always draws a crowd. San Bernardino, Cal., May 2010.

April 30, 2012

Ron Swanson's Pyramid of Greatness

While commenting at one of my favorite blogs, I quoted the great Ron Swanson of Parks and Recreation fame, and that reminded me of a chart that should have been posted months ago. Now that I'm once again a freelance gun-for-hire, the timing is much better. (click to read)

I can't believe I hated that show in its first season! Anyone got any steak?

PS: Don't forget to vote Leslie Knope for Pawnee City Council.

April 17, 2012

Route 66 Beacons in the News

The classic 66 Motel in Needles: will she beckon travelers again?
Two landmark Route 66 motels are in the news: the El Trovatore in Kingman, Arizona, which has not only reopened but restored its neon tower, and the 66 Motel in Needles, California, which is the subject of an intense fundraising effort to save its classic sign.

Relighting the 66 Motel: There's a reason why most tourists drive to Laughlin instead of Needles, but the Route 66 town will always be my first choice. Between 100 BNSF trains a day, the nearby Colorado River, a Harvey House hotel and a parade of vintage motels and diners, Needles has plenty to interest the Route 66 traveler. Now preservationist Ed Klein is raising money to restore the classic 66 Motel sign in Needles, Calif. I last photographed the sign in 2004 while working on my Route 66 Railway book (back then I was still shooting film!). For as much as it's been immortalized in books, documentaries and artwork, this is the first serious restoration effort I can recall. Ed's goal is to raise $3,600 by 11:59 p.m. PT on Wednesday, April 18; about 35 hours remain as of this posting. Click HERE to see a 90-second video on the restoration and donate online. (Donors get cool Route 66 perks!)

Can you imagine this lit up at dusk?
A Southwest Beacon Returns: I've lost count of how many times I passed the hillside El Trovatore motel and prayed that a savior would one day restore its midcentury glory. Thanks to Monica and Sam Frisher, that prayer has finally been answered. The soaring red and green neon tower was relit in early April and 20 rooms have been refurbished in classic Hollywood themes. A ton of work remains, but the Frishers have already overcome huge odds by saving this Kingman gem. I can't wait to visit and capture that marvelous tower at dusk . . . hopefully there's a way to frame the motel with a passing train in the cut below. For more info, visit their website at You can read a great article on the motel restoration by clicking HERE. Also, author Jim Hinckley has photos of the restored tower -- click HERE to see them.

A big "thank you" to these preservation heroes who are keeping the Route 66 mystique alive!

April 14, 2012

The Empire Strikes AT&T Park

Armed with Stormtrooper helmet and road jersey, a fan makes his way to AT&T Park. (click to bigify)

Baseball is back, thank God!! The San Francisco Giants flag is once again flying proudly over our garage. (Last week's disastrous sweep in Arizona is already forgotten). Watching yesterday's magical home opener recalled memories of our one and only 2011 game trip, to see the defending 2010 World Champions in action. And we didn't pick just any game: we chose AT&T Park's "Star Wars Day."

The real Boba Fett and his boss pose near right field.

Glorious worlds collide! Costume contests, a Brian Wilson Carbonite giveaway, appearances by Darth Vader, Boba Fett, and plenty of stormtroopers . . . then after the game, a screening of The Empire Strikes Back on the park's high-tech scoreboard.

The Giants lost to the Diamondbacks, but the day will always be long remembered. Kat and I even appeared on the scoreboard with our orange rally rags! Since then, we've discovered that Star Wars Days are becoming all the rage at MLB parks, so check the 2012 season calendar of your favorite team.

Below is a little photo essay from our Force-tastic day last September. Can't wait for our first road trip to AT&T Park -- a slice of baseball heaven by the bay.

Giants mascot Lou Seal channels his inner Jedi.

Badass times two. If Fett ever returns, these should be his colors.

Sadly, this masterpiece didn't even place in the costume contest.

Never leave Endor without your Panda hat.

There's a joke here, but I'll let you make your own.

Empire on the bitchin' scoreboard. Those people in center field paid $100 for the privilege. Nerfherders.

"I am your Father, LOL."

March 21, 2012

Union Pacific's Midcentury Mini-Train

UP's 1956-built mini-train passes dome lounge Harriman in Roseville, Calif., in August 2006. (click to enlarge)
The latest Trains Trackside photo contest features the theme "yellow" . . . so last week I found myself hunting through dozens of Union Pacific pictures in search of something that wasn't the same old action view. Then I remembered a fun set of photos from an event in summer 2006 at UP's Roseville, Cal., yard. We'd traveled there to see the unveiling of the railroad's sixth and final heritage diesel, UP 1996, painted in Southern Pacific Daylight colors. While 1996 was the star of the show that day, a much-smaller engine caught my eye as it pulled trainloads of happy families: UP 956, a rubber-tired F-unit replica built in 1956. The "mini-train" makes 50 appearances a year in parades, employee family days and community events. The engine and five-car train were refurbished and repainted in 2006, and the Armour yellow paint looked splendid in the morning light.

At one point the mini-train rolled beside a passenger special on display, and I snapped away at the mismatched scene of yellow trains big and small. When 956 passed 1955-built dome lounge Harriman, the explosion of yellow was almost blinding!

Fun with perspectives: a study of 956 and steel-wheeled cousin SD70ACe 8406.
To vote in Trains' online contest, visit To learn more about the mini-train and "engine" 956, visit

Love that caboose!

January 22, 2012

Paddock Bowl Neon

Before I post yet another series of Monterey Bay sunset photos -- see the last two posts -- let's do something different. Above is a marvelous neon sign found near Concord, California in the East Bay area. I was driving home from Martinez in April 2010 and spotted this bowling alley next to Interstate 680. The ball "rolls" into the pins thanks to a cool lighting sequence. Love those colors! (click to enlarge)

January 15, 2012

Sunset at Rio Del Mar

Sunset views at Rio Del Mar, January 4, 2012 (click photos to enlarge)
One of the nice perks about working with HRmarketer is our office location: literally one block from the Pacific Ocean at Rio Del Mar, California (south of Santa Cruz). Even though I only drive to the office once or twice a week, it's pretty sweet to work near the beach! This comes in handy during the winter months when our sunsets are especially fiery. Last week I emerged from the office and was greeted by a magnificent sunset; thankfully I had a Nikon in the car. A large crowd was on hand aiming their iPhones and admiring the spectacle. Not a bad way to shoot the first sunset of 2012!

December 31, 2011

Come Sail Away

The Lady Washington sails into Moss Landing Harbor in November 2011. (click photos to enlarge)
2011 is hours away from ending as I write this post, so here are a few photos to finish off the year. Moss Landing Harbor hosted a classy lady in November when the sailing ship Lady Washington arrived for a weekend and took admirers on cruises around Monterey Bay. The tall ship has appeared in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and even the film Star Trek Generations, so I made time to catch a sunset arrival after an early evening cruise. Happy new year!

Tourists make for a fine photo as they watch birds and sea life in the harbor.
An otter munches on a crab snack while lazy sea lions could care less about the Lady Washington.

December 2, 2011

Travels with UP 844: 2011 Edition

It's hard to imagine a better birthday present than photographing a 1944-built 4-8-4 on her old stomping grounds, thundering up Cajon Pass and speeding across my beloved Mojave Desert. But there I was on November 19, watching in awe as Union Pacific's magnificent No. 844 engulfed the signal towers at Silverwood station with a cloud of steam and rounded the sweeping curve into Cajon Summit.

The California run was part of a southwest tour to commemorate the 100th statehood anniversaries of New Mexico and Arizona. UP 844 arrived via the former SP Sunset Route into West Colton (that's Bloomington to non-railfans). After a day on display, she climbed Cajon Pass on 11/19 and stayed the night in the desert town of Yermo. From there she traveled over historic UP rails to Las Vegas and points east, with a memorable stop at the restored Kelso depot in the Mojave National Preserve.

Slowing near Lenwood, Cal., for the arrival in Barstow . . . a magnificent machine.

It's always tough to pick my favorite pictures from a road trip, so I finally took a cue from friend Dave Styffe and built a web gallery in Adobe Lightroom. Follow the link below to see a gallery of 50 images of steam, railfans, and an extended visit to Kelso (the town may still be recovering):

Thanks to my family who let me loose for a birthday road trip, and to my cousins Damon and Jeane who let me stay at their place for a few nights. And special thanks to Union Pacific Railroad for once again showing unmatched class and style by sending its goodwill ambassador across the Southwest.

Some Giants fan wanted his picture with UP 844 at Yermo.