Thursday, January 29, 2015

Plans underway to preserve historic High Desert stretch of Route 66

A car passes through Amboy on historic U.S. Route 66., Thursday, July 31, 2014. (John Valenzuela)

By Joe Nelson
The San Bernardino Sun

America’s love affair with Route 66 endures.

Songs have been written about it. A television show was named after it. It played a prominent role in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” as the route taken by the Joad family from Oklahoma to California to escape the Dust Bowl.

And for nearly a quarter of a century, the city of San Bernardino paid tribute to it with its annual Route 66 Rendezvous, a weekend street faire for classic car enthusiasts.

And now, plans are underway to preserve and enhance a 150-mile stretch of the two-lane historic highway from Needles to Barstow, creating roadside kiosks and mobile apps, among other things, to attract visitors and keep its memory alive.

“I’m convinced the route will get busier and busier because of tourism and the baby boomers retiring,” said Albert Okura, owner of the historic roadside Roy’s Motel and Cafe in Amboy, one of the mainstay attractions along the dusty desert stretch of Historic Route 66.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the California Historic Route 66 Association released their Route 66 Draft Corridor Management Plan.

A 30-day public comment period on the plan is now underway. A webcast is scheduled for Feb. 19. The webcast, as well as a digital copy of the plan, can be accessed at

Hard copies are also available for review at the BLM California Desert District Office in Moreno Valley, the BLM’s Barstow and Needles field offices, the Barstow Chamber of Commerce, the Barstow Public Library, the Needles Chamber of Commerce, and the Needles Public Library.

A limited number of black-and-white hard copies of the plan may be requested via email at, with “CMP Hard Copy Request” entered in the subject line of the email.

The long-term plan includes the most comprehensive strategy to date on the preservation and marketing of the highway stretch. Once the plan is complete, the BLM and California Historic Route 66 Association will push to get it designated as a National Scenic Byway by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The targeted audience includes Route 66 enthusiasts, historians, multi-generational travelers and travel groups, photographers and railway enthusiasts.

“It represents a great chance to introduce people to the Mojave Desert,” said Jim Klein, the project’s lead planner.

He said several gateway centers with kiosks are planned for Barstow, Needles, Amboy, Essex, Goffs and Ludlow. An interactive mobile app would allow travelers to see then-and-now photos of the many stopovers and other geographic points of interest along the highway, he said.

“When you’re trying to draw people toward Barstow, you need to create something for them to see and do,” Klein said. “There are a lot of great old photographs of all these communities. Some of them are no longer there.”

Building new infrastructure along the highway stretch and refurbishing many, if not all, of the 128 timber trestle bridges dotting the historic route is also a top priority, Klein said. He said the stretch of Route 66 from Needles to Barstow has most of the antiquated wooden bridges, which were built in the 1920s during construction of the highway.

Written comments on the draft plan will be accepted through Feb. 28, and may be submitted by mail to Lardner/Klein Landscape Architects, 815 N. Royal St., Suite 200, attn: Route 66 CMP, Alexandria, VA 22314. Comments can also be sent via email to

Friday, January 9, 2015

Come for the Giant Rock, Stay for the UFO History

George Van Tassel believed he could communicate with aliens

By Laura Clark

At first glance, there’s not all that much exciting about what has been called the “world’s biggest rock.” It’s as huge as its nickname suggests—a freestanding boulder about seven stories high and covering about 58,000 square feet in California’s Mojave Desert.

But visitors to the rock don’t typically go there for geology; they come, often, because of the rock's association with a race of space creatures with “good healthy tan[s]."

Giant Rock, as it is formally called, was once just one of many boulders scattered over an arid swath of unused government land. Native Americans may have viewed it as a spiritual site, but it wasn’t inhabited until the 1930s, when Frank Critzer arrived, as Sasha Archibald writes in Cabinet Magazine.

No one knows how he came upon the rock, and technically he was a squatter, but he sure did settle in. He dug out a cave under the boulder, built a runway for small private planes and carved out 33 miles of road leading to the nearest paved street. In 1942, during a visit by police, Critzer was killed when an old box of dynamite exploded.

With the first owner gone, Giant Rock only became weirder.

That same year, perhaps intrigued by Critzer’s exploits, George Van Tassel, a 32 year-old Ohio native and aviation tradesman, visited the site and decided to live there. He bought the land around Giant Rock from the Bureau of Land Management and, in 1947, moved himself, his wife, Eva and three daughters from Los Angeles to their new desert home.

As Archibald explains, most of what's known about Van Tassel is gleaned from his own writings and from his devotees—not exactly objective sources. By his death in 1978, he had become a kind of new-age philosopher, UFO “expert” and the leader of Ministry of Universal Wisdom, a religion he created. One thing is clear, though: Van Tassel believed he was in contact with aliens.

In his first book, I Rode a Flying Saucer, published in 1952, he describes meeting those tanned space creatures, who transmitted knowledge to him through telepathy. Van Tasssel claimed that Solganda, the aliens’ leader ultimately instructed him on how to build a time machine that would heal and strengthen humans—and so, about three miles south of Giant Rock, he built a two-story-high white dome, The Integratron. Though he worked on it for the rest of his life, it was never quite finished.

Van Tassel claimed at one time that the machine’s design came from a 17-page alien equation. The more likely inspiration was the research of a Russian scientist named George Lakhovsky, whose theories included the idea that human bodies were electrical conductors and that cancer could be cured by his Multiple Wave Oscillator. The Integratron time machine was a variation on these ideas. Archibald writes:

“Like an automatic car wash, the Integratron was an amalgam of architecture and machine. Its purpose was not to transport a fixed body to a different time, as time machines typically do, but to eliminate time’s effect on a body; the machine produced time, rather than suck it away.”

Beginning in the early 1950s, in order to raise money for himself and the development of the machine, Van Tassel held UFO conventions around Giant Rock. At the height of its popularity, the convention is thought to have attracted over a thousand attendees. Life even shot a series of photos documenting the participants in the “Flying Saucer Convention of 1957,” where believers shared alien experiences and theories on extraterrestrial life.

Today, the unfinished Integratron still stands out in the desert, cared for by the current owners, who put it to use as a site for “sound baths” which, according to their website, are “60-minute sonic healing sessions that consist of 25 minutes of crystal bowls played live.” And though Van Tassel's conventions ended in the 1970s, in 2006, devotees convened for convened for a day-long “Retro UFO Convention." The Independent reports:

Old-timers recalled the glory days of spotting mysterious lights in the desert sky. Present-day believers spoke enthusiastically about their own close encounters, everywhere from Arizona to New York City. Those blessed with actual contact with the aliens - known in the vernacular as "contactees" - were welcomed like prophets for the new millennium, complete with shiny silver hats and cloaks that looked eerily like cast-offs from the Star Trek wardrobe department.

Van Tassel would have felt right at home.