Black Jackrabbits?

Back in the early 1960s I was moving to California and like millions before me the chosen path West was US Route 66. In American folklore Route 66 is known as the Mother Road and in those days it was the major route to Southern California and all that lay between Ohio and the Pacific Ocean.

I began my trip taking US Route 50 from Ohio to St. Louis where it merged with Route 66. I don’t remember much about the trip to St. Louis except after I passed the longitude that Indianapolis sits on it was all new territory. I had never been further west than Indy where we attended the Indy 500 in 1957.

After passing through St. Louis two things stand out from my trip through Missouri. First, the further west I drove the more Concord grape vineyards I saw and each one had a small roadside shelter with a person sitting inside hoping some traveler would stop and buy a few pounds of purple pleasure.

The other thing began appearing someplace around Springfield, MO and that other thing was the sudden appearance of a large yellow sign with nothing on it but the black silhouette of a large big-eared jackrabbit. Pressing on through Missouri, Oklahoma, North Texas, and New Mexico, these mysterious signs became more frequent. They were also, only on the west bound lane of Rte. 66.

I don’t remember if I ever took the time to ask anyone what these jackrabbit signs were all about but it was obvious they were a kind of Burma-Shave thing in that something was being advertised.

About a forth of the way across Arizona the mystery was suddenly and blatantly solved. Without much warning I came upon a very large yellow sign with the now familiar black jackrabbit silhouette. This difference this time was, this sign had the words “HERE IT IS” in big red block letters. To the right of the sign was a long one-story building with sever dozen black jackrabbit cutouts along the front edge of the roof and an even larger jackrabbit cutout mounted higher up the roof. This was the very renowned Jackrabbit Trading Post of Joseph City, AZ. One of Route 66’s and America’s premier tourist traps.

Saying that the Jackrabbit was a premier stop along the Mother Road is saying something since there was no shortage of tourist traps. Pick up any of the many books about the historic days of Route 66 and you’ll quickly see what I mean. Ice cream vendors operating out of huge blue whales and concrete dinosaurs, a restaurant built in the form of a Dutch windmill, motel cabins built to resemble Indian tepees, souvenir shops inside of round barns, classic art-deco filling stations, along with a myriad of architectural forms meant to attract the eye and lure the tourist and their dollars onto the parking lot.

I stopped at the Jackrabbit Trading Post long enough to fill the gas tank, get an ice cream cone and almost get hooked into buying an emergency burlap water bag for the long trip across the Mojave Desert that lay in front of me. These bags were meant to be filled with water and hung on the hood ornament to keep the water cool and were being promoted at every stop along the Arizona portion of 66. Being short on funds I decided I’d take the risk.

Water did become an issue, however. These were the pre-bottled water days and paying for a drink of H2O was unheard of to a naive innocent from Ohio. But, when I got to the California border and stopped in Needles, CA for gas I went into the restaurant and asked for a glass of ice water. The waitress brought me an icy cold drink and then said, “That will be a dime.” I later came to learn that water in the Mojave frequently needs to be hauled in and it isn’t cheap.

The Jackrabbit Trading Post has been around since the late 1940s and still exists today. You may know that Route 66 has been made obsolete by the construction of I-40 which parallels it in many places. Certain sections of 66 have been rebuilt and it is possible today to drive what is marked as “Historic Route 66.” In other places the road is in disrepair and/or simply turns to sand and disappears into the desert.

Thankfully for the owners of the Jackrabbit they had a local resident who wielded a degree of political punch and was able to get the Jackrabbit its own on/off ramp along I-40. I haven’t been through Arizona since 1970 and have no idea what became of all those bright yellow signs bearing the black silhouette of a jackrabbit. Several years ago I did travel some of the Mother Road in NM, TX and OK but did not see any signs. Of course, I was headed east, young man!

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