USA TODAY US Edition
On the road on historic Route 66
First stop: The Hackberry General Store. Travel,
HACKBERRY, Ariz. – Shortly after noon on a crisp day, the winter sun hanging low in the sky, a solitary Toyota speeds past a building that appears cobbled together from the wood and rusted metals that pile up on the shoulders of lonesome highways.
Taillights blaze as the sedan makes a U-turn, the two-lane ribbon of Route 66 asphalt just wide enough to permit it.
The car glides over a patch of desert smoothed by a thousand tires. It stops next to a building held up by faith and rusty nails.
A brother and sister more than 5,000 miles from home climb out of the sedan, eager to explore what they had realized while speeding by was one of their target destinations along historic Route 66.
Hackberry General Store
Hackberry General Store is a mustsee destination for Sergio and Andra Goder of Barcelona, in the midst of a four-month American vacation.
Sergio says getting kicks on Route 66 is a rite of passage for Spaniards visiting the American West. Friends expect to see his social media posts filled with iconic images from the famous highway.
As he and his sister sped along a lonely stretch of blacktop carved through the high Arizona desert, Sergio blinked, nearly missing one of the highway’s most emblematic stops.
Because at 65 mph, the store and former garage appears to have lost its battle against time.
Yet nothing could be further from the truth.
“It came out of nowhere,” Sergio says as he browsed the store’s large selection of Route 66 license plates, signs and T-shirts. “If we had missed it, that would have been bad.”
He noticed two things as he sped by: the Hackberry General Store sign, and the fact that its patchwork structure was free of the chain-link fencing that sealed off some structures he’d seen.
If not for a reclusive artist, a nostalgic businessman and a retiree who couldn’t let an icon slip away, the Hackberry General Store might have been another victim of Interstate 40, which for years made Route 66 irrelevant.
The store not only survives, it thrives. Despite appearances to the contrary.
At the crossroads of ‘middle’ and ‘nowhere’
Hackberry General Store is the only sign of civilization for miles. Its rusted signs boasting of things that haven’t been there for decades (gas, oil, the Greyhound bus) seem to serve a dual purpose — setting the mood and holding up the building.
The store hunches quietly behind two vintage gas pumps whose state of disrepair is not obvious enough to keep some visitors from pulling up to them. Before this was a general store, it was a service station and garage.
Inside the store, vintage and modern license plates upholster the ceiling, with room remaining for the additions mailed or delivered in person by patrons.
Patches and currency from around the world blanket one wall, workers taking time each month to post the latest additions. Europe is heavily represent- ed. A recent surge in South American tourists has been noticed.
Visions of a vibrant Route 66 burn brightly amid the photos, paintings and other decor on the nostalgia-bearing walls. A re-creation of a 1950s diner with polished chrome furniture, a jukebox and black-and-white-tile flooring reminds travelers of a time when America’s lifeblood pulsed along the highway.
Visitors captivated by a bygone era browse shelves filled with tremendously popular souvenirs. Nine out of 10 customers hail from outside the USA. They snap up items representing this likely once-in-a-lifetime trip.
But they didn’t come just for T-shirts and magnets and license plates. They want to experience a slice of Americana, where the open road promises a journey between destinations.
A dilapidated roadside gem
John Pritchard has lost count of the times he had driven his 1957 red Corvette past the dilapidated outpost while visiting his vacation home in Lake Havasu City. For 15 years the oddity caught his eye but it seemed just another roadside stop worn down by inattention.
Until one day in the late 1990s when he noticed someone inside.
That’s when he met Bob Waldmire, an artist/cartographer/historian who had purchased the property years earlier, reopening the business in 1992 offering Route 66 souvenirs as well as tourist information. Given Waldmire’s roots — his father ran a hot-dog stand on Route
66 in Illinois — he preserved the store in its ramshackle state.
For Pritchard and his wife, Kerry, it was love at 30th or 40th sight. After some negotiation, the couple were the proud owners of the only store within 10 miles.
Armed with the perfect motive to retire, Pritchard moved his wife and two sons from Tacoma, Wash., to Arizona. The store provided the two things Pritchard was looking for: a hobby and plenty of space for his expansive collection of Route 66 memorabilia.
It seemed like destiny for the Class of
’66 graduate and longtime fan of the Mother Road.
Fueling a passion
When Pritchard opened the Hackberry General Store in 1998, it was part souvenir stand, part museum and all passion. He covered the walls with black-and-white photos of stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood, whose prime coincided with that of Route 66.
Vintage gas pumps, still in their broken-down state, went up outside, as did metal signs that years ago had lost their battle with the elements, bullets or both. Pritchard installed his ode to a 1950s diner.
Like Waldmire, he left the exterior as is, hardly ready for its close-up unless it was with a wrecking ball. But that was the key to the store’s charm. The rundown look was a beacon to nostalgia-seeking travelers, as was Pritchard’s ’57 Corvette parked outside.
It wasn’t long before Hackberry General Store attracted all sorts of attention.
“We had a Playboy photo shoot,” Pritchard says. “American Airlines did a travel story on us. We were on the Arizona Highways TV show. It got so famous in that first year or two.”
The decision to sell the store
When Pritchard decided it was time to retire, his employee and friend Amy Franklin made an offer neither could refuse. She named a price and Pritchard stuck out his hand.
“I knew the books,” Franklin says. “He knew I knew the books. Deal.”
When Franklin entered the store on Jan. 4, 2016, she had the same thought she did when she saw the store for the first time 17 years before.
“Oh my God, this is so cool,” she thought in 1999. Now she added, “And I own it.”
Her appreciation for the ramshackle station deepened as she greeted customers from all over the world. Franklin saw the wonder in their eyes as they told her how they had saved for years to drive Route 66.
Franklin retains the charming postapocalyptic look that visitors expected. Where time, at least over a few acres, remains frozen for those who enjoy a rare peek into the rear-view mirror.
If you go
11255 Route 66, Kingman, Ariz. hackberrygeneralstore.com