By Claudia Heller
It was a long-forgotten town along Route 66 in the Mojave Desert that tugged at his heartstrings and gave him a higher purpose. But his love for the Mother Road began long before the fateful day when he discovered that vanished town and its ghostly inhabitants.
He preferred to be known by his first name: Roland. He kept his identity secret though he communicated with a few Roadies on line where he was affectionately known by his first name. “I grew up in Northern Indiana not very far from good ‘ol Route 66” he said. “I moved to California in 1986 and have been back and forth over the Mother Road many, many times.”
He favored sections of the Road in Oklahoma, Arizona “and of course California.” Right after moving to California he confesses he became a “desert rat” and when he could find the time he’d hop on his motorcycle or climb into his truck and head out to the desert.
“I took quite a shine to many of the desert towns over the years,” he confessed, “like Ludlow, Twenty Nine Palms, Amboy, Needles, Kelso and Nipton to name a few.”
One fateful day, Roland left his home in Los Angeles and headed to Arizona on business. To make the drive enjoyable, which he often did, he took Route 66, opting to vacate the boring Interstate. “I had read a book about the Mojave desert,” he said, “and its small hidden treasures.” On one such trip he pulled over to take in some rest time and think about the Road and its historical past. The area where he stopped was barren
of markings, but he had read about it and knew what secrets it held. From that point on he never talked about the town by name, not wanting to encourage tourists to stop and desecrate the quiet and mostly forgotten spot.
“What a lonely forgotten spot it was,” he recalls. He had heard a rumor that a cemetery had once been discovered there, and on one of his trips he climbed over the railroad tracks and scanned the area as far as his eyes could see. There he caught a glimpse of a disturbance on the desert floor and hiked out to investigate.
There Roland made a discovery that would change his life, give him purpose, and fill his imagination. “What a lonely, long-forgotten patch of desert it was” he thought as he approached what once was a cemetery. The area was obviously a casualty of the elements, and more disturbing, it was the victim of vandals. He noted that only a few of the graves had any rocks around them. He also noted that three graves had been dug up to some extent “like someone had been trying to find some hidden treasures or maybe some bones.” Grave markers were broken and tossed about.
Roland confesses that this “upset me no end, so I decided on my own that over time “I would do my best get the place back in shape.” And so began a labor of love. Each subsequent trip Roland would visit the spot and do a little work filling in and smoothing out the excavated graves and carefully lining each with rocks. He tread softly, replaced markers and replaced a small wire that had encased the spot. “I bought a rake at Home Depot in Barstow which I hide in a location near the cemetery so I don’t have to drag it with me each trip,” he said
What made Roland feel so responsible for this little cemetery that had been so ill-treated? He explains:
“Why did I do this, and continue to do it? Probably because as a kid, my parents would drag me and my three older sisters to our family cemetery in northern Indiana. My parents would spend hours there, planting, weeding, and watering the graves of their parents and a few other close relatives. As a kid, I would usually get bored while my parents were doing their graveyard chores and wander around the place doing ‘boy things’ like exploring for gold or scratching my skinny little behind. But to this day I have never forgotten what my parents did, not because they had to, but because they wanted to.”
Living over two thousand miles away from where his parents are buried, Roland knew he could not tend their graves but “if I’m out in the desert and have extra time, I felt I could make a difference in this lonely little cemetery out in the middle of nowhere.”
There are few who know Roland’s story. He says he has not mentioned it to his family or friends. In his own words: “If you would like to write about this, that is OK by me, but please don’t use my last name or advertise the name of the town.” Roland did share his story with a trusted author whose writings about Route 66 in the California desert enthralled him. That person, Joe de Kehoe, is well known to Route 66 enthusiasts. He has authored several books including The Silence and the Sun.
Roland often wrote about his adventures on the Road and his emails were easy to spot, always bold, italic and centered on the page. Joe shared one of the emails he received:
I stopped out at the cemetery last night on my way home from Las Vegas and did my usual clean-up work until well after dark.... ....I love that place after dark when there’s a full moon.... So peaceful.... ....It’s like time stands still for me when I’m out there....
Roland’s emails stopped for a while and then, sadly, both Joe and I received word that Roland had died unexpectedly. His family had found his correspondence and was kind enough to inform us of his untimely passing.
We are so very sad to hear this news. His love for Route 66, his compassion for those buried in a lonely graveyard in the Mojave, his hard work to give respect to ghosts he never knew, and his poignant descriptions of his time in the vanished town are not lost. Rest in peace, Roland.