The Unfortunate Demise of a Route 66 Icon
by Joe de Kehoe
The Roadrunner’s Retreat is a mile and a half west of Chambless and 10 miles east of Amboy, California, on National Trails Highway, formerly Route 66. The business consisted of a restaurant and service station started by Roy and Helen Tull in the early 1960s.
Roy Tull was a truck driver and envisioned the Roadrunner’s Retreat as a truck stop strategically positioned on Route 66 between Needles and Barstow. While construction was still underway, Roy sold the 40-acre property to F. B. “Duke” Dotson, who formerly owned and operated Duke’s Western Wear in Montclair, California. Roy and his wife Helen worked the café for a couple of months, but soon after it opened in 1962, Dotson took over and ran the service station and restaurant as a truck stop and towing service. In 1963 the rest of Dotson’s family, his wife Virginia, and their two sons and daughter moved out to the desert and settled into a mobile home parked behind the restaurant. Duke Jr. recalls that when he arrived, fresh out of the 6th grade, his dad told him to put on an apron and start bussing tables. He said that he thought his life had come to an end, moving from Ontario to this place in the desert.
Roy Tull’s wife Helen worked as a waitress in the restaurant with Lola Joyce Nelson and several other local women who served as waitresses. It was not uncommon at the time on Route 66 for a man and wife team to arrive looking for work. Dotson would sometimes hire the husband as a cook and the wife as a waitress.
The Standard Oil service station just east of the cafe was built with a distinctive Googie-inspired upswept roof, an architectural style popularized in the 1950s and 60s, influenced by the up and coming Space Age, the Atomic Age, and Jets.
In addition to the service station/garage, Dotson also ran a towing service with a Texan named John Gwen. Together, John and Duke, and their German Shephard “Ace,” built and maintained all of the trucks and “fixed everything that needed fixing.” Duke’s first tow truck was named “King of the Road,” but he called the others after bears: “Smokey,” “Papa Bear.” “Mama Bear,” “Teddy Bear,” and “Grizzly Bear.”
The Roadrunner’s Retreat closed in 1973 when Interstate 40 opened between Needles and Barstow. Roadside businesses on this stretch of Route 66 through the Mojave Desert between Essex and Ludlow died almost overnight. Businesses that depended on tourist and commercial traffic – service stations, restaurants, motels, car repair shops – were all forced to close. Duke Jr. remembers that when his father decided to close, they were in the restaurant for most of the day, and their only customer was a railroad employee who stopped in for coffee; not a single car went by on the highway.
After the Roadrunner closed, Dotson sold the property to the Murphy family, who are the current owners. Mr. Murphy never intended to reopen the restaurant; his interest was more toward having a desert retreat and maintaining the site for its historical significance on old Route 66.
On July 30, 2020 the café caught fire and although the building was still standing after the fire was extinguished, all of the contents inside were destroyed and the building had to be demolished. The adjacent Roadrunner service station building was not damaged in the fire.
The distinctive neon sign next to the highway that advertised the Roadrunner’s Retreat, although weather-beaten and pale still stands and is immediately recognizable as one of these iconic symbols on this stretch of old Route 66. Prior to the fire there were tentative plans by the current owners to re-light the sign, and hopefully that will be done.
Unless otherwise noted, information and photographs for this article are courtesy of Duke Dotson Jr., whose family ran the Roadrunner’s Retreat from 1962 – 1973. There are additional photos of the Roadrunner during the time that it was operating at my blog at Trailsendpublishing.com . ~ Joe