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At 84, he's still the 'guardian angel' of Route 66

Angel Delgadillo op de fiets

By PAULINE ARRILLAGA (Associated Press)

SELIGMAN, Ariz. — Just after lunchtime in a town that is a monument to yesteryear, an old man is cruising down Route 66 using an eight-speed bicycle. He is tidily dressed in khaki slacks, a navy polo and a baseball cap that protects a mostly threadbare crown, save for a few strands of silvery white.

At 84 years old, he has an ever-so-slight hunch, a crinkled forehead and hearing aids in both ears.

Angel Delgadillo does not look like a rock star. And yet ...

Two tour buses are parked along the nation's most historic byway, and dozens of adoring fans await: Leather-clad Harley riders. A Parisian wearing a Route 66 tee. Norwegians wanting to shake his hand. Japanese tourists who literally "ooh" and "ahh" as their Angel nears.

All along the sidewalk, Nikons are ready — and this unassuming gentleman is mobbed the moment he parks his bike. The fans clutch Route 66 license plates as Delgadillo flashes a toothy grin and says, over and over, "Cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese, cheeeeeese."

In the midst of this surreal scene comes a question: Are these camera-toting, guidebook-grasping 66 buffs here for the legendary road — or for the now-legendary man who helped to save it?

"This guy here ... every time I get a chance I come in and shake his hand," says one of these many admirers, Jerry Stinson of Lake Tyee, Wash., who plans to someday retire along Route 66 and open a business — "because of you," he tells Delgadillo as they pose for a picture.

They call him many things: The Father of the Mother Road. The Guardian Angel of Route 66. Sometimes, simply, The Ambassador.

His story has been related in travel guides, even on a website for a Route 66 association in the Czech Republic. He and his town were the inspiration for the animated film "Cars," but he has inspired many others, too, with a vigor that age hasn't diminished — a passion for the road he grew up on, and old with.

Telling this tale has become his life's work, and he does it without prompting. How he was born right on Route 66 back when Seligman was a railroad town ferrying explorers West. How he followed in his father's footsteps and became a barber, opening his own shop and pool hall along Route 66. How he was a witness to history: the Dust Bowl migration, the transport of equipment during World War II.

And how he saw it all change on Sept. 22, 1978 — the day Interstate 40 replaced Route 66 as the main thoroughfare through northern Arizona.

"Can you imagine how it was?" says Delgadillo, whose eyes widen as if recounting this for the very first time. "Golly Moses. At first it was so sad, and then I got so angry. Everybody just forgot about us."

His own place in history was cemented nine years later when he became a driving force behind the formation of the Historic Route 66 Association of Arizona, which lobbied the state to dedicate the road as "Historic Route 66." Highway signs were erected, the association launched an annual "Fun Run" of classic cars, tourists and media began converging — and Seligman was reborn. More historic associations followed in other Route 66 states.

It was the beginning of the Route 66 revival, and also Delgadillo's own. He and his wife, Vilma, opened a souvenir store next to the barber shop peddling Route 66 keepsakes to the many visitors that began finding Seligman — looking not just for kitsch but for history. In Delgadillo, they found an emphatic raconteur.

"People want to taste the road — the sights, the smells, the sounds. And he's there to hold your hand," says Lorrie Fleming of Vancouver, British Columbia, who first met Delgadillo in 1994 and has returned to Seligman every year since for the annual Fun Run. "You can't get that on Facebook, what Angel gives you. He reaches his arms out to you.

"That concrete has to have a vein to still pump blood, and he's the life of the road."

In 1996, Fleming founded the Canadian Route 66 Association — and she credits Delgadillo. So does Emily Priddy of Tulsa, Okla., an ex-newspaper editor who says she became involved in Route 66 preservation — even writing a guidebook for children — because of him. And Jerry Stinson, who's already bought land in Arizona and counts the days until retirement brings him permanently to Route 66. "He IS the inspiration," Stinson says.

Today, Seligman thrives because of the many Route 66-themed businesses. Delgadillo has long-since retired as a barber, and two of his four children run the gift shop now. They try to keep their father at home when possible, only because they know that once he sets foot in the store visitors will occupy him for hours.

"They just don't happen upon Seligman because they got lost and got off the freeway. They're here for a reason," says daughter Mirna. "And that reason is to see my dad."

But Delgadillo can't stay away. As he says: "Can you imagine getting out of bed into a recliner? You die young." Besides, his life has always been intertwined with this road. Route 66 was commissioned on Nov. 11, 1926, and Delgadillo was born in a house alongside the road just five months later.

And so he wakes early, has breakfast with his wife and rides his bicycle over to help open the store. He goes home at noon for lunch, and then often returns to the store before taking an afternoon siesta.

Sometimes, of course, the nap must wait, and a weekday afternoon in May is one of those times. The larger tour buses have departed, but smaller vans and several campers remain. Outside of the gift shop, a Japanese tour director whom Delgadillo knows well waits with several vacationers. For tour groups, Seligman and Delgadillo's Route 66 Gift Shop are popular stops on routes to the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon. They have become wonders unto themselves.

"Konnichiwa," Delgadillo greets the group in Japanese before settling onto a bench outside of his store. Two-by-two, the tourists approach, sitting on either side of him with big smiles.

"Cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese, cheeeeeese," he says.

As two finish, two more sit down.

After a few minutes, he begins to take leave, but yet another fan approaches. Bertrand Laisney lives in Paris but is driving Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles. He explains that he was compelled to stop in Seligman after reading a half-dozen guidebooks about the Mother Road that "all tell about Mr. Delgadillo."

"You're part of the story of the United States," he tells him.

"Merci beaucoup," Delgadillo replies before climbing back on his bicycle for the brief ride home, waving as he goes.

"He's amazing," says the Frenchman, staring as Delgadillo pedals up the road. His road.

But he'll be back soon enough. After all, to share stories of Route 66 is to share stories of himself. And that breathes life into them both.



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