Last weekend, my wife and I needed to get away from it all, so we headed to a place where we could hear wind and coyotes at night, instead of traffic and car alarms. On Saturday, we aimed for the middle of nowhere and ended up in the ghost town of Amboy, California.
Amboy is known mostly for the Amboy Crater, an extinct volcano that used to be a major tourist attraction along Route 66. Ever since highway 40 was built, however, the crater marks the intersection of two old roads that don’t really go anywhere. Until 2006, there wasn’t any incentive to take a detour... and, if you did, you’d probably just get chased away by the town caretaker.
The town consists of a post office (operational), an airport (not operational), a church and a small schoolhouse (both abandoned), a quaint 50’s-style motel (closed), and a gas station / café called Roy's. Thanks to a road sign that you can see from miles away, Roy’s gets all the traffic - despite the fact that the kitchen is permanently closed. That's okay, because most of the visitors are probably just tourists who are happy to catch an authentic glimpse of American history. There are also a few weirdos like me who recognize the setting from movies.
The first time I “visited” Roy’s Café was with Rutger Hauer and C. Thomas Howell in the 1986 movie THE HITCHER. (This is where Howell pulls a gun on his pursuer, and where Hauer taunts his reluctant traveling companion by placing pennies on his eyelids.) The first time I saw the film, I was thoroughly rattled – and not just by Hauer’s staggeringly brilliant performance as the gay panic boogeyman. I grew up on the east coast, so I found the stark western landscape exotic and forbidding, beautiful and terrifying. I’m not going to say that the landscape is what makes the movie work (that would be an insult to three outstanding actors), but there’s no question that the setting is itself a character in the story. Screenwriter Eric Red says the basic idea for the movie came to him while he was driving through the desert listening to The Doors song “Riders on the Storm.” That’s all he needed… miles and miles of empty sun-baked road, and the lyric “there’s a killer on the road.”
Thankfully, the producers hired a director (former stills photographer Robert Harmon) who could capture the landscape at its best. There’s a scene in this film where Howell’s character is fighting for his life, and still can’t help stopping to stare in awe at the late afternoon sun partially eclipsed by desert clouds. The beauty of that single shot - no more than five seconds of screen time - is staggering. That moment sums up the film for me: The day is as dark as the night is long. Anyone who’s ever fallen in love with the desert understands that. THE HITCHER is both primal and poetic, and that's a rarity.
According to Harry Medved’s book “Hollywood Escapes,” THE HITCHER was shot mostly in sequence. Scene by scene, the film crew moved south through the Mojave Desert. In the film, C. Thomas Howell’s character is driving from Chicago to Los Angeles, but for some reason he takes a circuitous route from Death Valley to the Imperial Sand Dunes. Along the way, he makes stops in Amargosa (where Hauer confronts him in an abandoned garage), Daggett (where Howell meets Jennifer Jason Leigh in a greasy spoon diner), Amboy and Glamis (the truck stop, where Leigh meets her maker). By the time he reaches the Imperial Sand Dunes, there's a new killer on the road.
For anyone else crazy enough to recreate this drive, I recommend Harold Budd's album "The White Arcades" as musical accompaniment. We happened to be listening to the track "Coyote" while we drove through the salt fields south of Amboy, and it was a perfect combination of landscape and soundscape. Since no one has uploaded "Coyote" to youtube, I'm going to conclude with a very different piece of music - from another film about an ill-fated road trip. Can you guess which one?