A GUIDE FOR THE INDEPENDENT TRAVELER IN THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST
"With the completion of the Interstate Freeway System, it became possible to travel all the way across the country, from coast-to-coast, and never see a thing...." Charles Kuralt
I have done a lot of stories about Route 66 and the folks who live along it. Folks who survived after the interstates severed them and their little towns from mainstream America. Passed them by and left them to lie idle and quiet in the sun. Backwaters of the way America used to be. But they pulled themselves back into the hearts and minds of Americans and the world with imagination and ingenuity.
Few were as clever or self-made as Juan Delgadillo, who built the Snowcap burger and dead chicken eatery in Seligman, in Northern Arizona, out of lumber he retrieved from the Santa Fe Railroad yard 50 years ago. In the revival of Route 66 he became an icon of the road and people came from all over the world to see him and "get the treatment."
With the sensitive touch of an artist Juan Delgadillo pulls at the string attached up under the dash of the white 1936 "air-cooled" (there's no top) Chevrolet with the decorated Christmas tree in the back and the flowers sticking out of everything. A wolf whistle, delicate in nuance yet shrill in volume, shatters the quiet morning. The lady on the sidewalk knows Juan, it's a small town. She waves at him but her smile implies he's just a little outrageous. Juan is...a little outrageous. She goes on her way, she's seen it all before.
I almost cry knowing he won't be there anymore.
It is Juan's occasionally nomadic billboard jerking and bouncing and coughing down main street that says come on down to his place of business and buy something. MALTS is painted on one side of the hood, SHAKES on the other, DELAGADILLO'S SNOWCAP on the door.
"We serve dead chicken, cheeseburgers with cheese." He jerks the string on the whistle, "and make people smile." He sneaks a look at me. A totally contagious grin.
Route 66 passes in front of Delgadillo's Snowcap, sort of Seligman's answer to Dairy Queen. It's where Juan did business for 50 years and for 50 years he gave his customers THE TREATMENT. The treatment started at the door. There are two doorknobs. "One is a practice doorknob, Bill," Says Juan, straight-faced.
Leading her husband and three kids, the lady from California grabs the wrong one, yanks, confused, finally twists the right knob, grins, comes inside.
"Well, we'll have five big cheeseburgers..."
"With cheese, right?"
"Uh huh." One of the kids gets it and looks at Juan kinda' funny.
"Would you like some straws for those cokes?" From under the counter Juan pulls out a raggedy handful of straws. Bent straws, a few good ones, empty wrappers, a mess. Laughing, the lady manages to cull five good ones.
"Napkins?" From beneath the counter a raggedy fistful. Some of them even look used. This time it's just part of the routine, he finds nice, neat ones to hand them.
"You just don't say, here, here's your hamburger and take their money and send them out the door...?" I ask.
"Oh, never, never, no way. I make 'em feel at home. Take their money." He laughs. "No, I like to treat my people like I would like to be treated. We do a lot of things, like if they're looking at the menu we ask, 'you wanna look first?' They say yes and I throw a Look candy bar on the counter. If they want a cone I ask small, medium or large. If they say small I put a little dip of ice cream on this." He shows me a tiny cone about 3 inches long.
"But they like it. Bill, they tell me, 'thanks for being here...you made our day...you made us laugh.' You bet." People from all over the world have stopped here in Seligman specifically to see Juan and the Snowcap. He's been on TV, radio, in newspapers, Playboy Magazine recommended him. For those travellers in the know Juan Delgadillo's Snowcap is a "must stop" on the way by.
"Want some ketchup for your cheeseburger with cheese?" It's one of those squeeze bottles. He squirts it at one of the kids, a long red string shoots out and the kid jerks like he's been shot. Same with the mustard bottle aimed absentmindedly at the lady. Squeeze. She flinches. Juan deadpans like he doesn't know what everybody's excited about.
"And, Bill, I serve male and female sundaes." Folks, don't ask...
Juan passed away June 2, 2004 after working all day at the Snowcap. He had a heart attack and as fast as his sons John-Michael and Robert reacted and got him to a hospital, it was too late.
Bonnie and I spent two days in Seligman with the Delgadillo family and we did a lot of laughing remembering Juan's antics. The memories helped the family through a very sad time.
The day before the funeral an oriental man came up to the Snowcap, locked and closed, rattled the doorknob and peeked through the windows. I explained Juan had passed away. The man looked stricken. In halting English he said, "I come all way from Japan to laugh. I want Juan make me laugh."
"Me, too," I told the man. I just wanted to cry thinking Juan wouldn't be there to make me laugh anymore.
Juan's sons John-Michael and Robert will take over the Snowcap. They know they aren't Juan, but I've watched them working the "Juan gags" on customers and they do pretty good. People laugh and jerk away from the fake mustard bottle...still look aghast at the crumpled napkins. In time the folks from Japan will come to have the sons "make them laugh."
But for those of us who knew him, we will never be able to go there and not think of Juan and that wide-eyed innocent look as what sure looked like a stream of mustard came rocketing toward our shirt.
I think I am going to cry.