Meet 84-year-old Angel Delgadillo, the Route 66 guardian angel

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.

Angel Delgadillo pedals past his souvenir store and barber shop in Seligman

Angel Delgadillo pedals past his souvenir store and barber shop in Seligman

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 vigour 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 the Second World War.

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, 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.

Online: http://www.route66giftshop.com/main.html

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A vial of the Medicago vaccine sits on a surface. CARe Clinic, located in Red Deer, has been selected to participate in the third phase of vaccine study. (Photo courtesy www.medicago.com)
Red Deer clinical research centre participating in plant-based COVID-19 vaccine trial

A Red Deer research centre has been selected to participate in the… Continue reading

Asymptomatic testing will now be available for "priority groups" who are most likely to spread the COVID-19 virus to vulnerable or at-risk populations. File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS
Red Deer jumps to 449 active COVID-19 cases on Sunday

1,516 new cases identified in Alberta

The QEII was closed Sunday morning due to a pole fire. (Photo courtesy City of Red Deer)
UPDATE: QEII near Red Deer reopens

The QEII has been reopened after being closed due to a pole… Continue reading

Innisfail RCMP are investigating a single-vehicle crash that happened west of Bowden on March 21, 2021. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Bashaw RCMP investigate fatal collision in central Alberta

Bashaw RCMP are investigating after a fatal collision Saturday afternoon. Police were… Continue reading

A damaged unicorn statue is shown in a field outside of Delia, Alta. in this undated handout photo. It's not often police can report that a unicorn has been found, but it was the truth Saturday when RCMP said a stolen, stainless-steel statue of the mythical beast had been located in a field not far from where he'd been taken. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, RCMP *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Mounties get their unicorn; stolen statue of mythical beast found in Alberta field

DELIA, Alta. — It’s not often police can report that a unicorn… Continue reading

Investigators from the Vancouver Police Department were in Chilliwack Saturday, collecting evidence connected to a double homicide. (file photo)
Police investigate shooting death of man outside downtown Vancouver restaurant

Vancouver police say one man was killed in what they believe was… Continue reading

Dr. E. Kwok administers a COVID-19 vaccine to a recipient at a vaccination clinic run by Vancouver Coastal Health, in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. to start registering people 18 years and older for COVID-19 vaccines

VICTORIA — The British Columbia government says it’s inviting people 18 years… Continue reading

San Jose's Tomas Hertl, center, celebrates with teammates Patrick Marleau, left, and Rudolfs Blacers, right, after Hertl scored a goal during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Minnesota Wild, Friday, April 16, 2021, in St. Paul, Minn. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs)
Patrick Marleau set to break Gordie Howe’s games record

For Patrick Marleau, the best part about Monday night when he is… Continue reading

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks during a press briefing at the White House, Tuesday, April 13, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Half of U.S. adults have received at least one COVID-19 shot

WASHINGTON — Half of all adults in the U.S. have received at… Continue reading

People are shown at a COVID-19 vaccination site in Montreal, Sunday, April 18, 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Federal government to send health-care workers to Ontario, Trudeau says

MONTREAL — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says federal departments and some Canadian… Continue reading

People cross a busy street in the shopping district of Flushing on Tuesday, March 30, 2021, in the Queens borough of New York. Access to the COVID-19 vaccine in the United States is growing by the day. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kathy Willens
Despite COVID-19 vaccines, Americans in D.C. not feeling celebratory — or charitable

WASHINGTON — This might make Canadians jealous of their American cousins for… Continue reading

A man pays his respects at a roadside memorial in Portapique, N.S. on Thursday, April 23, 2021. RCMP say at least 22 people are dead after a man who at one point wore a police uniform and drove a mock-up cruiser, went on a murder rampage in Portapique and several other Nova Scotia communities. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
Memorial service in Nova Scotia marks one year since mass shooting started

TRURO, N.S. — A memorial service is planned for today in central… Continue reading

In this April 23, 2016, photo, David Goethel sorts cod and haddock while fishing off the coast of New Hampshire. To Goethel, cod represents his identity, his ticket to middle class life, and his link to one the country's most historic industries, a fisherman who has caught New England's most recognized fish for more than 30 years. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
‘It’s more than just a fish:’ Scientists worry cod will never come back in N.L.

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — The latest assessment of Atlantic cod stocks, whose… Continue reading

Most Read