Dismiss Seligman as a tourist trap if you want, but its history suggests that would be a mistake.
Somehow, the fate of this chip of northwest Arizona, perched about a mile above sea level and populated by some 776 souls, has been linked to grand developments in U.S. demography, culture and infrastructure, ever since its founding as a railroad crossing in the 1880s.
What sort of America may emerge from the coronavirus crucible? Seligman, of all places, could be an indicator.
Right now, you’d have to say things look grim, given the hammer blow that the pandemic, and the attendant global travel restrictions, struck to the town’s main source of commerce: visits by day-trippers out of Las Vegas or Grand Canyon National Park.
Before 2020, four buses arrived daily from March through November, loaded with free-spending European and Asian sightseers. In the past 15 months, just two buses in total have come through, according to local business owners.
The first weekend of this month marked the second straight year in which sponsors had to cancel an annual May parade of antique cars, another source of visitors and cash. At the Snow Cap, the employee who pranked the only customer in the shop is one of four, down from the usual eight.
Yet the coronavirus is not Seligman’s worst setback ever. That was the completion, in 1978, of Interstate 40 between Wilmington, N.C., and Barstow, Calif. This federal infrastructure project superseded Route 66, the iconic Chicago-to-Los Angeles highway, which had carried Depression-era migrants from the Dust Bowl to California, and inspired a popular song and a TV show — but has since lapsed into obsolescence.
For the national economy, I-40 represented a productivity-enhancing investment. For Seligman, it brought about the rural equivalent of the devastation wrought when the interstates cut through historic big-city neighborhoods.
Route 66’s two lanes had formed Seligman’s main street on their way across the continent, bringing a steady stream of motel, restaurant and gas station customers. I-40 ended that, essentially overnight.
But Seligman did not die, due to the efforts of the town’s barber, Angel Delgadillo, who in 1987 persuaded Arizona to designate the leftover stretch of Route 66 as a historic highway, then rebranded his town as “the birthplace of historic Route 66” — and marketed it to nostalgia buffs in the United States and abroad.
Visitors flocked to take pictures with Angel next to his vintage barber chair, gawked at the genuine pink Ford Edsel parked nearby, then sauntered over to the Snow Cap, owned by Angel’s brother Juan Delgadillo, for a snack. Seligman’s story, and its atmospheric display of aging vehicles, inspired the town of Radiator Springs in Pixar’s movie “Cars.”
Government aid through the Paycheck Protection Program has helped the Snow Cap and about a dozen other businesses hold on, according to business owners, but long-term survival is probably up to the next generation of Delgadillos. They seem as determined as Angel, who is now 94, to preserve the town — as is.
“My Dad and I feel like we have something unique,” Mirna Delgadillo, Angel’s daughter, told me. She runs the Route 66 memorabilia store that evolved from his barber shop. “It’s the America of yesterday. . . . If we change, we won’t be unique and people won’t come to see us.” When tourists return, however, depends largely on how distant countries cope with covid-19. Her cousin, John Delgadillo, who operates the Snow Cap, told me “it’s going to be 2022” before business recovers.
The irony is that Seligman could not have remained unchanged if it had not, well, changed, to cope with I-40. Especially important was its adaptation to a megatrend — globalization — which enabled its small businesses to connect with package tour companies in Paris, Tokyo and beyond.
By now, Seligman’s career as a Route 66-themed tourist destination has arguably gone on longer than the actual mid-20th century “yesterday” it evokes.
Nothing lasts forever: This is a fact of life, confirmed by phenomena as different as deadly pandemics and vast transportation programs.
In America, though, one town insists on defying that iron law, and who’s to say it can’t?
Seligman may even be getting a taste of the surprise real estate boom that accompanied the pandemic, Mirna says.
The crisis has prompted some urbanites to reconsider their lifestyles in favor of Seligman and its wide-open desert surroundings. “Homes that sat here for 10 years have sold,” she told me. “I heard the prices and said ‘Wow!’ ”