Amboy, CA: The lion-dogs that guard the desert (Part One)

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series about the town of Amboy and the foo dogs that guard the desert. The second part will be published after a brief Thanksgiving break. 

No one knows how the lion-dog traveled to the Mojave Desert or who brought it there. No one knows why, for a few months, she disappeared and came back again. And yet, there she stands at six foot tall, one paw patting the head of her cub. Her tooth is chipped, knocked off by a bullet from when a traveler thought it a target and shot up the statue with a high-powered gun. (Later, the shooter left an apology scribbled on a piece of desert driftwood.) The letters “G” “I” and “E” in faded black marker, trail down her leg like a tattoo, and by her feet lies a hodgepodge of knick knacks. Empty bullet casings, a pink breast cancer rock, a Jack Daniels bottle cap and two Venetian masks. 

The lion-dog’s mouth is half open, as though she had been turned into stone in the middle of a roar. And just a football field away, another lion, a male, keeps watch of the land. Jammed between his paws, you’ll find a battered, dog-eared notebook and inside, every traveler’s recorded footprint. I open it down the middle, the pages flapping in the wind like a sail, landing on notes from last year. “Our fifth time visiting our good lion friend,” one visitor writes. “Happy holidays!” Another complains of their car being broken into while walking around. Another refers to the lion-dog as a “dragon.” 

Called “foo dogs,” these lion-dog statues are regarded as guardians in China, with origins that can be traced back to approximately 208 B.C. to the Han Dynasty. They typically adorn the outside of palaces and tombs, protecting residents from harmful spirits and other possible threats, though now you’d likely find their images on doorknockers, pottery, furniture and figurines. 

But what are they doing here, in the middle of an arid, empty desert, with nothing and no one in sight? That’s the question that churns in my mind, and I’m sure, everyone else’s who makes it a point to stop and marvel at these desert protectors. What are they protecting? Is it the town of Amboy, the only sign of life around, just over four miles away? And even more importantly, who brought them here?

A boomtown can fade for a myriad of reasons. A storm wipes it off the map. Pollution forces residents to cut and run. Perhaps it just falls on bad times, its resources no longer needed. Or maybe a new highway diverts traffic away and cuts off its lifeblood. The latter of those reasons is what happened to Amboy — a dusty desert outpost in the heart of the Mojave Desert — when Interstate 40 opened in 1973. But it’s difficult to call Amboy a ghost town. For a town to be called “a ghost town,” it has to die. And yet, Amboy’s heart is beating, thumping against the lifeless, arid body of the driest desert in North America. Ghost towns don’t employee people. Ghost towns don’t have an Instagram page. No, it wouldn’t be exactly accurate to call it a ghost town.

Amboy is small. There’s not much to see, and there’s even less to do. But the few attractions that are there happen to draw a certain crowd of road trippers traversing the mother road, the historic Route 66, every year. There’s a school, which sits empty after the last of its students left in 1999. A post office, also abandoned. A church, often frequented by birds and the occasional vandal. A cemetery, a handful of structures and of course, most notably, an old, defunct diner-slash-motel. 

But to understand Amboy — to make yourself familiar with its character arc, how it became what it is —  you have to first peek into its past. Amboy was a railroad town before Route 66 brought an inflow of traffic during the Great Depression. In 1938, seeing a glimmer of opportunity, founder Roy Crowl scooped up land in the area and opened a service station to cater to tourists passing through. Just a year later, his son-in-law, Herman “Buster” Burris, joined in on the endeavor. At its peak, the service station was packed with travelers and motorists whose transportation had broken down along their route. So, it only made sense for the town to offer a place where customers could hunker down in front of a good meal as they waited. Next, of course, came the motel — and Roy’s famous boomerang sign first pierced the sky in 1959, becoming a beacon to weary travelers and explorers alike.

The diner’s neon atomic-age sign sticking out into the sky like a pupil’s raised hand is the first thing Anton and I see that marks the town. Today, we’ve driven a little over three hours, and we’re as far away from home — from divided social media feeds, chattering neighbors and TV screens blaring news on this historic election — as we’ve been in a while. After days of staring at blue and red maps, ears perking up and heart thumping at every “release” of a new batch of votes, we were emotionally exhausted. 

In other words, we’re seeking what’s known as the “geographical cure.” It’s the belief that, if you venture out far enough, you’ll distance yourself from whatever it is that’s pecking at your brain. The distance will tune everything down to a meaningless drone. Some call it escapism. The realists would probably call it an avoidance strategy. Of course, the success of a plan like this is very sporadic and almost never guaranteed — especially given the fact that I ended up being pulled into political discourse without arriving at any kind of answer or resolution via social media messages. Though these kinds of conversations always seem to collapse under their own weight, right now, it feels almost impossible not to give into the pull. 

But when we veer off the road and drive toward the white brick church off to the right, I feel less inclined to look at my phone. And that desire is completely compressed by the time I wrestle the door open, pry myself out of the car and lumber into a strong, confrontational wind. I’m not sure what’s going on with the weather today — it feels as though God’s taken a whisk to the air, giving it a vigorous swish if only to throw me off balance. 

Just as I find my footing, we notice a dusty, black car drive off the road, cut across the lot and make a beeline toward us. I feel my brain spin. Are they tourists? Are we not supposed to be here? What do they want? Are we trespassing? I should’ve checked … “Should we leave?” I mutter — a comment only audible to Anton. When the car finally stops in front of us, the man peering out of the passenger seat window asks what we’re doing here. “Um,” I start, glancing over at Anton worriedly. “We’re just looking around and taking some pictures. Is that OK?” They tell us they’re just checking in (they get a lot of vandals in these parts) and making sure we’re unharmed but also harmless. Then, they drive off, and we lose sight of them as they speed away. 

Considering everything (particularly the vandals these guys just mentioned), the St. Raymond Church has held up well. The exterior of the church is clean, and if it weren’t for the boarded up windows, you’d very well think that it’s operational. On the front façade, there’s a cornerstone that reads “A.M.D.G. Dedicated March 8, 1951.” Back in its heyday, the church welcomed the 40 Catholic families that lived in town and worked on the railroad or salt mines. But now, its pews are empty, the last mellifluous hymn and prayer heard close-to 50 years ago. 

Across the street, we park by the gas station, which, believe it or not, is the only gas station in the entirety of Mojave Desert’s 25,000 square-mile preserve. Travelers who run out of gas can kindly ask Roy’s manager for a little juice, which will set them back $5.50 a gallon. The gas station, coupled with a souvenir shop, is what’s keeping the town alive — and four people employed. But the attraction that has, and always will, still send curious travelers this way is still the iconic Roy’s diner. 

When we step out of the car, we notice there are a few visitors there already, snapping photos in front of the atomic-age sign and an old, classic car — its front propped up by two blocks — parked right by its foot. We trot around it, trying to position ourselves in the opposite direction of the wind. But it gets us anyway, slapping me in the face with my own hair while breaking into a high, loonlike laugh.

I try to imagine what it would’ve been like to step inside Roy’s, and conjure up a few images of wise-cracking wait staff flinging coffee and gravity defying Sundaes topped with strawberries, chocolate and butterscotch. The heady smell of thick slabs of hamburger on toasted buns with chili beans, cheese and onions. Baked meatloaf. Homemade malted milk. (All for a dollar or two, all former menu items that diners once enjoyed.) Diners sitting idly on shiny counter stools, occasionally distracted by the worn-out, choppy gurgle of an engine and the vague shape of yet another driver hitting a bump in the road.

Roy’s photogenic, nostalgic attributes are why people — Route 66 aficionados with a soft spot for kitschy Americana — still stop and stare. It’s also why the diner has served as a backdrop for a slew of films, including Kalifornia starring Brad Pitt and Beneath the Dark starring Josh Stewart. Enrique Iglesias even filmed his music video for Hero there, melodramatically dying in front of St. Raymond Church with his love interest (Jennifer Love Hewitt) by his side. What’s more, Roy’s was frequented by a number of Hollywood heavy-hitters, including Harrison Ford and Anthony Hopkins whose autographed photos graced the restaurant’s wall. Now, it often appears in photoshoots and on the profile pages of Instagrammers. Soon, it will appear on mine. 

Everything about Amboy — the diner, the foo dogs, the people who still come out to see it — will make an imprint on me. So much of it is ripe with ambiguity, and it’s one of those places that I find myself feeling fondness for and curiosity about in equal measure, a perhaps not-so-common attitude toward a place that’s supposed to answer questions, not draw even more of them.

At night, I catch myself reading about Amboy and the foo dogs that guard it. So many questions swirl around in my mind. Who brought the foo dogs — which probably weigh thousands of pounds — to the Mojave Desert? Why did one of them disappear, and who brought it back? What does Amboy’s future look like, especially within the context of the pandemic? Will the diner ever open again? Why is this town half-abandoned, but with signs of life, there for everyone to read? I become restless. In an article about the town’s history, one name jumps out — Albert Okura. Okura, a third-generation Japanese American and an avid preservationist, bought the town back in 2005 and still owns it, along with Juan Pollo restaurant chain in Southern California.

Would Okura know the story of the desert protectors? (Foo dogs, though mostly associated with Chinese culture, are also common in Japan. There, they’re called “komainu,” and, much like in China, are often found flanking the entrances of shrines, temples and even some residences.) The next day, I scour the internet for some way to reach him and land on the contact page of Juan Pollo’s corporate offices. I send a message into the digital vacuum — and wait

For more incredible and nostalgic photos — plus updates on the town — you can visit Amboy’s Facebook and Instagram pages.

As an Los Angeles-based journalist and fashion writer, Mari Alexander highlights local and global talents through runway reviews, designer interviews, and trend reports.

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