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

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series about the town of Amboy and the foo dogs that guard the desert. If you haven’t read the first, I strongly urge you to do so before continuing.

Albert Okura isn’t a fan of laying pomp and ostentation on too thick. He isn’t fond of feeding the public fantasy of nostalgia either — not too much at least. See, that’s the appeal of Amboy, he thinks. Its beauty lies in its restraint, the way it tells you its story with a certain confessional clarity and doesn’t attempt to remove evidence of its imperfections. Too many heavy-handed changes, and it’ll become a tourist trap. That’s not exactly what he wants. “I want to keep it as pure as I can,” he tells me over the phone, and it’s like he pulls a chain, and a light bulb turns on in my brain.

Pure. That’s exactly what Amboy was. I’d been searching for the right word, and Okura just handed it to me like something he had all along. Much of Amboy feels pure. Being there doesn’t necessarily make you feel as though you’ve time-traveled to the 30s. You very much feel like an explorer in 2020 who suddenly found a relic of the past — a little weathered and threadbare, punished by the elements and affected by anyone who’s passed through it over the years. 

Okura knows a thing or two about preserving the past. In fact, he has experience in spades. A third-generation Japanese-American (sansei), Okura was born in Wilmington in 1951. He cut his teeth in the fast food industry at the age of 19, and after a few managerial stints here and there, he went on to open Juan Pollo, a Mexican-influenced chicken rotisserie chain, in 1984. Two years later, he was ready to open another location in San Bernardino, right on the historic Route 66. 

The Mother Road had already been decommissioned for a year at that point, and much like everyone else in the 80s, Okura didn’t really pay too much attention to its significance. In the following years, he opened even more restaurants (currently, there are 26 Juan Pollo locations in Southern California). As he was growing his restaurant business, one opportunity came along that Okura just couldn’t brush off. Just a stone’s throw from Route 66, the site of the first original McDonald’s went up for sale in 1998. When Okura heard of it, he scooped it up for $135,000 and turned it into a museum, showcasing the property’s old-school sign, original cookware, vintage uniforms and toys. Okura’s lifelong love for fast food, and an appreciation for valuable artifacts and memorabilia were coming into clear focus. 

Back then, word didn’t travel quickly. The internet was barely a household luxury, let alone a civil right. High service charges deterred folks from rampant cell phone usage, and news didn’t spread quite as easily as it does now. But Okura’s McDonald’s museum was slowly gaining popularity as more and more travelers discovered Route 66’s many quirky fables, charming motels and mom-and-pop shops. (Now, of course, the route is so popular that tourists often ship their cars to the United States from overseas just to drive down the Mother Road.)

In 2003, another opportunity poked its head. EBay — in an unprecedented (and bizarre, for the time) move — began putting up a handful of California towns for sale online. According to the LA Times, “soon, eight towns in the West were on the block, and a new phenomenon seemed to be born.” One of those towns, selling for a whopping $1.2 million, was Amboy. The news caught the attention of Danny Castro, an avid Route 66 aficionado, who also happened to be Okura’s friend. He called Okura and told him he had to — had to, he was sure of it — buy Amboy. “What’s Amboy?” Okura asked. The next day, they hopped into a car and drove out to the desert. 

“And then I realized I needed to buy Amboy,” Okura tells me. “I didn’t know exactly why, but I thought I needed to buy it. Amboy has everything really to be a living ghost town.” It’s true. Amboy had a gas station, an iconic cafe, a Catholic church and a post office. It just needed someone with a knack for rehabilitation, and Okura was more than suited to the role. All that was stopping him was the hefty price tag. Although the deal he initially tried to strike fell apart, two years later, Amboy resurfaced for sale. Under a different owner, the price had dropped, and with a little convincing from Okura — namely, him sharing his passion for preservation and vast expertise in it — it was reduced even further. “They made an emotional sale,” Okura says. “They wanted to take care of their town.” 

Okura’s background aligned with the owners’ hopes. They didn’t want to see Amboy forgotten and reclaimed by the landscape, and Okura wasn’t going to let it. To resuscitate the town, he worked on reestablishing electricity and water, as well as salvaging what was badly damaged by vandals. What’s more, he hired a preservation architect to shepherd the restoration of the bungalows, which, again, were severely ravaged by weather and vandals. After $100,000 worth of renovations, he reopened the gas station and a souvenir shop for passersby to pick up a few cherished mementos. And just last year, Roy’s diner’s iconic, atomic-age sign was lit for the first time since the 80s. A large crowd — far larger than anything you’d expect to drive past in the middle of nowhere — gathered to watch. 

But preserving this imperiled piece of history isn’t easy. What was once Amboy’s blessing — its remote location, which made it an oasis for travelers needing to make a pit stop for some gas and a bite — has become its curse. When something goes wrong here, like a power outage, Amboy’s usually the last on the list for attention. That’s of course, on top of its harsh environment. In the summers, when the mercury’s up to the hilt, spending too much time outside of the comfort of an air-conditioned space becomes unbearable. The harsh, blistering sun here eats away at most things — the already cracked and faded paint, timeworn, rickety buildings and above all, the patience it takes to fight all of this damage. There’s also the coronavirus, which, Okura says, has taken its toll on traffic through the town. 

“So, I try to keep the image of Amboy,” he comments on why he doesn’t take much stock in frippery and why he prefers to keep things low-key. Though this might’ve been possible before, with the explosion of aesthetic-forward platforms like Instagram, hiding a gem like Amboy is far from realistic. And Okura’s son Kyle, who has a marketing degree under his belt and got involved with the business a few years ago, is embracing that. “So, he sees [an] opportunity for us to really get the talent back on speed — to have a ongoing town, but he knows it’s also a process.”

So far, however, his efforts have put Amboy on the social media map, which is an entirely different way of researching and discovering potential destinations to visit. One click through Amboy’s Instagram, and the numerous curated pictures will not only inspire a day trip through the town, but validate it. Nestled somewhere along the nostalgic, escapist feed, you’ll spot the foo dogs, too — images of the two massive lion-dog statues that stand four miles away from Roy’s Motel and Cafe, with no explanation of who put them there or why. 

I tell Okura about my experience visiting the foo dogs, how jarring the statues looked in the middle of the desert and how the mystery has been pecking at my brain for the past few weeks. With bated breath, I ask him if he knows the backstory. It’s something he’s been asked about before. People find out his heritage, and they just mistakenly assume he had a hand in the story. He didn’t. That land isn’t even his. But Okura has a pretty good hunch about who put the statues in the desert.

Six or seven years ago, before the Route 66 guardians appeared, Okura received a call from a Chinese man. The caller was offering a 100-acre parcel of land for sale, just a few miles away from Roy’s signature neon sign. Okura, however, wasn’t interested. “So, he was disappointed,” Okura says. “Shortly after that, the two foo dogs came up.”

In a way, the installation of the statues started a mini attraction of its own, just a short drive from the town’s main drag. Did it add value to his land? Or were they merely up there to guard it (and really, from what in particular)? I ask Okura if he remembers the man’s name or anything else that could lead me to him. “It was too long ago,” Okura says, “And I brushed it off.” In our conversation, however, he mentions that the different parcels of land around Amboy that are privately owned, and oftentimes, when they do go up for sale, the real estate agents behind the listings label their location as “Amboy.” As soon as I wrap up my conversation with Okura, I jump on the internet. 

After a bit of sleuthing around, I come across a few listings for land parcels in Amboy. One by one, I flip through the photos online, most of which show a dusty tract of desert covered in creosote bushes and the occasional stray rock. But one listing stands out for two reasons. First, the landmark in the photo: a female foo dog with a stuffed teddy bear between her paws. Second, the price — $1.38 million. This is it, I think, sinking back in my seat. 

Immediately, I track down the real estate agent’s contact information and send a message through the contact form. And then another, followed by a call and an email and then another call. For weeks. In the back of my mind, I wonder if she’ll answer or what will happen if she does. Will she tell me? With the listing’s sitting on the market for 292 days, will it ever sell?

Sometimes, as a journalist, things work out for you. You know the people you’re supposed to strike up a conversation with, they have a working phone number, and their email etiquette is absolutely spot on. Sometimes, none of those thing happen. Sometimes, it’s a few weeks (and sometimes, months) of nothing but crickets — and katydids and cicadas.

In short, I haven’t found an answer, despite being a polite pest for the last few weeks. But instead of delaying this post another week, I’m publishing it in hopes that I’ll be able to update this section of the story when I do manage to find another piece of the puzzle. (I’m not giving up!) Like any good mystery, the process is slow and the solution deliberately shadowy. But the prospect of being able to tell the story in full one day is so worth it.

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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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