In the fall of 2008, I was with my family visiting relatives in Southern California. We were staying at a motel in Santa Clarita where my uncle lived. My brother asked about a good, basic, local diner, and we were pointed to the Way Station Coffee Shop. Upon entering the establishment, I was truly delighted to see license plates all over the walls, because I am a license plate collector. They came from all states and there were some from other countries as well – even a souvenir Antarctica plate with a penguin on it.

IMG_5292_1Food quickly became secondary. I inquired about the plates, and the general manager Eric Leeser came out to meet me. We discussed license plates for some time. He had heard of the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association (ALPCA) but didn’t presently belong. The plates were all part of his collection, to which patrons occasionally donated.

The results of that discussion bore fruit in the form of an article I wrote for PLATES, ALPCA’s bimonthly magazine. Published in February, 2009, “Blue Plate Special” was the first of 11 articles I have written for the magazine thus far. As such, the Way Station has always held a special spot in my heart.

So in 2017, when I was off to Ontario, California, for ALPCA’s annual international convention, I made sure to include a visit to my uncle and to the Way Station. The diner sits in a charming area of the city comprised of similarly-designed and painted, old ranch-style-looking businesses. This area goes by the name of Newhall, the name of the community that was formerly an incorporated section of Santa Clarita. It is best known for its association with entertainer Gene Autry, who bought a ranch in the area in 1953.

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I was pleased to see that very little had changed in the nine years since my last visit. There were still license plates everywhere, and just as before, colorful signage and advertising, much of it vintage, also adorned the walls. The diner had the same local, down-to-earth vibe.

IMG_5274After re-touring the establishment, I sat down to enjoy a quality tuna melt and a very delicious chocolate shake. Mr. Leeser was there, and I only needed to briefly mention the article to spark his memory. He said he had been very appreciative of it (I sent him a copy of the magazine after its publication) and that it inspired him to get back into ALPCA. Further, his mother (who recently passed) really enjoyed reading it, and his girlfriend had joked with him about my description of him as a “middle-aged looking fellow.”

IMG_5286He said he still has lots of plates he will probably put up on the walls one day. As it is, there’s little real estate available, so they’d have to be rotated. He pointed out one area he wants to look better, where he started a string of California base plates, and said his emphasis currently is getting foreign plates (with Australia still on the Want List). He also rummaged around in his extra stock to show me a recent acquisition.

The Way Station could be described as a “hole-in-the-wall” or a local favorite. It is the kind of place where waitresses address customers by first name, the counter is always open, and been around for decades because they’re doing something right.

IMG_5290       IMG_5291According to the American Diner Museum, “The word ‘diner’ is a derivative of ‘dining car’ and diner designs reflected the styling that manufacturers borrowed from railroad dining cars.” The Way Station definitely matches the motif, in an area which is perfectly associated with railroads.

Credit for the diner generally goes to Walter Scott of Providence, Rhode Island. In 1872—99 years before the Way Station was born—Scott quit his day job as a pressman and type compositor to sell food at night from a horse drawn wagon parked outside the Providence Journal newspaper office.

Similar outfits took shape across New England. Portable lunch wagons gave way to retired streetcars conversions. Often operating on small budgets, décor and maintenance were not a priority for most owners. But by the 1920’s, these “greasy spoons” were modified to appeal to women, and in the 1930’s, according to ADM, “modern materials were fabricated into streamline forms to symbolize speed and mobility.”

The diner really took off after World War II, as evolving economic and demographic factors set in. New technologies in mechanical systems further increased the attractiveness of the diner for the American public.

Fast food restaurants cut into diners’ dominance, but in the late 1970’s nostalgia and longing for old values helped spur an appreciation of diners. Some chains, such as Denny’s, adopted a diner feel, and today preservation efforts are made for vintage diners everywhere. As the Museum states, “Diners evolved into community gathering places where people from all walks of life and origin shared a home-cooked meal in a small and comforting atmosphere.” At the Way Station Coffee Shop, I can say (despite only two visits) that this holds true. For this license plate collector, there is the added treat of the best kind of wallpaper.


More on the Way Station:

All pictures are from the author and subject to copyright except exterior shot, which is from the shop’s Facebook page.

wscf outside







If not for Route 66, Victorville might have never grown beyond a blip on the map in Southern California. With a respectable population of 121,901, the city (from the perspective of the corner booth at Apollo Burger) overlooks miles of sagebrush with a row of mountains in the distance.

Patti, the director of the California Route 66 Museum, points out that the town doesn’t seem like much because it’s so spread out. Once upon a time, Victorville was just Victor, California. In 1901, the “ville” was added. But a more significant change occurred in the 1930s, when the benefits of Route 66 really made their mark. IMG_5151There were businesses up and down the portion of the route which toured through Victorville, a kind of boom town seen across seven states.

By the end of the 1960’s, Interstate 15 had come along, bypassing the city by a shade. And like many other Route 66-inspired communities, Victorville fell prey to changing times. Perhaps because of its proximity to Los Angeles and the overall development of the High Desert, Victorville did not turn into a ghost town. But there’s no denying the lasting effects, as a number of boarded up or vacant businesses on Seventh Street attest.

The California Route 66 Museum contains just three rooms: Route 66, Transportation, and Victorville-Early Days. It’s a non-profit organization running on the goodwill of its patrons—there’s no entrance fee, and the displays and artifacts are there via donations. The museum, while not all that large, nevertheless packs in a lot of material.

IMG_5162The crown jewel is a 1917 Model T, while others may be fans of the 1951 Pepsi vending machine or the 1950 jukebox. Whether it’s signage, toys, maps, brochures, old photos, old yearbooks, or yes, even license plates that pique your interest, you are sure to be delighted. The gift shop area is full of wonderful novelties as well, from puzzles to keychains to reusable bags, postcards to wall clocks to playing cards. You can take your photo on the Model T, in a 1966 Flower VW bus, or as I saw one couple do, sitting in a re-creation of a classic diner booth.

IMG_5158There’s old radios and toy cars, a vintage wooden outhouse, gas station décor, an example of a Native American-made doll sold along the route, a tribute to Roy Rogers, displays of how the route related to bus service and train service, buttons and badges, the route’s place in popular culture, and newspaper items such as a telling of a flood in the area many years ago.

Route 66 was designated as such in 1926. Stretching from Chicago to Los Angeles, it served as a major west-east artery in the early days of national highway construction. Compared to modern interstates, the route served both big cities and small towns. Rather than follow a straight, traditional course, Route 66 went out of the way to connect to rural communities. This proved prosperous for farmers and truckers.

IMG_5183_1John Steinbeck nicknamed it the “Mother Road” in The Grapes of Wrath, and the mass migration of people from the plains states using the route to flee from the Dust Bowl catapulted Route 66 into the American consciousness. Laborers found work during the Great Depression completing the route, and its usefulness during World War II further cemented its value. After the war, an increasingly mobile American populace (including thousands of military members who trained in parts of the country served by the route) utilized Route 66 to relocate. In 1946, Nat King Cole recorded Bobby Troup’s song, simply named “Route 66,” which quickly became a hit.

The highway helped spawn a new travel culture, marked by diners, garages, more elaborate gas stations, tourist courts, motels, and roadside attractions.

IMG_5173_1By the mid-1950’s, highways including Route 66 had deteriorated due in part to high level of traffic and the excessive use of trucks during World War II. Public pressure led to the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act in 1956. By 1970, modern four-lane highways had bypassed nearly the entirety of Route 66. And in 1984, the final section of the original road, in Arizona, went to the wings of Interstate 40.

Today, Route 66 still stirs strong memories among many Americans. The fact that the California Route 66 Museum runs by volunteers with donations is proof of that—as is the bevy of websites and books devoted to The Mother Road. As says, “Route 66 symbolized the renewed spirit of optimism that pervaded the country after economic catastrophe and global war. Often called ‘The Main Street of America’, it linked a remote and under-populated region with two vital 20th century cities – Chicago and Los Angeles.”

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Sources: California Route 66 Museum, national