By the time you get to Phoenix…..you’ll be starving. I think that’s what Glen Campbell really meant. The same might be said about your trip to San Diego if you happen to be going in the opposite direction. While photographs of the Sonoran Desert may be beautiful, to actually drive through the reality can sometimes be an arduous journey. Even the short 3-hour tour from Phoenix to Yuma through the open desert can feel like forever, especially if your “tank” is empty. Lucky for you, there’s the Space Age Lodge in a little town called Gila Bend.
Arizona is rather large, and because of the nature of the environment, it is fairly inhospitable and impractical for living in, often making road trips feel a little long and somewhat boring after a while. There is no “easy” way to get anywhere, and there’s really nothing new to see, as you’ll probably be looking at the same mountains and sagebrush for a good couple hours at a time. Roadways and thoroughfares are few and far between, and travelers are limited in the routes that they can choose from, and as we desert dwellers always say, “Gas up when you see it, not when you need it.” That goes for food and bathroom, too. Situated about half way between Phoenix and Yuma along the I-8, where the Gila River turns, is Gila Bend. It’s a strip of street about a mile long, and if you sneeze, you’ll have to turn around and go back a few miles. There’s no water in the river, but you can get gas at the Texaco station and a cool drink and hearty breakfast at the Space Age Lodge…an atomic-age space themed Best Western hotel and diner. The hotel is open for travelers, and no reservation is necessary to enjoy the great coffee and eggs the diner has to offer.
The Southwest is famous for Atomic Age and Space Alien memorabilia, but what sets the Space Age Lodge apart from the others is the true story behind the building and its decor. Built in 1965, owner Al Stovall was less interested in Little Green Men and more interested in the Race for Space. The owner of a plastics company and a partner in a copper mine, Stovall was interested in space exploration and research and offered his materials in support of government contracts. He built the saucer on top of the restaurant, which was formerly accompanied by copper satellite models as a tribute to his admiration for space exploration and development, and with his connections in the Space Program he acquired many autographed NASA photos of astronauts and space missions. However, in 1998, the diner was almost nearly consumed by fire, and the satellite models were not rebuilt. Furthermore, upon Stovall’s death, his beloved photos were returned to the family. In their place are ginormous murals of space exploration, including a depiction of the Constitution Class USS Enterprise that greets you when you walk in the door.
America is full of this wonderful “kitsch” that sets us apart. No other country in the world has diners with flying saucers and satellite metalwork on top of a roadside diner in the middle of nowhere. The Space Age Lodge isn’t a HUGE roadside attraction or a big deal, really. In fact, if you’re not paying attention, you’ll miss it. The lodge is a Best Western Plus that is open for business, and each room and hotel area has its own space-y decor. The diner isn’t fancy, so don’t look for the food to have any sort of theme, but it is unique and does offer travelers a bit of Americana on the long road east and west in an otherwise wasteland. The restaurant offers your average diner fare offering your basic breakfast all day, sandwiches and burgers for lunch, and traditional American and Mexican dinner platters at diner prices, small salad bar, and if nothing else, the coffee is good. It’s just a nice little landing pad to stop and stretch your legs at, grab a bite, and maybe snag a shot glass or coffee cup souvenir before relaunching.