Debbie Mejia and her husband Bruce watched in disbelief one day as a guest sauntered into their restaurant with a dead critter in his arms. Although the Roadkill Cafe in Seligman, Arizona, may hint that the menu is full of unfortunate animals that fell victim to cars on historic Route 66, the cafe doesn’t actually sell roadkill. But this was obviously lost on the gentleman.
“He came through the front door holding a dead, run over - probably several times - coyote and actually asked if we could [prepare] it,” Debbie said. “We all laughed and took pictures, but no, we couldn’t cook it.”
Northern Arizona is famous for its panoramic vistas and impossibly romantic landscapes. It is a magical part of America, made even more irresistible due to its almost 100- year connection to iconic Route 66. Arizona boasts of over 619 miles of America’s Main Street but there is a special 17- mile section that truly stands out.
Just after sleepy Ash Fork, the old highway turns into Crookton Road as it meanders toward quirky Seligman, carrying motorists through rolling hills and mesmerizing plateaus. But the scenic value of the journey is only the start. The real magic is waiting for you as you roll into town.
Originally known by the Old West sounding name of Prescott Junction, due to its location as a railroad stop on the Santa Fe mainline junction, Seligman would be renamed in 1862, its new moniker in honor of Jesse Seligman, one of the founders of J. & W. Seligman & Co. of New York, a company that helped finance the railroad lines in the area.
After Route 66 was built in 1926, Seligman became a popular spot for road travelers, even after 1933 when the highway bypassed Seligman’s Main Street to run along Chino Street. That didn’t stop the hordes of roadtrippers. At one point, in 1937, more than 500,000 out-of-state cars passed through the Arizona portion of Route 66.
Seligman capitalized on the popularity and teemed with neon signs, roadside attractions, pithy tourist motels and home-cooking cafes.
However, in 1978, Seligman nearly became a ghost town as a new Interstate bypassed the community and left it on the verge of death for nearly 10 long years. Among the many citizens and fans who wanted to save the dusty little Arizona Mother Road stop was the Pope family, transplants who changed the landscape of modern-day Seligman.
Drive through the town of Seligman today, and you’ll see a restaurant draped in red with a sunshine yellow sign that beckons with the dubiously curious name of The Roadkill Cafe. A giant elk statue bugles at the entrance, and inside, thousands of signed dollar bills line the rustic walls and ceiling. The menu offers dishes like the Funky Skunk, The Bird That Smacked the Curb, the Chicken that Almost Crossed the Road, and the Mystery Meat. Though the menu sounds like a bad day on a highway, visitors from around the U.S. and the globe trot to this restaurant in droves to sample the “roadkill” Cuisine.
Adjacent to the unconventional cafe, a giant neon sign advertises the Historic Route 66 Motel, and the nearby Route 66 General Store and RV Park carries everything a traveler may need — from fresh apples to shampoo to Route 66 souvenirs.
If your car breaks down, Route 66 Automotive and Towing will come to your rescue.
In each of these Seligman businesses, a member of the Pope clan is waiting with a smile. Though the Pope family originally hailed from Massachusetts and then California, they’ve created one of the most recognizable Mother Road empires along the 2,448-mile fabled road. Say hello to the Pope family.
A Long Way from Home
In June 1963, Jim and Jean Pope loaded up their four small children and drove from Massachusetts on the east coast to sunny California to visit their parents with the idea of moving west. Jim was tired of working for other people, and he wanted the chance to start his own business, and California seemed like it had more opportunity.
Like thousands of other travelers in the 1960s, the family drove Route 66 to the California coast with sunshine dreams in their eyes. It was a fun but straightforward journey that included lots of sights and plenty of tarmac. That is until an overnight stay at The Navajo Motel in a tiny Arizona town unexpectedly altered the family’s trajectory.
The Navajo Motel was among the Americana-themed family businesses that thrived along the Mother Road. With its big red sign and bold white lettering, The Navajo Motel was built by the Layman family in 1950. It was one of those motels every kid loved - not only did it have an Old West and Native American feel, it had a swimming pool too.
“My grandparents had moved to California before I was born and my parents wanted to go out and see if they also wanted to live there,” said Debbie, the youngest of Jim and Jean’s four children. “So, we took a trip in 1963 to Westminster. Of course, [back] then, they only had Route 66. What’s so bizarre about our story is that we were meant to be here. We stopped in June of 1963, on the seventh day of the vacation, in this small, cute little town of Seligman, and we stayed at The Navajo Motel. Twenty years later, we bought [it].”
Seligman, Arizona, was a popular place for travelers to stop in the 1960s. Nestled between mountains in the east, desert in the west and the Grand Canyon to the north, Seligman had always been a traveler’s pitstop. The town was originally a Havasupai settlement, but developed into a stop along the historic Beale’s Wagon Road. When Beale’s became the Mojave Road - an early route that brought American pioneers to California after the Civil War - Seligman was one of its many stagecoach stations.
“Being as young as I was, I don’t remember much about that trip, but I do remember my mom worrying about my nana being upset with her because my brother Jim stayed in one of the motel swimming pools for too long and, as a result, was very sunburned. Of course, my mom wanted to make a good impression on her mother-in-law and my brother being as red as a lobster made her worry. Of course, my parents fell in love with the California sunny weather. We had family there. So, a year later in 1964, we moved [there] and I grew up in Orange County.”
On that fateful trip in 1963, when the Popes stayed in The Navajo Motel, Seligman was a hopping little town that raked in the visitors with its Route 66 attractions and western spirit. But Jim and Jean Pope didn’t picture themselves living there at the time. Instead, they invested in food trucks in California, long before food trucks were popular.
“That’s what I got for my graduation present in 1978 in California. I got my own catering truck. I wanted to be a part of the family business. That’s what my brothers and my sisters did with my family, so I wanted to be a part of it too.” Debbie served hamburgers, hotdogs, burritos and all kinds of breakfast meals, and she loved it. Her family members all had catering trucks, but in the 1980s, competition was picking up.
“We had five trucks in the Vernon/Los Angeles area,” said Debbie. “[Each] of us had one. But dad wanted us all to go into another business together, a business that would work for all of us.”
Debbie’s parents first considered buying a ski resort in the northern California/Nevada area, but they worried about how to survive during the off-season slumps. Then, Debbie’s brother-in-law saw a classified ad in the Orange County Register. An advertisement that seemed out of place.
“The notice was about how the OK Saloon and The Navajo Motel, and the other businesses were for sale. My parents, my sister and her husband ventured back to Seligman to [take a look], and they just fell in love with it.”
In 1983, the family decided. Everyone - except for Debbie’s brother Jim who married a California girl who refused to move - was shifting to Seligman to take over The Navajo Motel, the OK Saloon, and the grocery store.
Debbie’s brother Bill and his family moved into a little apartment at the back of the Navajo, and her parents lived in a tiny house right behind the venue. Debbie moved into the house with her parents, while her sister Dee ran the motel.
“In the motel, we have living quarters, so she lived there,” Debbie said. “We were pretty much on top of each other. The original Navajo Motel was a little dated and dusty with cowboy paraphernalia, so the Pope family worked to update it. They also modernized the little store that sold moccasins and soda into a full-service grocery and hardware store.
In 1987, Debbie’s sister Dee and their father designed the fabulous neon sign that lights up the desert sky today and the name of the motel was officially changed to Historic Route 66 Motel.
From food trucks in Orange County, California, to the Roadkill Cafe in Arizona, the Pope family’s journey to “the place they were meant to be” was a winding one. Today, the Pope family owns not only the Historic Route 66 Motel but also the OK Saloon, the Historic Route 66 General Store and Route 66 Automotive and Towing, as well as a campground and storage facility.
“We not only bought the Motel from the Layman family, we bought all of our commercial properties here on Route 66 in Seligman from them too, plus property behind the businesses which our family have all built our homes on. We call it ‘Popeville.’ It’s truly a family business,” said Debbie. “I love it here. I can’t imagine living anywhere else. Seligman is our Home.” But in truth, it wasn’t always that way.
In 1983, when the California family made the new big move, Debbie was 23 with two young children. Her son Michael was six months old and her daughter Heather was two. That was a lot of responsibility for someone so young, even with family support. To make matters more difficult, shortly after moving to Seligman, Debbie’s first husband made a decision to move back to California and the two divorced.
“So here I was with my mom and dad and two little babies, you know. It was different from California, and the shock factor hit me. There were no red lights in this town. There were no franchises, there were no McDonald’s. There was no just running to the grocery store,” Debbie said. But one thing did appeal to the young mother about the area; she was fascinated with cowboy life. And with The Diamond-A, a ranch made up of over a million acres with no back fence as it leads into the Grand Canyon, just north of Seligman, Debbie had some considerable opportunities to experience this fading lifestyle.
“I loved listening to their stories as they sat in the saloon while I was bartending. I love the way they dressed, and I was lucky enough to make some of them my friends. They would sometimes take me horseback riding and out to the camps.”
Seligman was also the halfway stop for the railroad between Needles, California, and Gallup, New Mexico. This meant that the railroad crew traveling west and the crew traveling east would stop in Seligman. Crews would then switch trains and head back to their original location.
“Usually the crew would have some kind of layover in Seligman, so hanging out at the local saloon playing pool and shuffleboard is what they did,” Debbie said. “All this was very fascinating to me. I truly thought I would love living in a small town, but being only 23 years old, I was home sick [quickly]. I was a city girl from southern California, and I missed the beach terribly.”
In 1983, just a few months after moving to Arizona, this longing caused Debbie to pick up and head back to California herself, but after a short spell, she realized that the Golden State just wasn’t home anymore. “I came home back to Seligman where my whole family was,” she said. And she decided to make a go of it.
Though hundreds of thousands of cars once passed through Seligman to get to and from the west coast, the opening of Interstate 40 in the late 1970s threatened to kill Seligman’s economy. The new highway ran just a mile south of town, but that one mile could have been an ocean for all the cars that suddenly bypassed the once-thriving Route 66 stop. In the words of one resident, Angel Delgadillo, “We knew that this was going to take place, but we did not know how devastating this was going to be. When they opened I-40, this town died for 10 long years. At first, I was very sad. Then I got very angry at my government. We didn’t have the money to leave so we had to stay and fight.”
Then the Santa Fe Railroad closed in the mid-1980s, and the double blows nearly killed the community. For a decade, the town was on its deathbed. Stores and restaurants faltered, and the once heavy stream of cars and visitors slowed to a trickle.
In 1987, the people of Seligman took matters in their own hands. The residents, including the now famous Angel Delgadillo, convinced the State of Arizona to make Route 66 a historic highway and asked that exit signs on the new interstate highlight Seligman as the “Birthplace of Historic Route 66.” At the same time, Angel and his brother Juan created the Route 66 Association of Arizona and began to unite their once thriving community.
In fact, the town’s efforts to save itself became one of the inspirations for Pixar’s animated movie “Cars,” and Seligman served as the inspiration for Radiator Springs, a little Route 66 town that had to fight for its survival after being bypassed by the roaring motorway. The people of Seligman joined together and actively sought to protect their future.
“I ran the businesses, but my parents went to the meetings and things like that. It was pretty much a handful of those people who were business owners and they all decided that they were going to get together and be on-board,” Debbie said. “They started going to the Association meetings in Kingman, which is 75 miles west of us.”
With people mobilized and excited, Seligman had a new lease on life and the determined Pope family looked forward, resolute that their plans would lead to a windfall of tourism dollars. It took time, and even after the Route 66 Association was formed, business continued to struggle.
The railroad’s absence left Seligman with a great deal of hardship, due to the fact that it had provided decades of major financial support for the town. All of the businesses in Seligman suffered. The railroaders were not staying in the motels, eating in restaurants, shopping in Seligman stores or patronizing bars, anymore.
“Tax dollars were gone from our school and the Seligman people knew they had to do something and that they did by coming together with the Kingman Chamber of Commerce to have 158 miles of Old Route 66 named a historical highway,” said Debbie. “Seligman survived the I978 Interstate 40 bypass and they were going to survive the railroad leaving as well.”
Everyone agreed that tourism was the only way to keep the town alive. Jim and Jean were the first to change the names of their businesses in town, renaming The Navajo Motel to the Historic Route 66 Motel with a beautiful neon sign. But others followed. It was time for a fresh rebranding.
The Northern Arizona Campground Store was renamed as the “Historic Route 66 General Store.” “Dad also had our Texaco gas pumps moved from our service station that is located next to the store, to the front of the store. Dad said that it would help to bring people into the store, and he was right. People like to stop for gas and buy a soda pop at the same time.”
Soon, other businesses were making changes. Some changed the names of their businesses and the little gift shops changed up their merchandise from selling cowboy hats, moccasins and Southwest items to selling Route 66 signs, shirts, magnets, coffee cups and anything else that said or had to do with Route 66.
Even before the Association began, Seligman hosted a big car show every May called The Fun Run. The Fun Run fundraiser traces its roots to early 1987 when 15 individuals embarked on an ambitious journey to champion the rebirth of Route 66. This collaboration led to the formation of the Historic Route 66 Association of Arizona. Old, vintage cars lined the street, nestled up against new or project vehicles, and despite the sluggish economy, that car show still attracted plenty of fans.
“All these old cars and new cars and whatever else you want to put in would line up here in Seligman and then travel west to stop in places like Peach Springs and Hackberry and the little towns west of us,” said Debbie.
The starting point for the Fun Run was in Seligman, and the town hosted a pageant during the event. One girl from every town along the Fun Run route competed to be the Route 66 Fun Run Queen. The winner would promote the new Route 66 Association and partnering locations to tourists and others. Grassroots efforts were the backbone of reviving the withering towns along Route 66 in Arizona. Along the way, Debbie fell in love.
In 1991, an Arizona Department of Transportation supervisor named Bruce Mejia was surveying around Interstate 40 and the new Historic Route 66 when he found himself in Seligman. Mejia grew up on Route 66 in Ash Fork and was himself a true Route 66 resident. As a worker for the Arizona Department of Transportation, Mejia saw how the small towns suffered. He remembers when he and his ADOT crew were told to remove all of the advertising billboards that lined Route 66 in the mid-1970s, as part of a beautification project of President Johnson’s wife, Lady Bird Johnson. To this day, no billboards are permitted to advertise business along that stretch of highway. While enjoying his time in Seligman, he met a pretty woman named Debbie at the then-OK Saloon. That pretty woman really sparked his interest.
“We were playing shuffleboard together,” Mejia said. “I’d been in the OK Saloon before. I coached little league girls’ softball, and Debbie’s daughter Heather was on the team. I asked her if she wanted to get a Coke. So, we drove around, and just went and had a soda and stuff. The rest is history.” The two began getting pretty friendly. One afternoon, Heather came home from school with a question for her mother. “Mom, are you dating my baseball coach?” “I asked her if that would be a problem. Heather was really little, and she wasn’t too happy when she came home and thought that that was the reason she got to play on the team,” Debbie said. But the love affair lasted, and the two married on November 26, 1994. “It is my love for Route 66 that I believe bonds me to Bruce, because in 1949, Bruce was born on Route 66 in Ash Fork in a house that is still standing. I joke and tell people that I first saw Bruce in 1963. I say he was playing in his front yard as a little boy when we drove Route 66 on vacation from Massachusetts to California,” Debbie said. Mejia moved from Ash Fork to Seligman in 1984, one year after Debbie moved to Seligman. He also helped with traffic control for the annual Fun Runs.
Today, the Pope family also owns the Route 66 General Store, and Debbie’s son Michael acts as shopkeeper. Her brother Bill still takes care of the tow truck and service station and his daughter Nicole runs the Motel. The OK Saloon, filled with rowdy cowboys from neighboring ranches and the former railroad workers, was transformed into the Roadkill Cafe. When Jean and Jim expanded the OK Saloon into the Roadkill 66 Cafe with its signature buzzard logo, Debbie’s sister-in-law Janet left the general store to run the restaurant. A few years later, Debbie also left the store to open a gift shop at the cafe.
“The Roadkill Buzzard was created for us in 1997 by a very dear family friend. ‘Route 66 Ron,’” Debbie said. “Sadly Ron passed away a few years ago, but his daughter Cindy still is one of my favorite Route 66 vendors. She creates and makes many of my specialty Roadkill signs, patches, hats, bumper stickers and coffee cups. She also provides many Route 66 products we carry in our General Store. We wanted a name that would grab people’s attention, and it certainly did.” Soon, the Cafe was a “must-stop” for anyone traveling Route 66. Its reputation became famous based on its extensive menu with quirky and quaint named dishes. Visitors can even contribute their own signed memorial bill to be displayed in the gift shop.
From the looks of it, thousands have. “A lot of people traveling visit again and again, and they always want to see their dollars,” Debbie said. “Back in the day, the cowboys would leave a dollar in advance when they got paid.”
On any given day, hordes of Route 66 devotees/pilgrims from all over the world, armed with cameras, especially the Harley Davidson riding types, take selfies aimed at the stuffed elk propped up outside the Roadkill Cafe’s entrance. Plenty of celebrities have stopped in as well. The stars of the shows Pawn Stars, Storage Wars and Orange County Choppers have all made appearances, as have other recognizable names.
“Ozzy Osbourne and the baseball player Darryl Strawberry have been in,” Debbie said. “There’s been a lot of celebrities, and they’ve always been down to earth. John Ellway played pool with a bunch of customers. He also signed a bunch of Beanie Babies.”
For Heather, growing up in Seligman was picture perfect. She played softball and camped with friends in the wild places around town. The kids threw bonfire parties on the weekend. She also worked at the general store. “Grandma made sure we knew how to work. She’d make us count change. We all knew how to do all that,” said Heather. “My kid is the same way. He’s been working here since he was eight. He goes to school at North Arizona University now, but he comes in the summer and he started busing tables when he was eight.”
Debbie’s son Michael also pitched in as a kid. Before he took over the general store, he cooked at the Roadkill Cafe. “I just loved cooking with grandma. We learned so much from her because it was her way or the highway,” Michael said. Heather was always a homebody. After graduating high school in 1999, she moved to Prescott, for college. She stayed in the dorms there for two days, before coming home and commuting to college every day.
“My grandparents helped me get a house right next door to my mom. I actually loved Seligman. I met my husband and I moved to Phoenix for a year and I hated life [there].” So, Heather and her husband Mike Ramirez returned home. Mike started his own heating and cooling business while Heather keeps the books for Pope Enterprises. The family was back together again.
The Roadkill Cafe started small but has expanded over the years as it cultivates more and more popularity. All the Pope businesses continue to grow, as does the family itself.
“We are in our fourth generation of family in these businesses,” Debbie said. “That’s counting my brother’s kids, my grandkids and my brother’s grandkids. They’ll come in and they’ll bus tables,and the littlest ones are in my gift shop where they go around and ask people if they’d like a sample of candy. I used to give them the duster, but once we started letting people taste the candies, my grandson decided that’s what he wants to do.”
But not everyone is still involved. “My dad passed in 2004 and we lost mom in 2016. But they got to see this kind of small empire they built.”
True to the spirit of Route 66, the Roadkill Cafe welcomes all, even in the harshest of time. Northern Arizona frequently gets hit by snow storms during the winter months that can close highways and leave travelers stranded. “When somebody is stuck in a small town, they realize that small town people are very warm and welcoming,” Debbie said. “Thanksgiving weekend in 2019, there was a terrible storm here that closed the highways. Only a few of my Roadkill employees could make it into work, but I had to open because people stuck all night were hungry and cold.” Some people were stuck in snow while others ran out of gas. “They needed a place to get warm. Myself and my husband Bruce, one of my waitresses and a prep cook were the only ones who could make it to the Roadkill to open our doors and help people get out of the weather. We didn’t make a lot of money that day in the Roadkill due to the limited staff, but we dang sure made a lot of friends.”
For the Pope/Mejia family, staying together and offering that hospitality are what has made them so successful on America’s historic highway. “Having my family together makes life nice,” Debbie said. “We know that things will keep on going into the next generation and keep on growing. This is our home and our community.” As for the Roadkill Cafe, wild animals still make their way through the door at times. “On Sunday night after going to bed, I received a phone call from our Roadkill evening supervisor. Our cook was taking out the trash and a skunk ran in the restaurant and was hiding behind our piano in the dining room,” Debbie said. “The Roadkill was closed, thank goodness, so Bruce and I went over and coaxed the little fella out without incident - and no smell.” And, no, they didn’t cook him!