What it’s like to accidentally own a California ghost town

As a tiny, unincorporated hamlet, Amboy yields no results in the U.S. Census Bureau. It’s unclear how many residents — if any — still live there. 

Paul I. via Yelp

The deserted town of Amboy looks like a Harley Davidson fever dream drenched in neon. 

Just along Route 66 in the Mojave Desert, it appears like a mirage, or a gritty 1950s Western on acid. But amid the barren nothingness, just past the mysteriously placed Buddha statue and volcanic crater, you’ll also see the abandoned town’s most prominent landmark glowing in the distance: Roy’s Motel and Cafe, a remote gas station that has become an enduring, if surreal, symbol of Americana. 

Though it started out as a small mining camp, postcards suggest that Amboy once had 13 businesses, including cafes and motor courts, as well as a church and a school that catered to the town’s 200 residents. For a fleeting period after the war, business at the roadside diner boomed, bringing workers and travelers from all across the United States. 


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“On Route 66 they fell in love with the adventure,” Buster Burris, the town’s previous owner, told the Los Angeles Times. By the early 1950s, he had more than 100 people working 24-hour shifts to ensure that weary travelers had fuel, food and lodging — but the money dried up when Interstate 40 replaced Route 66, becoming the main vehicle route spanning the U.S. Burris told the Desert Sun that it all but destroyed his once thriving roadside business, leading him, and the town, toward an uncertain future. 

But all of that changed when Albert Okura — a self-described “chicken man” and third-generation Japanese American who owned a chain of rotisserie chicken restaurants throughout Southern California — paid $425,000 in cash for the 690-acre town in 2005. At the time, he believed that the high desert would become an oasis for young people who would be pushed out of major cities.

“I just remember the first time that he came into my room and told me he’s buying a town, and it was just the most funny thing, even as a child,” said his son, Kyle Okura. Back then, his father was already busy operating Juan Pollo, his fast food empire — no one understood why he’d want to make such a purchase, let alone for a place subjected to 126-degree heat, flash floods and land so salty that it required water to be transported to the town by train. There was also no community left to speak of. 


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As a tiny, unincorporated hamlet, Amboy yields no results in the U.S. Census Bureau. It’s unclear how many residents — if any — still live there. According to Ken Large, Roy’s manager, there’s one woman who’s been living by the local chloride company for more than 30 years now, where she can occasionally be seen cruising around in a small utility vehicle.

“She doesn’t come to our store,” he said. “We see her go to the post office, but I don’t know how she gets her groceries or where they come from.” In the two years he’s worked at the gas station, he’s only met her once. 

Despite these quirks, Okura still believed that owning the town was his destiny. After striking a deal with Burris’ 90-year-old wife, he promised her that he would preserve the spirit of Amboy, and walked away with its church and post office, along with Roy’s and the airstrip that flanked it. Eventually, he would go on to resurrect the motel’s larger-than-life neon sign in 2019 — but plans veered off course when he suddenly died four years later, passing his legacy onto his son. 

Italian bikers aren’t the only visitors to pass through Amboy on Route 66. Sometimes, airplane pilots will suddenly descend on the dirt runway unannounced. 

Italian bikers aren’t the only visitors to pass through Amboy on Route 66. Sometimes, airplane pilots will suddenly descend on the dirt runway unannounced. 

Ken Large


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Like most people, Kyle Okura never anticipated inheriting a ghost town. He didn’t even know how to operate a gas station, he says — but he, along with his few employees who commute from an hour away to manage Roy’s, could probably best be described as seekers. After all, not everyone is willing to embrace the unruliness of the California desert, or what Large refers to as “lovely chaos.” 

Large, who grew up in nearby Twentynine Palms, was originally a contractor, or as he described it, a “square peg in a square hole job.” Working at the motel, by contrast, was like stepping into another dimension. 

“I mean, we’ve had people show up with no legs that have walked across the United States. We’ve had a Japanese YouTuber running here from New York City pulling a rickshaw. It is kind of surreal, the things that just show up in the desert,” he said. On any given day, hundreds of European tourists on rented Harleys will mob out to Roy’s and stop by to drink a cold soda, or splash around in Roy’s makeshift kiddie pool filled with ice water.  

“We’ve got a bunch of grown-ass people — all this motorcycle gear — from some other country — and they’re chasing each other around with water guns,” said Nicole Rachel, Roy’s assistant manager. “I mean, like, where do you work that that happens?” 


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Italian bikers aren’t the only visitors to pass through Amboy on Route 66. Sometimes, while Large and Rachel are pumping gas, airplane pilots will suddenly descend on the dirt runway unannounced. “They are the last of the cowboys,” Large said. “They will land on almost any loose patch of dirt they can.” But normally, the pilots, who only fly in the daytime, are cordial enough to call in advance. 

For now, management is optimistic about the future of the motel, which is in dire need of restoration: Okura says that they plan to reopen the cottages so travelers can actually stay overnight, as well as the cafe in the next year. Celebrities like Cindy Crawford and Olivia Rodrigo have already used the motel as a vivid backdrop, along with international pop stars, Hollywood influencers and famous rock musicians. Part of the allure, Okura says, is that it’s a desert oasis stuck in time. The outside world will continue to hurtle toward the future, technology will relentlessly advance, but Amboy will remain exactly the same as it once did.  

There were many moments when Okura wanted to quit. There were times when he lost all of his employees in the same week, summer days that reached triple-digits, and long nights where he’d have to drive hours to Amboy all alone. But then he remembered his father telling him to keep the legacy alive, because it was an opportunity that no one, including him, would ever see again.    

“I kind of just held onto those words,” Okura said. “… And now that we’ve patched the dark part of the tunnel, it’s almost like everything that he wanted me to do, we’re doing this year.”

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