Remembering the Summit Inn, a Piece of California History Lost to Wildfire
When the Blue Cut Fire swept through San Bernardino County earlier this summer, it destroyed over 36,000 acres and some 300 structures. Among them was a beloved iconic diner. Twelve Naugahyde booths, 18 seats at the horseshoe counter, a jukebox and memorabilia lining the walls.
It was on the 15 freeway, on what was once a section of the most historic highway in the country, Route 66.
If you’ve made the drive between Los Angeles and Las Vegas in the last 64 years, you’ve passed the Summit Inn. It was a diner, a gas station and a gift shop. The “inn” part of the name wasn’t just filigree; there was a small motel on the 9-acre property that closed down in the 1960s.
Perched near the top of the Cajon Pass, the big red sign with the white block letters announced the down-home outpost against a sky of blinding desert blue. At night, the sign became a blinking neon beacon to countless weary travelers looking for a cup of coffee, a bite to eat, or a place to gas up and stretch their legs.
“It was a landmark. You could not go by the Summit Inn without going, 'There it is!'” says author and pop culture historian Charles Phoenix. “It was one of those places you never didn't notice on your way to Vegas or Yellowstone, or doing the old classic Route 66 trip.”
Thanks to the fire, there’s not much to notice anymore.
“I saw the flames coming up the hill and I knew we had to go,” says Michelle Keeney. She was on duty that day in August, but then she’s been on duty for most of the last 24 years. Since Keeney was hired as a teenager, she’s worked as everything from graveyard shift cashier to, most recently, general manager. The fire took her job, her house and everything she owned.
“I don't want to say it was a curse, but it’s almost like it was a curse,” she continues. “Really strange. Maybe like they’re mad that Mr. Stevens is gone."
“They? The fire gods? I don’t know!” says Keeney.
The Mr. Stevens she’s talking about is Cecil Stevens. He bought the inn on Friday, Oct. 13, 1966.
“A lot of the things I’ve done in my life have been on Friday the 13th,” Stevens reveals. “So I always look forward to Friday the 13th every year. Man, something good’s gonna happen!”
He sold the business on Friday, July 1. Six weeks later it burned down.
Stevens was born in Dale City, Oklahoma, “an arm’s throw” from Route 66. Ever since, the venerated road has loomed large in his legend. Just ask him.
“I’m a 66 type of guy. Born on 66, lived on 66, enjoyed 66, know a lot about 66. Sixty-six seems to be the key to me. I probably wouldn’t have been able to be up here if it wasn’t for Route 66.”
His initial fateful encounter with the inn came in 1952, the year it was built.
“The first day I laid eyes on the Summit Inn I was with my brother Calvin,” Stevens recalls. “I had been drafted in the Army during the Korean deal, and so we decided we'd take a trip from where we lived in San Diego to Utah, and on our way we stopped at the Summit. It was new at that time. We sat there at the counter and had coffee. That gas station was doing real big business at that time, and I kind of liked that spot. I just had a good feeling about it.”
For the 50 years he owned the Summit, Stevens was a boss, a father figure, a tough guy and a sweetheart. But mostly, he was a man who liked talking to people.
“I would always talk to customers about everything that was going on at the time,” he says. “I enjoyed it. They call it schmoozing or something? And I loved talking to movie stars. They come in there a lot. I had Clint Eastwood, I made him a bet I could beat him in my Pantera, he had a Porsche or something. He said, 'I don't want to take your money.'"
The risk of making bets with Clint Eastwood aside, driving through the high desert was treacherous, and the Cajon Pass could be a desolate place for travelers.
“It's a highway and they get stranded out there and they didn't have any way to get out of there and they'd hang around the Summit for a week,” says Stevens. “They’d sleep out in back and dig in the trash. It was awful. Sooner or later somebody'd come to get'em or I'd take them back to Victorville and drop them off in town.”
Along with the pancakes and ostrich burgers, the inn was the stage for decades of transient human drama. Heart attacks, drunken drivers, Vegas losers reeking of depression, and road rage.
“These two cars got into a road rage incident on the freeway,” says Keeney. “They followed each other into the Arco station and that led to a fight inside. The man who was working the graveyard shift told them to take it outside and they did. The offender who started the incident was actually pushed into the middle of the road, and an 18-wheeler hit him and he was killed. It was a shame.”
But horrific highway tragedy aside, there were the regulars. Dave Ellis first ate there as a kid in the '50s traveling with his family on Route 66. As an adult he became a fixture.
“I went to the Summit every day,” he says. “If it wasn't for lunch it would be for breakfast, and when I first moved up here I’d go for dinner a lot, too. I've been up here for 19 years and I've been a regular customer.”
Here’s something else about retired roofing contractor Ellis: "I was a stand-in for Jerry Mathers, the Beaver, on the 'Leave it to Beaver' show."
And as the 1950s Cleaver family on "Leave it to Beaver" represented a warm, happy all-American fiction of a time gone by, the Summit Inn was the real thing.
“The people I worked with, we were like family,” says Keeney. “It was your work family, but you could depend on them if you need them. It was insanely wonderful.”
That wonderfulness is what Katherine Recinos-Juarez thought she and her mother, Annabella, and brother, Otto Recinos, were buying when they purchased the Summit Inn from Cecil Stevens. At 84, he was ready to retire.
“For the first couple weeks I was there 15 hours a day, and we clicked very, very fast, all of us,” she says. “We became a family within weeks, days.
On Aug. 16 Recinos-Juarez was running errands in L.A. when she got a warning call from Keeney.
“By 3 p.m. she calls me, we’re being evacuated. By 6 I was receiving all the pictures of it being burned down. I was driving and I pulled over and just stopped driving for about 40 minutes because I was just broken inside of me,” says Recinos-Juarez. “It was my baby, and just kind of went away.”
Days after the fire, the charred hulk of the inn was fenced off. Then, everything apart from the sign was demolished and removed. But Recinos-Juarez says they aren’t giving up on the place.
“We're still in discussion with insurance. Hopefully, crossing fingers, we can rebuild the Summit Inn.”
At the moment, the lingering smell of smoke still hangs in the air where the Summit Inn once stood, and that red sign with the white block letters is still there. The cars and trucks still speed by, but -- for now anyway -- they don’t stop anymore.