Dusty roads, flickering motel neon lights and old cafes fill the empty region that used to be an attraction to visitors all over the country – old Benson Highway.
Connecting the country from the Pacific in San Diego to the Atlantic in Tybee Island, Georgia, U.S. Route 80 was one of the early transcontinental highways in the United States. Like other highways of the time, much of it became decommissioned with the introduction of the interstate system in the 1950s.
Those looking for a small, historical detour between Pima and Cochise counties can find traces of the old – sometimes lonely – road.
Follow the signs as if you are going to the Tucson Airport. Keep going forward, the signs urge, down Kino Parkway. Hit the turn signal and turn left at the diagonal street — Benson Highway.
Start by turning onto the highway where the ever-watchful eyes of the Owl Lodge Apartments sign peer over passing cars.
What used to be a lively hot spot is now a somewhat deserted and sad sight. Bonnie Wallace, manager of the Owl Lodge, says it has about a 95 percent occupancy the entire year. A place meant for barbecuing and cocktail sipping is now a quiet common area in between the lodge rooms.
Driving down the highway, you’ll notice an abundance of vacant motels. These signs urge visitors to enter. The Acadian Court. The Howdy Manor Motel. The Western Motel, with a large neon star and the word “motel” so faded it’s practically unreadable. The Lariat Kitchenettes. Across the street, signs for the Redwood Lodge and an empty lot labelled “Cindy Lou’s Cafe.”
Some of the old motels and motor courts remain open. Their exteriors are dilapidated like their signs.
Farther down the road, more motels will begin to pop up. Benson Motel, Desert Edge Motel, Sunbeam Motel, Bucking Bronc Court, Scotsman Motel and more littered the eastbound side of the highway.
The rest of the way to Valencia Road, Benson Highway looks basically the same: housing developments, punctuated by gas stations, a fire department, carnicerias and more motels.
Much of what is now the Arizona portion of I-10 east of Tucson was built on the remains of U.S. Route 80, including the small subsection of the route known as Benson Highway.
Construction was completed in 1926, according to Jeff Jensen, author of “Drive the Broadway of America! Your Travel Guide to the U.S. 80 and Bankhead Highways across the American Southwest.”
Take the frontage road instead of I-10. At first, nothing will catch your eye on the frontage path, which runs closely paralleled to I-10. The only advantage is traveling on what was once the old highway, instead of getting off at Exit 267.
You will pass two exits and pull a left. Stop at an iconic part of the old and new Benson Highway: The Triple T Truck Stop, which includes Omar’s Hi-Way Chef Restaurant, 5451 E Benson Highway.
The Triple T, an independently owned, large-scale truck stop, is a Tucson must. Truckers and travelers stop for a meal from the diner, Omar’s Hi-Way Chef, which sports a robust menu.
Others stop to fuel up and use the station’s showers and its motel rooms, or to play video games, buy replacement parts, or take a trip over to Beuford’s Beauty & Barber.
Inside the Triple T, they offer traditional Arizona snacks, such as Arizona Prickly Pear Gourmet Licorice and Arizona Root Beer Taffy, both made for Sallie Sue’s Gift Shoppe inside the center.
Just down two exits east from the Triple T is a black bull suspended on a pole. This is the Vail Steakhouse Cafe and Diner. Though the building has changed hands multiple times since it was built, and the latest owners have no connection to the old Benson Highway, the classic sign remains.
George Georgelos, owner of Vail Steakhouse Café, proudly shares images of John Wayne around his restaurant. He points at a chair at their old-fashioned looking bar and explains that Wayne had once sat there with his castmates as they took a break from filming the 1966 film, “El Dorado.”
“Business hasn’t always been great, but it is getting better,” Georgelos says.
Georgelos proudly parades around the restaurant, discussing hidden restaurant secrets, such as a tile that is different than all of the others in the main dining room floor.
“This was the original floor from back in the 1900s,” he says. “They made this tile different so it would bring good luck to the restaurant.”
Georgelos describes how his acre lot once was a farm. “They’d bring the cows in right from the back. You can still see some of the troughs,” Georgelos said.
Hop back on the freeway toward Benson.
Soon, the Benson Highway labeling will end and you will hit Marsh Station Road. This too was part of the older U.S. 80, and though only a detour of an additional two miles, it was probably the most significant rerouting.
Soon enough, you will hop back on I-10 at Exit 291. Another 11 miles before reaching Benson. There are no other options, and any remaining stretches of Benson Highway is paved over.
Take Exit 302, the first to Benson, and you will see remaining frontage road after driving past and around the McDonald’s with a rotting, fake, one-eyed dinosaur outside. But it is also another dead end.
Come back to Exit 302 and enter I-10. One last exit, 303, remains. You will see that it must be where Benson Highway ended because it was the exit back to the SR 80.
Not much neon lines the streets of Benson. Benson is much more modern. On the left is a Walmart, and just down the road a Safeway. However, there are still remnants of the old highway.
The Quarter Horse Motel and RV Park, 800 W. Fourth St., is one of the last vintage motels down the Benson Highway. Guests walk toward the office but stop because of a sign in the window: “Closed Sundays.”
Reb’s Cafe & Coffee Shop, not too far down the road, advertises authentic food and looks slightly aged, but friendly. Its less-neon signage is still vintage and welcomes guests. Reb’s looks as if it has been here for a long time.
Lynn Hanson, a waitress at Reb’s, greets guests. She and one of the men in the kitchen, Jonathan Schriver, explain that the cafe has been open for about 24 years. Before that, it was another restaurant. and in the heyday of U.S. 80, it was an A&W restaurant.
The decor includes plenty of pictures of Old West heroes like John Wayne and Roy Rogers. Some are autographed, and some claim the celebrities of yesteryear used to eat at the restaurant.
A man sitting alone at a corner table orders a burger and fries, and watches the camaraderie of the staff. Hanson gives his order ticket to the cook, who jokes, “Aww, work. I thought I came here to get away from the kids.”
“And get paychecks,” Hanson jokes.
The drive back to Tucson is colorful and peaceful. And much faster. About an hour.
It’s like any freeway drive. Monotonous. The back road was anything but.
Bailey Finegold is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org