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THE 'RUNNER TUMBLES CLEANUP CREW POURS SALT ON TALE OF VALLEY LANDMARK

For 35 years, the gargantuan neon Roadrunner stood sentry over traffic on the Black Canyon Freeway. But one morning two weeks ago, stunned motorists stared in disbelief as they whizzed past the defunct truck stop at the northwest corner of I-17 and McDowell Road.

The big beeper had flown the coop.
The 40-foot-long Roadrunner Truck Stop landmark didn't get far. The victim of a recent hazardous-waste cleanup on the ten-acre property, the sheet-metal bird was knocked off its massive perch and carted off to the back of the lot. Severely dented in the process, the mangled icon now resembles the avian protagonist of a Japanese monster movie who lost a fight to Godzilla. A survivor of yesterday's less restrictive sign laws, the garish Roadrunner outlived by four years the truck stop it once advertised. Although the buildings on the site were finally razed late last year, owners left the sign intact, hoping that a future tenant might be able to incorporate the Roadrunner into a future business. Those hopes were dashed on March 23, when cleanup workers discovered evidence of diesel-fuel leakage under the Roadrunner's gas-pump-island perch.

"That Roadrunner is a part of our family," says property owner Jim Viano by phone from San Diego. "We hated to have to take it down, but it was going to cost $10,000 just to brace him up during the cleanup." The Roadrunner's present appearance to the contrary, don't look for it to nest in a scrap heap just yet. Viano reports that a northern Arizona restaurateur is interested in resurrecting the sign outside a refurbished diner on Route 66. "When I was a kid growing up in Phoenix, I always loved that sign," says Steve Herndon, who hopes to mount the sign outside his newest restaurant venture--the Roadrunner Restaurant, a 1950s-style cafe scheduled to open next month in Flagstaff. But as that longtime dream becomes a reality, the staggering logistics involved in moving the behemoth across the state are finally coming home to roost.

"When you're cruising by on the freeway, you don't begin to realize how big that sign is," says Herndon, who drove down from Flagstaff the day the sign was removed. "That thing is massive. I was actually walking around on top of it."

That sign-top stroll, along with the bird's newly twisted tail, effectively quashed Herndon's original plan to resurrect the rusty relic as is, in all its weather-beaten glory.

"I'd initially thought, 'This is the historic look; it's got to stay that way,'" explains Herndon, who also salvaged a much smaller Roadrunner sign ("HOME MADE DEEP DISH APPLE PIE") that he'll hang inside his restaurant. "When you're right on top of it, though, the Roadrunner really does look pretty cruddy."

Herndon estimates it will cost about $1,000 just to repair structural damage to the Roadrunner. By the time he's rented a crane to load the bird on a semi, hauled it to Flagstaff, paid for a new paint job, refurbished the neon and remounted the sign outside the diner, he expects the tab to be between $5,000 and $10,000. In the meantime, Herndon faces another challenge: This week, he'll try to convince Flagstaff's "sign lady" to grant him a variance.

"I have a feeling the city is going to say no," says Herndon. "And deep in my heart, I'm really kind of hoping they do. But that's okay--the apple-pie sign is killer, too.

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Dewey Webb