Roaring ‘20s. World War I was already a memory. The economy boomed. Money came easily and Americans were spending it on fun. The only way for Americans to get where they wanted to go at the speed they wanted to travel was by car, and it had taken its place as the nation’s favorite way of getting from here to there. Henry Ford’s Oklahoma City plant, like others around the nation, had been churning out cars for 11 years, and Ford hadn’t even made a dent in the demand for them. America loved the car but had only made it to first base.
Into that American landscape was born Route 66. The road’s architects expected it to be a fine addition to the national infrastructure. Nobody imagined that it would consummate the nation’s love affair with the car, make so much American history available to the general public and be the birthplace of styles, designs, looks and attitudes that defined American pop culture during its heyday after World War II. Nobody imagined it would witness the exodus of beaten down, broken Okies looking for a better life in California.
Some have said otherwise, but Route 66 is not dead. The past four decades, however, have been rough on it. Five modern super-highways offer speed and convenience unmatched by their predecessor – and follow, more or less, the same path. They’re ruthless competitors. But 66 is still here. It’s enjoying a renaissance. The interstates will get you there faster, but anybody’s who’s driven Route 66 knows the old cliché is true: It’s all about the journey, not the destination.
Tulsa native and three-time Pulitzer Prize nominee, Michael Wallis, has written 15 books, most of them efforts to transport readers across time and space to the American West. He is the author of Route 66: The Mother Road and was the first inductee into the Oklahoma Route 66 Hall of Fame. He’s actively involved in the road’s preservation, as well as its documentation.
After losing her corporate job of 12 years to downsizing, award-winning photographer Sandi Wheaton decided to take a breather of sorts. With a small camper full of cameras in tow, Wheaton took to Route 66, hoping to find cool sites, the perfect shot, interesting people and herself, as well. She chronicled her journey in her blog, www.pictureroute66.com.
Wallis was born and raised on Route 66, his youth coinciding with the road’s post-WWII growth. By the 1970s, Route 66 – or, rather, many of the small towns along its length – was deteriorating, a victim of the interstates, their speed and convenience luring traffic from the old two-lane highway. The federal government began removing the world-famous Route 66 shields and, says Wallis, people began to talk about Route 66 in the past tense.
“I knew that they might have taken down the federal shields, but the road was still out there. There was a lot of what I call ‘Death by Interstate,’ where whole towns were cut off because they didn’t get an off-ramp on the interstate – one of the five interstates between Chicago and Santa Monica that try to take Route 66’s place. But many towns did and have survived,” he says.
So too have survived or sprung up an eclectic array of sites to behold in each of the states outside our own where Route 66 winds, roars and occasionally staggers – all along bringing joy to the generations who seek out her adventure.
Heading west, the Route 66 trip starts at Chicago’s Buckingham Fountain. It’s massive, one of the largest fountains in the world. Its design pays homage to the four states touching Lake Michigan: Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan. In 1927, Chicago resident Kate Buckingham commissioned the fountain in honor of her late brother, Clarence. As far as anybody can tell, he didn’t do anything spectacular during his lifetime. He was just a really nice guy with a caring sister that carried a fat wallet and knew her way around a piece of art.
Built one year after the construction of Route 66 began, it marks the eastern starting (or ending, depending on which way you’re facing) point of America’s Main Street. It sits in the middle of Grant Park, Chicago’s front yard. The first piece of public art installed along the highway, it blazed a trail for other pieces further down the road.
Fighting Chicago morning rush hour traffic and fighting with her dashboard camera kept Wheaton distracted at the beginning of her trip, but anticipation and excitement were still there.
“I knew I was going to be spending a long time traveling by myself, I knew I was going to see a lot more of America than I had previously seen, and I knew I was going to meet a lot of different people, but I didn’t know what any of that was going to look like,” she says. “So, I was thrilled. I was starting a big adventure that I would never forget, one that would change me forever.”
St. Louis, Gateway to the West. That’s important and should be remembered. More important to know, though, is that it’s also home to Ted Drewes, where, for a pittance, the best frozen custard in the land can be had. Be prepared to wait in line. The locals can’t get enough, either, and mob the Chippewa Avenue shop every summer evening. Next door a sad Baskin Robbins hangs on by a thread, hoping every night to siphon off a few Ted Drewes customers who lose their patience with its lines.
There is a perception out there that, once the big city is far behind, it’s easy to get lost on Route 66. Wallis brushes it off, and says, as if to steel would-be travelers, “It’s damn hard to get lost on Route 66. And besides that, there’s no such thing as getting lost. Getting lost can be your best opportunity. It offers you a whole new set of gifts and approaches. Sometimes you have your best experiences when you’re so-called lost.”
Missouri’s Meremac Caverns, only an hour outside of St. Louis, inspires in visitors a natural awe and a cautious lookout for unadulterated hucksterism. Some of the claims the owner makes about the cave are indisputably true. Others – that it was the hideout of Jesse James – are more controversial. But separating the two is half of the fun.
The Elbow Inn in Devil’s Elbow serves better barbecue than the restaurants peppering the exits of the interstate a few miles north. But it is not – and never will be – as family-friendly. Ladies trade bras for shots. Payment doesn’t go into the register – it’s hung from the ceiling. There are more bras – and a better selection – in this place than a Victoria’s Secret. Yes, there are other bars out there with the same shtick, but they’re only pale imitators of this Route 66 original. And don’t knock the Harleys over on your way in.
It was pretty much somewhere around here that Wheaton remembered why she started her journey in the first place.
“Route 66 isn’t a road trip; it’s >the road trip. I stumbled across Route 66 on a drive through Arizona in the early ‘90s, and when I saw the Route 66 shield on the pavement, I was puzzled because I didn’t think the road still existed. It was like accidentally bumping into what you thought was a myth. A decade later, I photographed the California desert stretch of Route 66 between Needles and Barstow, and I just fell in love with the empty road. I remember driving through the desert, keeping pace with one of the ever-present trains, and the stereo blasting. The sense of freedom was palpable. How can you not yearn for more of that?
“After that, I vowed to drive the whole thing. And my photographic projects tend to center around abandoned places. After seeing that deserted bit in California, I was curious to know how the whole Route looked. I wanted to photograph the ruins we left behind after the interstate changed everything.”
Only 13 miles of Route 66 pass through Kansas, but they’re fantastic miles. Shortly after crossing the border from Missouri into Kansas, it passes through Galena, the prototypical Route 66 small town, and a vanguard of Route 66 revival.
Galena provided a large chunk of the inspiration for Radiator Springs, the backdrop of the 2006 animated film, >Cars. Next to a newly renovated 1920s KanOtex gas station sits a life-size “Tow Tater.” (“That’s not right,” legions of children will scream. “We own the rights,” Disney’s lawyers will wail.)
It is the original, rusted out mining boom truck that inspired the animated character.
The gas station is now 4 Women on the Route. It is exactly what it says it is – four women working overtime to restore Galena to its previous glories. A gift shop and café have been added to the station. The Reuben served there is amazing, and it comes with free (and animated) conversation.
If you visit, make sure you sign the guestbook. It’s a record that the ladies use to pull in the grant money that helps keep the doors open.
Their efforts underscore a tough fact about Route 66: Its commercialization keeps it alive. It comes across as tacky sometimes, but it is what it is.
“It’s a commercial highway. That’s something people lose track of. It’s all about people turning a dollar, making a buck. They want to sell you a hot meal, a tank of gas, a room for the night, a handful of postcards, a book. If that commercial angle stops, then the route dies because the people will leave. And that’s more important than all of the attractions on the road. You can have all the smiling blue whales, totem poles, painted deserts and everything else, but without the people, it won’t work. It’s a people’s highway,” says Wallis.
At the heart of Route 66 sits Oklahoma. Here the road is known as the "free road," a slower, cheaper ride than the turnpike running from Tulsa to Oklahoma City. As in many other places, Route 66 was a way to get people out and about in those new cars. It was fun, excitement and good times during the 1920s.
During the 1930s, though, Route 66 became an escape route. The Dust Bowl devastated Oklahoma. Farmers found themselves without farms. Then banks closed. Then businesses started closing. Hundreds of thousands of Oklahomans were reduced to poverty almost overnight. With no other options, they packed up and headed to California to make new starts. The road they took was Route 66.
The road is more thoroughly documented in Oklahoma than any other state on the route. In Oklahoma there’s an intense appreciation of the road’s history – as more than just an escape route. There is the Oklahoma Route 66 Museum in Clinton, the National Transportation and Route 66 Museum in Elk City and the Route 66 Interpretive Center in Chandler.
Route 66 is a constantly evolving organism. The lights go out in some things and they come on in others – like Arcadia’s POPS. On the northeast fringes of Oklahoma City, a neon-ringed, 66-foot-tall pop bottle marks the spot. The restaurant serves typical American fare – hamburgers, fries, hot dogs and so on. All the stuff that’s really bad for your health but tastes so good it’s worth the trade-off. You can wash the food down with a choice from more than 600 different sodas. The diner promises to capture the colorful, freewheeling, fun essence of Route 66. It delivers on that with its unusual, cantilevered architecture alone. And when you’re finished, you can fill up the tank, too.
Just outside of Amarillo sits one of Route 66’s most memorable sites, Cadillac Ranch. Commissioned by eccentric artist and philanthropist Stanley Marsh 3, this public art offering features 10 Cadillacs buried face down. The cars run from youngest to oldest models, capturing the evolution and disappearance of the tail fin and lean at the same angle as the Great Pyramid of Egypt.
No two photos of Cadillac Ranch are the same. The public is encouraged to bring spray paint and make its own artistic contributions, changing the look of the cars repeatedly and regularly. The stripped and rusted automobiles are covered with graffiti – just like the walls of empty inner Motor City, where they were born. While it’s a clever monument to a lost era, the routine participation of the public (and the growing mounds of spray paint cans) suggest that while fins are out, Route 66 is still in.
“Having grown up in the suburban 1950s, we were well aware of the mythic power of the Cadillac, the ‘Standard of the World.’ But our fathers only got up the ladder as far as Oldsmobile,” says Chip Lord, one of the artists behind Cadillac Ranch.
“And we were looking back at this era from the perspective of 1968 and the Vietnam generation, so when invited by Stanley Marsh 3 to make a project on his property in Amarillo, the idea for Cadillac Ranch sprang naturally from our collective consciousness.”
And yes, that’s Stanley Marsh “3,” not “III.” Philanthropist Marsh considers the Roman numerals pretentious.
“I dig it,” says Wheaton. “It’s fun, it’s playful, it’s conceptual, it’s interactive, it’s engaging and it’s curious and weird. I like art that engages people and gets them involved. I don’t even know if everyone who visits the place calls it ‘art’ – but that’s okay, that means they’re into it and having fun with it and not even thinking about what to call it. Conceptual art can easily be found in galleries and I love that, too, but not everyone goes to galleries. I like to see things that move outside of the formal gallery space and bridge the gaps between artist, institution and the general public.”
The multilane highways Wallis mentions continually throw their convenience into the ring with Route 66’s history and culture. With their construction (Wallis calls them “superslabs,” four-laners paved with monotony) came the inevitable, generic hotel chains, stacked like Legos on the super-highway’s exit ramps. These cookie-cutter rest stops are a main ingredient of I-40’s convenience. Profits are a little harder to come by for the competing hotels, motels and motor courts of Route 66. But they’re going strong. Gallup’s El Rancho Motel is as good an example as any.
The hotel boasts (no marketing-driven misinformation this time) its preferred status among stars of several eras that filmed pictures in the area. Gallup’s surroundings served as filming locations for many movies with stars ranging from Errol Flynn and Katherine Hepburn to Gregory Peck and Humphrey Bogart. And while filming, these stars called it home.
The lobby alone is worth the stop. A gigantic fireplace welcomes visitors and lights up glass cabinets of American Indian art. A lit set of buffalo horns hangs above the fireplace. Mounted elk heads watch over lobby traffic. The El Rancho was born in a time where the only way to compete on America’s Main Street was to offer better service and individuality. Thus the El Rancho (like many of its brothers and sisters along Route 66) has what no chain hotel can offer – ambience.
Arizona’s stretch of Route 66 leads travellers to some of the most spectacular, natural sites along the old highway. If the Grand Canyon and the Painted Desert don’t pull the asphalt trekkers out of their cars, nothing will. It is the longest unbroken stretch of Route 66. It is rich in history – geological, cultural and commercial. The names of the towns it passes through are worth the trip. West of Winslow, wheeled wayfarers can see Two Guns and, a bit farther west, Twin Arrows, both weathered and uninhabited, but still fun to stomp through.
Flagstaff, with a little bit of all things Route 66, more than merits a stop. The Santa Fe railroad put Flagstaff on the map in the 19th century, and the original depot – restored and carefully preserved – still stands. Much of Route 66 followed the old railroads. Cars and trucks began to replace railroads as a preferred method of transportation, but the destinations remained the same. Several cities along the highway were built around depots like Flagstaff’s.
“Flagstaff is home to many iconic Route 66 treasures, making it a must-see on any Route 66 driving tour,” says Jacki Lennars of the Flagstaff Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“From the famed Museum Club and historic train depot to the throwback travel court-style motels and nostalgic diners, Flagstaff still celebrates its Route 66 heritage today.”
Flagstaff, unlike many spots along Route 66, was never in danger of falling into decline. In 1899, the University of Northern Arizona made Flagstaff its home. With the school in place, a healthy economy was assured, though the city did and has relied on tourism for decades. Flagstaff proudly displays that reliance and dutifully memorializes the old highway that provided the town’s lifeblood. Original Route 66 motor courts dot Flagstaff’s landscape. The Museum Club, a wonderful specimen of Route 66’s faux Frontier architecture, still carries on as a watering hole for travelers ending a day on the road.
September sees Flagstaff invaded by hundreds of classic cars (many with fins). For a brief time, past and present come together, the sun gleaming off of the chrome of 50-year-old cars moving back and forth on the Mother Road.
Route 66 should, and does, terminate at the Pacific in Santa Monica, just west of Los Angeles. Santa Monica covers the route’s final 26 blocks. It’s tough to follow the road through Los Angeles. It swings from Sunset Boulevard to Wilshire to Santa Monica Boulevard. Travelers, though, are rewarded for sticking to it and not cheating by taking the 10 freeway to the beach. It passes the hippest clubs and the worst dives, the chicest of shopping and popular used clothing stores. Paramount Pictures, the only studio left in Hollywood, is a short jog off of Route 66.
“I wanted to keep going,” says Wheaton. “The best thing about the trip was the people. From one state to the next, I kept having experiences that illustrated that people are generally good and want to help. Along Route 66, so many of the folks I met were kind, open and generous, as were the people who read my blog as I traveled. That was the most positive, and overwhelming, thing about the entire experience, a feeling of connectedness to total strangers. At the core, we’re just all the same.”
A large plaque marks the dedication of the highway to famous Oklahoman Will Rogers, not a block from the coast in Santa Monica’s Palisades Park.
“Route 66 offers you something different,” says Wallis. “And it’s not always great. It can be good, bad and ugly. But it always gives you a chance to experience America before America became generic.”
Mother Lode of the Mother Road
The nation’s longest driveable stretch (more than 400 miles) of Route 66 cuts through Oklahoma, providing more room for the Mother Road’s vaunted colorful sites than any other state.
In addition to the museums dedicated to the route itself, enlightenment of one form or another can be found at the Rt. 66 Vintage Iron Motorcycle Museum in Miami, the Seaba Station Motorcycle Museum in Warwick and Darryl Starbird’s National Rod & Custom Car Hall of Fame Museum in Afton. Slightly more highbrow are Miami’s beautiful Coleman Theatre, a historic Vaudeville movie theater; the JM Davis Arms & Historical Museum – billed as the world’s largest privately owned museum – and the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore.
The odd and unique abound as well, ranging from Catoosa’s inexplicably tropical Blue Whale to Foyil’s Totem Pole Park (home of "The World’s Largest Totem Pole”). The Mohawk Lodge Indian Store in Clinton was the first trading post in Indian Territory and still buys, sells and trades authentic Indian crafts and artifacts across the same counter used in 1892. Located near Hydro, Lucille’s Service Station is one of only two upper-story, out-thrust porch style stations left on Oklahoma’s stretch of Route 66.
“Unusual” extends to dining on Route 66 as well, such as at Vinita’s Chuck Wagon restaurant, the centerpiece of a replica Old West town, and at Weatherford’s Lucille’s Roadhouse, a unrepentant ‘50s era diner. One can also dine in a log cabin at Molly’s Landing in Catoosa or chow down on a house specialty fried onion burger at Robert’s Grill in El Reno.