Long before Interstate highways routed traffic quickly from one part of the country to the next at speeds now reaching 80 mph in some states, American communities were connected by vast network of two-lane roads. The most legendary of them was Route 66. The highway connecting Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif., was the inspiration for many movies, a TV show and a hit song.
I had the opportunity to travel on Route 66 in August 2009 when I moved from Wisconsin to Arizona, and again in December 2010 when I was on vacation traveling from Flagstaff, Ariz. to Santa Monica, Calif.
Leaving Wisconsin, I was seeking an adventure to start a new chapter in my life, and I wanted to do something besides race to the southwest. I wanted to truly experience America from a different perspective. As I made my way out of Wisconsin into Illinois, I saw a billboard advertising a community as being on the original Route 66. Instantly, I knew I wanted to follow that trail traveled by millions of other broke and broken people seeking a better life.
Just like the song notes, you’ll travel through cities large and small, famous and infamous. You’ll drive near Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, Ill., pass the St. Louis Arch and a 19-story cross in Groom, Okla., visit the famous Santa Fe, N.M., art galleries, and even stand on the corner in Winzlow, Ariz. You’ll drive through the mule-populated abandoned mining town of Oatman, Ariz., pass the original McDonald’s restaurant in San Bernardino, Calif., travel along the route of the Rose Parade in Pasadena, Calif., and experience Beverly Hills, before coming to the end near the beach in Santa Monica.
It’s an adventure you’ll remember the rest of your life, I guarantee it!
Don’t expect to fly through Route 66. It’s hard to pick up the trail in some places because so many of the highways are renumbered. However, there are plenty of websites that offer maps and guides for navigating the highway, along with suggestions on things to visit along the way.
The speed limit is generally 55 mph, but that gives you plenty of time to enjoy the scenery and take in the flavor of the hundreds of communities you’ll pass along the way. Many times, especially in the western states, the original Route 66 was paved over when constructing the Interstate system, but it’s still a fun and memorable journey.
You’ll see diners reminiscent of yesteryear with neon signs beckoning hungry and weary travelers. There are still many of the simple one- or two-pump gas stations and service centers where the proprietor slept in the attached house, all decked out as they were nearly a century before.
Before the big chain hotels made traveling easy, there were thousands of smaller “motels” or motor hotels, that allowed people to drive up to their rooms and grab a few hours of sleep before heading out on the next leg of their journey. You’ll see lots of those along Route 66. In fact, I stayed at a hotel in Seligman, Ariz., in the same room that was a temporary home to Jon Provost, star of Lassie, and Martin Millner, star of Adam 12 and the Route 66 TV show.
You’ll discover how businesses and communities sought to differentiate themselves and attract visitors with giant-size statutes of legends like Paul Bunyon and inanimate objects like the “world’s biggest rocking chair.”
Some of the legendary businesses remain in operation today, such as Ted Drewes Custard just west of St. Louis, and the MidPoint Cafe in Adrian, Texas, which is precisely 1,139 miles from Chicago and Los Angeles, and the Road Kill Cafe in Seligman, Ariz.
There were dozens of roadside chapels along Route 66 where people could stop in and mediate or pray for safe travels, along with more that few cemeteries where people were laid to rest before they arrived at their destination.
You’ll pass hundreds of interesting historical sites that describe places that once stood at that location, or of the community, or of the harrowing experience of driving along the road in cars that would easily overheat or throw an axle along the way.
All along “the Mother Road,” you’ll encounter signs that talk about various “alignments,” or detours that follow the path during specific times, be it pre-1920 or post 1941. As a general rule, I attempted to follow the 1933 alignment, the half-way point of the Great Depression. It was quite contrasting to be tooling along at 45 mph on an alignment next to the Interstate where cars and trucks were rushing by, oblivious to the taste of Americana they were avoiding.
Route 66 juts into Kansas for 13 miles, and that was one of the most memorable aspects of my journey. Back in the 1930s, when automobiles were starting to become more common, the highways were nothing more than thin concrete slabs wide enough to accommodate tires on a car. During that segment, construction workers were digging up the old highway and laying down gravel. I was fortunate enough to grab a two-foot slab of the original highway before it disappeared forever.
Sadly, many parts of Route 66 are in desperate condition. With budgets limited, some states aren’t appropriating enough resources to maintain the historic highway and it’s quickly becoming a crumbling collection of asphalt, if not gravel. No only that, but once-thriving communities have been transformed into ghost towns with buildings and homes in serious decay.
Fortunately, some communities realize the treasure that lies within their borders, and they are doing everything they can to ensure that Route 66 remains as true today as it was back in its heyday. Many communities boast of their connection to Route 66 and maintain museums depicting life during that era with thousands of artifacts from automobiles to toys to famous Burma-Shave signs that dotted the landscape and entertained generations of travelers with slogans like this:
The big blue tube’s
Just like Louise
You get A thrill
From every squeeze
The National Route 66 Museum in Elk City, Okla., is a must-see stop along the journey because they’ve built it up into an actually community with storefronts depicting a typical small town people likely encountered along the way.
People who make the journey all the way from Chicago to Santa Monica can pick up a certificate at the tourist center commemorating their adventure. Put it on your bucket list before it disappears into history.
For a great overview of Route 66, check out John Holod’s adventure video by clicking here.