The Main Road, the Mother Road, also called Will Rogers Highway; the main trail for migrations, East–West travels and hipsters without anywhere to go; the Route 66 still holds its status as the most magical route in North America. Inspiration for writers, singers and poets, object of films and deposit of runaway dreams, it was during quite a time the exhaust valve within the USA and object of devotion for engine lovers. After its decline beneath the newest interstate highway system, it’s recovering some fame thank to road wolves, Cadillac and Corvettes enthusiasts and other kind of long distance travelers.
The original route runs from Chicago to Los Angeles, crossing the States of Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, but not everywhere there’s so much left from the original path, which covered a total of 2,448 miles (3,940 km). The longest stretches left from the original road can be found in West Arizona and East California, just near the Mojave Desert. There the road is filled with attractions about this magic road, and there are plenty of motels, road bars and old car hiring stands, just as it was once. The road passes through the desert, not far from the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas and Sedona Rocks, among others, so it’s a great excuse to explore some of the USA’s biggest highlights.
“…and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads, 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.” — John Steinbeck, “The Grapes of Wrath”.
After some road projects along the 35th parallel, mostly built independently in the beginning of the 20th century, entrepreneurs from Tulsa, Oklahoma and Springfield, Missouri conceived the idea of linking Chicago to Los Angeles and began to promote the new highway. The road was established in 1926, and road signs began to be erected the following year. But it took several years, until 1938, before the whole track would be continuously paved between Chicago and Los Angeles. Firstly the highway was to be named Route 60, but some discussion took it to be finally designated 66.
It was a flat path between the east and the west, so it quickly became a popular route, especially for trucks. For decades, this historic path served thousands of people who were migrating west, especially during the Dust Bowl of the 1930′s, when hundreds of people from the Mississippi basin were heading to the Californian promised land due to severe dryness in their motherland.
As the years were passing, the Mother Road underwent many improvements and realignments, changing its original path and overall length, and even moving its endpoint further west to Santa Monica. The World War II brought several war industries to California, pushing more immigration to use the route of dreams, as well as the route was used to move war material from shore to shore. By the 50s, with the economic growth, the Route became the main road for vacationers heading to Los Angeles.
In 1956, the signing of the Interstate Highway Act marked the beginning of the end for the Route 66. In the newer highway net, somewhere the new paths incorporated stretches of the old route, in other parts bypassed it or paralleled it, and although the US Highway 66 Association tried to defend the people who was about to lose their business, it was removed from the United States Highway System on 1985.
Interstate 55 covered the section from Chicago to St. Louis; Interstate 44 carried the traffic on to Oklahoma City; Interstate 40 took the largest chunk, replacing 66 to Barstow, California; Interstate 15 took over for the route to San Bernardino; and Interstate 210 and State Route 2 carried the traffic of Route 66 across the Los Angeles metropolitan area to Santa Monica’s seashore.
Now it’s impossible to drive Route 66 uninterruptedly, but many stretches and alternate roads are passable with a good planning. Some states have kept the 66 signs for parts of the highway; others who had removed them, now are replacing them.
Around the 90s, Route 66 associations began to appear. The State of Missouri declared it “State Historic Route” and the first “Historic Route 66” marker was erected in Springfield, Missouri. Soon, they were followed in other states, markers such as paintings in the road surface spread all over the drivable stretches remaining and it returned to appear in road atlases. A section in Arizona was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the whole route was added to the World Monuments Watch by the World Monuments Fund in 2008.
Along the road you can find many of the United States main sights. Not far from the path, you’ll find places like Grand Canyon, Sedona Red Rocks National Park, the Hoover Dam (or Boulder Dam), Las Vegas, Meteor Crater, Painted Desert and the Mojave Desert. And of course the biggest sight of all, as absolutely nothing beats the first view of the Pacific Ocean as you follow Santa Monica Boulevard to the end.
Apart of the great attractions, there are those places that made the Route 66 a close place. The most famous of them is probably Cadillac Ranch, a surrealist public art installation in Amarillo, Texas. Created in 1974 by the art group Ant Farm, it consists in a line of half buried old Cadillacs at an angle corresponding to that of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. Old and junk Cadillacs were used to build the sculpture, representing the evolution of the car line. It was moved to a nearby field in 1997, but it’s still reachable. It’s encouraged to get there by the private owner, as well as graffiti and spray-decorating the cars, which are wildly decorated and repainted frequently. Just play the famous Bruce Springsteen song as you get there.
The official beginning can also be a place of pilgrimage. It’s located right in the middle of Chicago, at Jackson Boulevard and Michigan Avenue. Other sights include Railsplitter Covered Wagon, a gigantic covered wagon in Lincoln, Illinois; Meramec Caverns, a very popular sight in Missouri; Petrified Forest National Park, in Painted Desert, is home to the largest collection of petrified wood in the world; and the town of Flagstaff, one of the best towns along the byway for reliving the original 66 spirit. Oatman, a mining town in the Mojave Desert, very proud of its Route 66 connections, was the steepest part of the road, with some hairpin turns getting up to Sitgreaves Pass. It’s still open to traffic, and the turns are waiting for you.
Some restaurant or gas stations also contributed to the myth of the road. Artison Café, founded in 1924 in Litchfield, is believed by many to be the oldest restaurant on Route 66. In Shamrock, Texas, one of the most famous was the U-Drop Inn, also known as Tower Station and Tower Café, built in 1936. The image of a nail stuck in dirt was one of the firsts examples of art-deco architecture applied to a gas station and restaurant. It got abandoned after decommission of the US 66, but the inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places gave it life again, even inspiring the film Cars in 2006. Big Texan Steak Ranch made its own legend by serving a 2 kg steak, which was free if customers could eat it in less than one hour. You can find also the fast-food cradles of Red’s Giant Hamburg in Springfield, Missouri, the first place with a drive-through restaurant, and the first McDonald’s, in San Bernardino, California.
Apart of the fetishist Mother Route sights, visiting some museums is usually not a bad idea. You can find some museums about the road itself, but other ones like Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library in Springfield, Illinois, housing the world’s largest collection of artifacts and papers from Abraham Lincoln, is also well worth going. Jesse James Museum in Stanton, Missouri, can be a good stop too.
Look for these and more sights at Route 66 News, with a good compilation of Route 66 sites.
More than any other American highway, the Mother Road is the symbol of the runaway American Dream; it symbolized a new positive outlook that spread through the nation’s post war economic recovery and until now it holds a special place in the collective consciousness as the herald of a new era of travel.
My advice is to get a couple of really good Route 66 books, some maps and hit the road. Here and there, some places will give you a road sign when the road veers off the interstate, but mostly not. Even with a few good maps, you will take a wrong turn in many crossroads without doubt, but this is part of the adventure. And this is part of the fun.
Enjoy the ride!