Route 66

 

Route 66 sign

Route 66 sign

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.

route 66 map

History

“…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.

Tribute to Route 66 at Painted Desert - Petrified Forest National Park

Tribute to Route 66 at Painted Desert - Petrified Forest National Park

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.

 

Route 66  establishment and iconography

Route 66 establishment and iconography

Places

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.

Cadillac Ranch, Route 66, Amarillo, Texas

You are encouraged to paint the half-buried Cadillacs of Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas

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.

Sedona Red Rock, Arizona

Sedona Red Rock, Arizona

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.

Route 66 climbing  Black Mountains near Oatman, Arizona

Route 66 climbing Black Mountains near Oatman, Arizona

Concluding

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!

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The Kolyma Highway

 

Kolyma Highway - The Road of Bones

Kolyma Highway - The Road of Bones. Distance in miles

If the world would have an end, the Kolyma region would be surely a firm candidate. The end of the Russian almost uninhabited Far East offers a mix of adventure, unknown, picturesque people, incredible nature and cold. A lot of cold.

Made by forced labour in Stalin’s times, the road M-56 is also known as the Kolyma Highway or the “Road of Bones”, because of many people who died building it were directly buried under or along the road. It begins in the big city of Yakutsk, in the region of Sakha, and finishes in the Pacific coast, in the city of Magadan. The original route via Tomtor was 1900 km long, and distance increased with the new road. On the road you can find  the coldest inhabited place on Earth, ghost towns, several old gulags  and a stunning nature all over the landscape.

Traveling the Kolyma highway is a challenge itself and should not be done by people not ready for extreme conditions of isolation, cold, inexistence of public services (such as health, transport, security, etc), wild nature (wolves, bears and those dangerous ticks), and bad road maintenance that can lead to an accident. Alcoholism and nature of locals can be tricky, as well as their lack of foreign languages knowledge, but I suppose this should be considered as part of the fun.

Oymyakon

Cold Oymyakon

Oymyakon is considered the Pole of Cold of the Northern Hemisphere, and have the world record of the lowest temperature ever registered in an inhabited place: -71.2ºC in 1924. Only in Antarctica have been registered lower temperatures. Recently, crazy travelers found some fun in the idea of passing a winter in the coldest town in the Earth, and Oymyakon have appeared in some off-the-beaten-track travel diaries.

The road starts in Yakutsk, Siberian city located in the west bank of the river Lena. Once built as a cossack fort, now is one of the most important ports of the river and known for its diamond production. The first challenge of the road is to cross the river Lena, one of the most powerful rivers on Earth, and without bridge on the city. A ferry service runs on summer to Nizhni Bestiakh, and the road is crossable over the ice in winter, but it’s not possible to cross in spring and autumn.

After Yakutsk you will find a large area of flat wetlands with small villages untill arrive to Khandiga,  then pass the mountains of the Cherskiy Range and descend to the Indigirka River basin, where the new and old road divides. The old road is the most romantic for travelers. It crosses the villages of Tomtor and Oymyakon, the coldest places in inhabitated Earth, and the bridges are a challenge to cross. After Tomtor, most of the bridges are fallen and the roads are only crossable in winter, when the rivers are frozen, and summer, with big trucks that can bear with the water current. But travelers agree that this is the road to take if you can. Not every time you will be able to be in the coldest place on Earth, and the waiting times for cross the rivers are famous for the fun you can find in them: two days waiting for a truck are a good excuse to open some vodka bottles, cook and enjoy the beautiful nature all around.

Kolyma Highway

Kolyma Highway

On the other hand, the newest road makes a long detour to the north through Ust-Nera. The mines all over the region assure a fluent traffic (we mean fluent for the standards of that part of the world) if you want to hitchhike, and it will be your way if your time is not enough. Some years ago, the road granted the status of National Road and now it is well maintained, even with some new bridges that make it passable all year round.

Both roads reencounter in the ghost town of Kadikchan. Once a soviet enclave for the exploitation of coal mines, they became unprofitable and the mines were closed. As it was a new city, made only for miners, the economy built around the city was almost nonexistent (no fields, no pastures, no industry, no factories… nothing) so the possibilities to live there without the mines were zero. Now the town is a cemetery of soviet relics, and a frozen sanctuary for creative photographers.

If the previous place was something to get sad for, after Kadikchan comes the saddest place of the road. The Kolyma labour camps were probably the most hard of the GULAG system in the Soviet Union, and the Butugychag Gulag was maybe the worst of them all. The locals knew the place with the name of “Death Valley”, because the reindeers didn’t want to go there and took strange diseases when they did.  And why? Because the quantity of uranium lying under the surface. This was the reason why the life expectance of the Camp was few times lower than others in the Gulag system. After the Stalin’s era, and until the end of the Soviet Union, most of Gulags were demolished, but it was not the case for Butugychag Gulag, that was simply abandoned and is still standing there waiting for the wind to take it away. The road to the place is nearly abandoned, and you’ll have to endure to reach it. But traveler’s videos are there to prove that it’s possible to arrive and give some respect to the anonymous workers lying down that grown. Note that it’s easier to get to Butugychag from Magadan side than from Susuman side. For more information and great photos look here: part1 part2

Butugychag Gulag

Butugychag Gulag

After a very recomended stop at Jack London Lake, known for the fishing possibilities and for its landscapes, the next step is arrive to Magadan, the last town on the route. Founded in 1933, it was a major transit center for prisoners taken to GULAG prison camps. Some say most of the people living in Magadan are descendents of criminals or their jailers, but that’s not true. The town has its importance as a major port for export the mining products of the region, and although its isolation the town have the funds to build the two big churches of the Trinity (Orthodox) and the Nativity (Catholic), as well as the Mask of Sorrow, a sculpture in memory of Stalin’s victims.

Jack London Lake

Jack London Lake

And after Magadan?

Well, the question is very clear. After Magadan there are not more roads, and go back for the same path is not a big fun. So we’ll have to think on taking the plane or, more exciting, the boat.

The easy way is to take a plane to Vladivostok, and from there fly to Moskva, Beijing or any other place, or take a ferry to Japan. The flights from Magadan, although not so often, are not expensive if you don’t want to reach other countries. But the challenge once in Magadan (at least will be mine) is to reach Kamtchatka by boat, where with a long visa, hard endurance and many many patience, is possible to catch Chinese or Japanese fishing boats to third countries.

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