Monday, March 19, 2018

Route 66

This is the long overdue final post for our 3 month road trip.

Route 66 was established in 1926, some segments based upon previously established government funded wagon roads.  The road was completely paved by 1938.   It is also known as Will Rodgers Highway, the Main Street of America or the Mother Road.   The original road ran from Chicago, Ill, through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, finally ending in Santa Monica, California, for a total of 2448 miles.

Route 66 was a major route for those that migrated west, particularly during the dust bowl of the 1930’s.  Some of the buildings along the route are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  We tried to imagine what it must have been like crossing through some of these most desolate areas, with so few resources.

Following WWII, there was more migration west as well as vacationers heading to Los Angeles.  The increase in tourism gave rise to a growth in roadside attractions including teepee hotels, Indian curio shops, reptile farms etc.

Towns that were once bustling, now hang on by an economic thread, depending on tourists seeking historic areas of the old route.

We enjoyed a couple hours kicking around Oatman, Arizona once a busy mining town, then nearly abandoned as a ghost town, and now boasting a population of 126 (more info posted in earlier blog) as a popular Route 66 stop.

Route 66 was officially removed from the US highway system in 1985.

To market the historic significance of Route 66, local groups have erected ‘Historic Route 66’ signs, and have stenciled the markings on the road.  Efforts are under way to save landmark old hotels and original neon signs.  

Our plan was to see portions of and highlights of the route, as we made our way back home.  The highway is no longer continuous – some sections are completely gone.  Other sections are barely navigable, and are only the original 9 feet wide.  Still, large segments are still open, often paralleling major highways, making it relatively easy to hope on and off the old route.

We had two tour books, each of which painfully catalogued every bend in the road, every nuance, and every ‘attraction’. 

Attractions ranged from old road signs, defunct gas stations, and vintage diners.  Some were hard to find – it was a bit like a treasure hunt.  We had labeled physical maps with potential stops along the eastbound path.  Sometimes, a stop was only for just 10-15 minutes to grab a photo.  Other times, we would stay longer, taking in an ice cream at a diner, or strolling through a local museum. 

We skipped many sites detailed in the tour books, picking and choosing those that would give us a variety and a great feel for the appeal and history of the old route.  

It is a bit concerning that public interest for the old route will diminish over time, as the younger generation doesn’t have the cultural references to ‘Route 66’ that built the appeal for people of our generation.  

Route 66 has been added to the ‘World Monuments Watch’ list as a site that is threatened by development in urban areas and by abandonment and decay in rural areas.  We noticed a significant number of Europeans on Route 66 tours … one gift shop had notices and money conversion tables in French.

Our favorite pictures that 'describe' the kinds of things we saw:


Lots of Art Deco, western cobbled together and run down, and quirky - intended to bring tourists.


Old dead cars are frequently used as decoration, and as an attraction.  Many more old cars in the other pictures in this post.

Large Figures

Oversized figurines was another strategy for small towns to attract tourists.  Quite a number of them are still standing ... and still attracting tourists.


There are many old truss brudges (yes, we fit), including the traditional Baltimore truss design.


The small towns that wrap around what remains of Route 66 are conspicuously void of contemporary American fast food joints.  Dining 'options' are usually classic diners.
Among the best known along the route is the Bagdad cafe, built in the 1950's, and featured in the 1988 film 'Bagdad Cafe'.  We stopped by to see the inside and share a root beer float.  

This one was beautiful inside, decorated all in turqupoise and pink, with black and white checkered floors.

Gas Stations 

All the old gas stations are defunct, and many are being swallowed up by weeds, trees.  Many stand alone, with no town or any other businesses around.  Probably just as they were 50-60 years ago.  They are archetectural relics, and in such jeopardy.


The landscape is just as barren and beautiful as if we were traveling on a major highway (we often paralleled the highway), but the road, OMG, was a bit ratty!


We crossed the continental divide, saw drinking water pouches used by tourists (had never seen these before), and so many trains.  Hubs of civilization built up around train stops, and Route 66 passed near or through those towns.  The train routes are still active.  We saw many trains crossing the landscapes.


The vintage motels are charming.  To of the most famous - Wigwam, and El Rancho were right on our planned route.  The Wigwam motel was built in 1950.  Each wigwam is 21 feet in diameter and 28 feet tall.  The Wigwam hotel is on the National Registry of Historic Places.

The El Rancho Motel, built in the 1930's, became the base of the movie industry in Gallop, New Mexico.  Movie stars, directors and crews stayed at the hotel while filming in the dramatic regional landscape.  Ronald Reagan, John Wayne, Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Errol Flynn, Kirk Douglas, Gregory Peck, and Humphrey Bogart are only a few of the film stars who stayed at the hotel while making movies in the vicinity.  
By the 1960's, the lure of the western film declined, and so did the hotel business.
Today, the lobby is just as grand as they come.


Many towns, large and small have Route 66 museums.  The museums chronicle essentially the same history, and carry many of the same artifacts.  We went to several of the larger ones, and opted out of many others.  This biker group was on a long Route 66 road trip.

Tom 'driving' and old car through some Burma Shave signs.  The Burma shave signs started in 1925 as a humerous commercial (for Burma Shave shaving cream) on a roadway in Minnesota, and grew into over 7000 'sets' of signs (40,000 total signs) in 43 states.   A set of signs consistes of 6 signs, each spaced at 100 paces from the preceeding one.  At 35 miles per hour, it took 3 seconds to proceed from sign to sign, or 18 seconds to drive past a whole series.   The controlled reading pace added an element of suspense.  For the bored driver, it became a game to anticipate the next signs.  
The signs started being removed after 1963.  In 1964, a set was given to the Smithsonian, forever marking their place in the cultural history of the country.


A 'must see'  for this trip is Cadillac Ranch, a public art instillation (1974) in Amarillo, Texas.  A whole string of Cadillacs are 'planted' in the middle of a farm field.  Visitors are encouraged to paint the cadillacs.   

The Blue Whale was built in the 1970's by a man as a suprise anniversary gift for his wife who collected whale figurines.  Located on Catoosa, Oklahoma, the Blue Whale fell into disrepair after the owners died, but has recently been restored, repainted, and re-opened to the public.  

Elmers Bottle Tree Ranch, located in the heart of California desert (outside of Los Angeles), is literally a forrest of trees made from pipe and empty bottles.  Various found objects like bicycles, rakes, and tractor parts are included in the sculptures.  Elmer Long has been working on the sculptures for about 15 years, inheriting the bottle collecting bug from his father.


The signs are great, nostalgic, humerous, colorful, and completely unique.  Some are hand made, many stand beside defunct businesses.  Many of the guide bood references are just for signs.

Trading Posts 

Shopping opportunities abound, typically in unique buildings.  Route 66 souvenirs and cheap southwest jewleryare everywhere.  The shops and the people were more interesting than the junk.

So that sums up our Route 66 experience, and is the last post of this trip.  We were on the road for 90+ days, and drove about 10,000 miles.   No more posts until the next road trip.