The original and legendary blue and red U.S. Route 66 signs have now faded to pink and dust, but let's not be blue about it, for the lavender Laundromats and rusting green tractors can still be spotted along the way. Running from Chicago to Santa Monica (Los Angeles), the mother-of-all roads cut through half of the country when nothing else did. The nostalgia here is intense.
Flocking from far-away lands, curious visitors have come to drive the famous road and experience some of the Americana so tousled in music, style and moods of the American pioneers. Poets, lyrics, stylist, designers have celebrated the memories and experience of driving the route. A favorite among bikers. Let's see what is left of it today. Brace yourselves to be amazed, and dazed, by giant hot dogs, dinosaurs, birds, and other wacky specimen along the way, for this is not the land of tiny.
Officially started in Springfield, Missouri, in 1926, the 2,400-mile long artery was the main access to the Gold Rush locations in California in the 1930s. Also known as the Will Rogers Highway, named after the famous actor of the Roaring Twenties. America likes to recognizes its stars by giving their names to streets, sidewalks, and other asphalt venues.
The longest bit is in New Mexico, with a 487-mile stretch, and the shortest is in Kansas, with just about 15 measly miles. Not much in Kansas, Dorothy. The number 66 was chosen simply because it was not taken. Officials believed it would be an easy number to remember. I don't think the "666" apocalyptic stigmas had set in yet at that time.
In 1985 most of the Route was replaced by Interstates running faster though the country, by-passing old fashion landmarks and getting you there in a jiffy. Some quaint bits have been classified as Historic Route 66, so that those signs can be easily stolen by history aficionados. Here is what to see of the original fairway:
-Illinois: Outside of Chicago, Henry's Drive-In and the Castle Carwash. In Joliet, the Rialto Theater and the Rich and Creamy ice-cream stand. In the middle of nowhere (yes, it is a real place), the Gemini Giant hot-dog statue. Roadhouses and motels frequented by Al Capone have been restored in several small towns. In Springfield, Abe Lincoln House, and tomb. Each year 12 towns in Illinois celebrate with a Route 66 festival.
-Missouri: In St Louis, Ted Drews Frozen Custard is unchanged. Throughout the state, roads are still lined with the original trees from the 30s. Several service stations are worth a look, and motels such as the Munger Moss in Lebanon, the Rail Heaven in Springfield, and the Boot Motel in Carthage have been preserved in their finest glamour. Don't miss the Wild Bill Hickok Shootout, where the nation's first known duel took place in 1865. In Albatross, the favorite bar of bikers all over the world (yes, the World.)
-Kansas: Don't blink or you'll miss it. In Galena, the 4 Women on the Route service station sells all kind of stuff in a former gas station, in the spirit of a general store where you may find just about anything you need, and need not. In Riverton, the Eisler Brothers Store, open since 1925. Drive across Baxter Springs, where the Crowell Bank robbed by Jesse James still stands.
-Oklahoma: Several hundred miles of the original Route with tons of small towns carrying the tradition of preserved memorabilia. Impossible to mention all of them, but note the 1939 Rock Café in Stroud, as well as the Skyliner Motel. In Elk and in Clinton, two museums entirely devoted to Route 66 are worth a visit. In Clinton, the Trade Winds Motel where Elvis stayed (this guy stayed everywhere, really.)
-Texas: McLean has the oldest Philips 66 gas station on the entire way. Shamrock has the 1936 U Drop inn, now the Chamber of Commerce. Conway has the Britten leaning water tower, a pink/orange structure dating back to the original road, built askew on purpose, to attract tourists to the restaurant nearby.
-New Mexico: Tucumcari kept the most kitsch neon signs, try to visit at night. Santa Fé boasts the most vintage motels of the era of Route 66. In Albuquerque, the present day Main Street is the old Route 66. In Gallup, several motels, including the famed El Rancho, where celebrities were lodged during filming of Hollywood movies in the surroundings desert backdrops.
-Arizona: In and around Holbrook, the Wigman Motel, shaped as a cement Indian Teepee (can't make that up); the meteor Crater, the one place on Earth where I though I was on another planet, predating Route 66 by 50,000 years, give or take, still a major attraction after all these years; the Twin Arrows, a 1950 rest-stop now a Navajo casino; and Two Guns, the site of a heated battle between the Navajos and the Apaches, which during the heydays of 66 had a gas station, a motel, a food emporium and even a zoo. Some ruins, a few signs and a bridge remain.
-California: Needles, a railroad town with motels and other relics still standing. In Amboy see the Bagdad Café. Then you are off to the Mojave Desert, with absolutely nothing for miles and miles. Don't try this in the summer. In Rialot, see the Wigman Motel; in Fontana, the Bono's Deli, in operation since the 1930s. Then you jump to Pasadena, home of the Rose Bowl, built in 1902, to find several vintage motels and bars.
The final segment of Route 66 ends in Santa Monica, coming through Los Angeles. The Hollywood vintage sign and many motels are still left standing all over a city so large, it would be difficult to navigate it here and now. The pier at the beach is the official terminal of our voyage. I hope you had a nice trip.
The things you won't be able to see on Route 66 are the CARS from the Pixar movie of the same name, the tale of Radiator Springs, once a booming locale.
As the bikers would say: Route 66 Me!
See pictures at monpressecitron.tumblr.com.