The years 2020 and 2021 will go down in the record books as the least traveled of our lifetime because of the pandemic, lockdown, and travel restrictions. For those of us who like to travel, it has been a very frustrating time, which is why a road trip along the famous Route 66 may be in order.
Thankfully, as some of our cities and states now re-open, we can now enjoy a staycation while still venturing a bit further afield. While we may not be able to fly anywhere or cross international borders we can nevertheless explore our own country.
The Mother Road
US Highway 66, or Route 66, has been called the Will Rogers Highway, Main Street of America, and The Mother Road. It’s been featured in the song (Get Your Kicks on) Route 66 by the Nat King Cole Trio and in the CBS television series, Route 66, that ran in the early sixties. The nostalgic and historic highway runs for 2,448 miles, from Chicago to Santa Monica.
Established in 1926, US 66 served as the primary route for those heading west, especially into the infamous 1930s’ Dust Bowl of the Southern Plains. Later replaced by the Interstate system, Route 66 linked important cities throughout the Midwest. While many parts of the old road are still drivable, there are other sections that’ve been gobbled up by progress.
Cross-Country Scavenger Hunt
With the exception of the winter months, any time of year is perfect for driving Route 66. And it can be traversed in either direction. Living across the river from Detroit, it was only a four-hour drive to Chicago. My wife and I started our Route 66 adventure in the Windy City. I can’t even begin to tell you about all the different things Chicago has to offer. We grabbed a beer and burger at the Billy Goat Tavern, strolled the Riverwalk, stayed in the historic InterContinental Chicago Magnificent Mile, and dined at Andy’s Jazz Club.
Route 66 officially begins on the shores of Lake Michigan on Adams Street. A historic Route 66 sign on the corner marks the starting point. We started our trip with breakfast at Lou Mitchell’s (c.1923), before heading west out of the city. Although the old US highway is marked with historic signs and markers, city roads now carry their own names. This is where your GPS and a good road map come in handy.
Don’t forget to bring a good guidebook, too. We bought the Route 66 Adventure Handbook by Drew Knowles. We found it invaluable for staying on the old road and discovering all the hidden treasures it has to offer. Besides explicit directions, it even gives GPS coordinates to locate certain sites that you’d probably never find on your own.
Driving Back in Time
Route 66 will take you back in time to America’s teenage years. Refurbished roadside motels, old neon signs, and giant statues make themselves at home. Attractions that seem gaudy now were once huge attractions. On some parts of the road, you can still drive on the original pavement, see once thriving locales that are now ghost towns, and eat-in diners that have been around longer than us.
After Chicago comes Joliet, home of the Blues Brothers. You’ll drive through cool and scenic towns you’ve never heard of and see weird things right out of the Guinness Book of World Records. We spent our next night in Springfield, home of Abe Lincoln, and were awed by the State Capitol building. Continuing west we saw more old neon signs, gas stations, cool bridges and The World’s Largest Catsup Bottle before arriving in Missouri.
St. Louis was one of our highlights in Missouri. We stayed on the banks of the swollen and overflowing Mississippi River. The Gateway Arch was amazing to see and we enjoyed specialties like spare ribs and pork steak with our craft beers. St. Louis is also home to the Anheuser Busch Brewery, but we enjoyed bar-hopping and trying local brews instead.
West of the Mississippi
As you continue west, the space between cities and towns grows bigger, offering off-road sites like refurbished motels, antique cars, the World’s Largest Rocking Chair, and a replica of the Hubble Telescope. These are the stomping grounds of Jesse James and the James Gang. We also met the self-appointed mayor of Red Oak, an antique village with a collection of turn-of-the-century buildings. Along the highway, be sure not to miss Uranus Fudge Factory for a good laugh.
The state of Kansas offers more than one chance to traverse sections of the original Route 66 that take you into Oklahoma. We overnighted in one of the 50s era refurbished motels where the likes of Clark Gable stayed. We got to drive over old one-lane bridges and visit historic mansions. The once popular and strangest attraction you’ll ever see is the Blue Whale of Catoosa, a giant blue replica that is the centerpiece of a water park.
After seeing a 60-foot-high pop bottle, we stayed in Oklahoma City. We felt blown away by Oklahoma City’s downtown canal system and Riverwalk. With live music and an assortment of restaurants along the boardwalk, it was a great place to spend the night. We saw a one-room jailhouse in the tiny town of Texola, before crossing the Texas state line.
The Old West
In rural Texas we saw the Leaning Tower of Texas and the very cool Cadillac Ranch, where 10-year-old land yachts have been planted in the ground. It’s a display of living art where everyone adds something personal by spray painting the cars. After cutting through a small section of Texas, Route 66 takes you into New Mexico, home of Billy the Kid. You’ll also pass Santa Fe and Albuquerque.
For authentic Tex-Mex, downtown Albuquerque offers desert scenery and adobe pueblo architecture that makes you feel like you’re south of the border. In reality this is where you actually cross the continental divide, the home of Colonel Kit Carson and the Navajo Code Talkers.
Entering the state of Arizona on Route 66 is like entering a whole new country. It offers snow-capped mountains in the north at Flagstaff, the wide-open wonderment of the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert, and the Petrified Forest. You can ‘Stand on the Corner in Winslow’ or visit an actual meteor crater. And there’s cool little mining towns like Jerome, or the red rock in Sedona. Places like Oatman have been made famous by the wild burros that freely roam its streets.
California or Bust
Heading west into California brings on the heat, along with palm and Joshua trees. There are cool towns like Barstow with its murals, and Victorville with a Route 66 museum. The Wigwam Motel in Holbrook is a truly unique place to see. You can also visit California’s oldest winery and enjoy tastings at any of the many others scattered throughout the Sonoma and Napa valleys.
You’ll easily lose track of the old Route 66 in the ever-increasing California traffic as you near the Pacific Ocean and the official end of the road at the Santa Monica Pier. This faux amusement park is lined with restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, and kiddie rides. The sun and surf along the beach are visible for miles, both north and south.
An Excellent Adventure
They say you can drive Route 66 in about five days if you’re trying to set a land speed record. We took our time. We broke up the journey with trips to the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, and then San Francisco after driving the most scenic coastal highway in the country. The whole trip took us about a month, with a few more two-and three-day pit stops via Colorado on the way home.
On the route, we saw motorcycle and convertible clubs as well as mobile homes. We did the trip in our car, bringing along a small barbeque and picnic supplies for roadside lunch stops. For older travelers like us, it was a trip down memory lane. Newer generations should consider this trip to learn what America once was, and how it got to be where it is at today.
If you enjoyed this travel tale and wish to read more about Route 66, please check out the Travel section on my website.