I think I’ll dedicate this entry to my Dad. Today would have been his 89th birthday. He loved to hit the open road, and one of his favorite sayings was “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” I can’t help but think how happy he would have been for us that we got to do this trip, and how much he would have enjoyed hearing about our adventures. Here’s to you, Dad.
It’s kind of hard to articulate the mystique of Route 66 that exists for so many of us. There are other iconic roads (The National Road, The Lincoln Highway, The Old Spanish Trail, Pacific Coast Highway) that are fascinating in their own right, but Route 66 is special.
But why? I can’t speak for everyone who loves the Road, only for myself. As we were cruising along, I had plenty of time to reflect on what is so special about it, and why people come from all over the world to travel it.
Part of it is definitely the nostalgia factor. Being able to travel so much of the old road gives you an idea of what it must have been like for travelers in years past. The very narrow portions of the Road in Illinois and Oklahoma make me think of people traveling the original dirt trail in wagons; the twists and turns near Oatman, Arizona make me imagine a family traveling it in a Model T; the four-lane portions winding through the Missouri bluffs bring to mind a happy couple in a big ol’ boat of a ‘50s convertible. Although many of the old businesses are in ruins or gone completely, numerous examples of roadside eateries still abound. One of my favorites was Ted Drewes Frozen Custard in St. Louis. This walk-up reminds me so much of ice cream stands of my youth. Ken and I were there on a hot afternoon (boy, did that Concrete—thicker than a Dairy Queen blizzard—ever taste good...!), but when Shane and I were there, it was a June evening. The neon was on, moths were beating at the lights, and the place was really hopping.
The old motels also reminded me of my childhood, taking road trips with my parents. Back then, we stayed in plenty of little old motels like you encounter on Route 66. Again, many of these are no longer operating as tourist motels, or are not kept up well. The few notable exceptions are a delight, with simple, clean rooms. Gift shops still dot the roadway, and at the famous Jack Rabbit Trading Post in Arizona, I did indeed see rubber tomahawks! But it’s not just about the nostalgia, or trying to relive one’s lost youth. Route 66 is a vital place, with many people still catering to tourists and giving rest to weary travelers. It may have changed a bit, and is no longer as busy as it once was, but there is a lot of life left yet in the old highway. Like all of us, it may be getting older, but that doesn’t mean it’s ready to give up the ghost just yet!
I was also struck by the changing terrain. It cuts through two-thirds of the United States, and you see a broad representation of what our country has to offer. From the urban landscape of Chicago, you pass quickly into vast expanses of Midwestern cornfields. The rocky bluffs of Missouri give way to the prairies of Oklahoma, after a brief trip through Kansas. You soon pass into the flat plains and cattle country of Texas, followed by the beautiful landscapes and soaring heights of New Mexico. The mountainous terrain of Arizona has the true feel of the Old West, and the trip through the Mojave Desert is nothing less than imposing (imagine going through it in a Model T!). The urban sprawl of southern California has the feel of the “promised land,” as it was for many people over the years, and passing over the mountains to the coast brings cooler temperatures and a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean. It was fascinating to me to see the countryside changing with every mile eaten up by the tires of our Detroit rollin’ iron. It truly was a good-sized chunk of our country, and it was an incredible lesson as to just how beautiful, in many different ways, it is. The vast, open farm fields have as much charm to me as the vast, open desert. The lush, verdant hardwoods of Missouri are as beautiful as the towering pines of Flagstaff. Of course, there are many other climates and terrains to be seen in our country...which is amazing in itself. We passed through eight states (not counting Indiana, on our way up to Chicago to pick up the very beginning of the Route), and only saw part of this amazing land.
Another lesson I learned on this trip is something I mentioned when we were having lunch with Andy and Linda after his graduation. Although we planned out where we wanted to get to every night, we only had three motel reservations. I had an idea of things to stop at, and one of the must-stops was Afton Station to visit Laurel. I had no hard-and-fast rules about where to eat, although there were some definite possibilities (I’ve been by the Ariston Café twice now...maybe the third time I’ll actually manage to eat there!). In short, I didn’t micromanage the trip, and we did our best to find new and unusual places to eat. That’s part of the adventure! When I talked to Mom yesterday, she mentioned that when her and Dad were out west, they stopped at a Pizza Hut, because that way they knew what to expect. I said, “Oh, we’re just the opposite. We like finding new places rather than chains.” And it turned out that we found some fun places! I purposefully did not plan the trip down to the last detail, because there is plenty to be said for spontaneity and seeing what you can scare up. At times it could get a little frustrating because there might not be much in a small town. We settled for an Applebee’s at least once. But it was a good lesson in just taking what comes and adjusting if need be. Part of the fun of leaving the Interstate behind is taking the time to see things on the dirty back roads and byways. We agreed that it won’t always be possible to take the back roads, but when we do, we’ll make sure we enjoy them!
Finally, as we were cruising along one day, a thought popped into my head. I told Ken, “Route 66 is kind of a metaphor for America. It IS America. The diversity of the people, the terrain, and...well, I haven’t gotten much further in my thoughts on that, but I’ll work on it!” Haha! I did think about it more, and I think it’s a good analogy, beyond the reasons I mentioned. In its early incarnation, it was an ambitious project to pave a highway going across most of the country to California. It involved planning and a spirit of entrepreneurship on the part of Cyrus Avery and those he worked with to make it happen. During the Depression and Dust Bowl era, it meant the way to a better way of life for many people. It didn’t always work out that way for those families, but the Road west meant hope and the possibility of a brighter future. During WWII, work was abundant, and Route 66 brought people west to work in munitions plants; many of those people settled in California permanently and pumped money into a booming state economy. With the advent of motion pictures, aspiring actors and actresses traveled to Hollywood hoping for their big break. After WWII, GIs came home and married, had kids, and traveled Route 66 to vacation in California. With all the motorists passing by, endless roadside businesses cropped up to cater to tourists and compete for their dollars. It wasn’t just southern California that profited by being Route 66’s terminus; every little town and big city on the Route reaped the benefits of this highly-trafficked road.
Hard times were ahead for many of these businesses, as the Route changed to cut off some of the detours, or bypassed small towns entirely. Once thriving roadway towns like Glenrio dried up virtually overnight. This was only a harbinger of things to come, as President Eisenhower instituted the construction of a massive Interstate system that circumvented much of the Route and most of the small towns. Businesses floundered and died, some limped on, and when Route 66 was decommissioned as a federal highway in 1985, it seemed that the Road itself was dead.
But just like all those hopeful travelers from the decades before, it refused to give up. Through the efforts of Route 66 business owners like Angel Delgadillo and authors like Michael Wallis, a fascination with the Road began to take hold, both within our country and internationally. Something about the Road speaks to people. For Americans, perhaps it’s a recognition of its historic significance to so many families, probably including their own. For those in Europe and Japan and Australia, maybe it’s thinking that it’s a chance to see a great deal of America on a highway that has a decidedly cool American vibe. For some, it’s a matter of ferreting out the forgotten Road and abandoned portions, and thank goodness for those who are so fascinated by this aspect of it that they write detailed guidebooks—like Jerry McClanahan, whose excellent guidebook we used for much of the trip! (And thank goodness for Ken, who understands my fascination with the Road and made this trip possible. Not to mention putting up with my requests to stop so I could get sign pictures! Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, Honey!) It is all of these things for me: the landscape, the people, the thriving roadside businesses and the abandoned ones, the small towns, the big cities...and the hope. The hope of a brighter future for all, the hope that things will get better, the hope that our country can once again achieve its potential that so many once believed was not only possible, but inevitable.
Route 66 is a microcosm of America. It embodies our ambition, our ingenuity, our hopes and dreams, and our stubborn refusal to give up. Many have said, “If that Road could talk, the stories it would tell!” It IS talking...still.
It’s not a bad idea to slow down long enough to hear what it has to say.