By Michelle Blixen
This road holds a special place in the American consciousness; everyone has a story of triumph, heartbreak, interesting strangers, and stranger locals. It is a road that encapsulates the spirit of the American West; it stands for new beginnings, hope, and freedom. Connecting Chicago to Los Angeles, the route rolls through 2,400 miles of small towns, big cities, and open range. Since 1926 this road has been the embodiment of the freedom of the open road, it was that longing for discovery that prompted me to pack up the car, grab a friend and head down the highway seeking to experience a bit of that freedom for myself.
We started just outside of Chicago and made our way down the road to the small town of Gardner, Illinois; a town now known for its historic place on Route 66 and a countryside hangout of Al Capone. Most of the drive is like this, small towns, now bypassed by the interstate highways. Each has their local claim to fame, mostly kitschy roadside attractions. With every turn you discover another historic marker, some official, others commercial, but it is this Midwestern Americana that really makes the trip worthwhile. Plus there are the big icons like the Saint Louis arch that appears on the horizon with the city skyline behind it. The old route is not accessible as you come to the Mississippi River towards St. Louis. The original bridge is now used for pedestrian/bicycles and is worth a short diversion to see.
Pushing west into Oklahoma most of the small towns along the road seem abandoned. Empty downtowns with just a few shops catering to the tourists that drive the route, shadows of the former communities that had been. Stopping in the small town of Vinita, Oklahoma we searched for a restaurant. Many of the classic roadside diners you would hope to find are long gone, but we discovered the Clanton’s Café, the ideal Route 66 restaurant that has been serving classic American dishes since 1927.
In preparing to drive Route 66 you think about the spirit of adventurers that went before you, the hope that once was traveling west to start a new life. As you drive though so many dying towns you can’t help but think about the dreams that were crushed as the world sped up. Not that progress is a bad thing, but taking a trip like this does make you reflect on the virtues of slowing down, taking the long way home, shopping from mom & pop stores, and eating a family owned restaurants.
Pushing west the towards the Texas panhandle, the hills slowly disappear as the ground flattens out. Many parts of the old road are not bypassed by Interstate 44, and they are completely replaced, giving you no choice but to take to the highway. As we cross the Texas border we stop in the town of Shamrock, home of one of the most famous gas stations in the world, the U-Drop Inn. There is little else in the town so we push on after taking some photos. But one Texas icon is a must visit when you are driving down Route 66, the Big Texan Steak Ranch, home of the 72oz steak challenge. While we would not recommend attempting to eat four and half pounds of meat, the regular size steak is worth a stop.
The sign welcoming you into New Mexico calls it “The Land of Enchantment” but this stretch is anything but, with little civilization and lots of abandoned old roadside souvenir shops and gas stations. It can be hard to stay awake on these long stretches of nothingness, but we push on to Albuquerque. Taking some time visit some of my favorite spots in old town before heading out so we can make Gallup by dinner time. Gallup is another must visit destination along Route 66, and if you can stay the night at the El Rancho Hotel. Built in 1937 to serve as a hub for the Hollywood Studios while making western films, the hotels lavish western décor is impressive and stars like Kirk Douglas, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Virginia Mayo, and John Wayne all have stayed at the El Rancho. They have a great restaurant as well on site making it the perfect place to stop and relax.
The next morning the drive down the road to Holbrook Arizona and take some pictures of the Wigwam Motel, another iconic roadside attraction. This one is alleged to be still open, but the office was closed and no one was around. This section of the road has much more to see towns like Winslow, where you can stand on a corner and have your photo taken. Flagstaff the gateway to the Grand Canyon has a number of cool hotels and neon signed cafes. At the town of Seligman, Route 66 departs the highway and takes you to the town of Peach Springs; a small mostly forgotten town is home to a few hundred residents. Pushing through a few other mostly abandoned settlements we stop at the Hackberry General Store, it looks like one of those old stops you expect to find on Route 66, a classic Corvette is parked out front and vintage gas pumps look almost as if you could pull in and say “fill’er up” but it is just a tourist stop today.
Heading down the highway we pass through Kingman on our way to Oatman Arizona, this stretch of road is full of twists and turns and takes you to the small tourist town full of donkeys. It is one of the most active tourist towns on this end of the route because of its close proximity to the Colorado River. With gun fights, saloons girls, and little shops and restaurants, lining both sides of Route 66.
We push through after a quick stop and make our way across the border to California and we are nearly home. California surprisingly has the most intact sections of Route 66 allowing you to drive almost all of it from the Colorado River to the Santa Monica Pier.
After such a journey it is a mix of excitement and disappointment upon returning home to California. Life gets back to its manic pace once again, but there is comfort in knowing that there are sleepy towns and friendly people just a short drive away.