U.S. Highway 66, popularly known as Route 66, has a special place in the hearts of Americans. For me, it stems from a 1962 trip when my mom packed my two brothers and me into the back of a Ford station wagon, towing a tiny tent trailer, and headed out of Ohio bound for California.
Long before the advent of Interstate freeways, we followed Route 66 from Chicago all the way to the LA area (my dad flew into LA to join us). To this day, I remember many of the cute towns, campgrounds and many arguments between three brothers!
In the Roaring 20’s, with Ford, GM and Dodge churning out inexpensive autos amid the economic boom times, Americans were progressively into automobile vacation travel, and many were relocating to the west in hopes of even better times.
Fueled by increasingly mobile Americans, Route 66 began in 1926 when the Bureau of Public Roads created the first Federal Highway, by linking existing local, state and national roads. The result was a meandering 2,400 mile highway that began in Chicago, Illinois and crossed Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and ended in Santa Monica, CA. Aggressively promoted by the US 66 Highway Association as “the shortest, best and most scenic route from Chicago through St. Louis to Los Angeles”, travelers poured westward!
Businesses and towns along the newly christened Route 66 looked at the road as an opportunity to promote and expand their offerings, and restaurants, motor courts, gas stations exploded. Though World War II caused a dramatic downturn in travelers along Route 66, traffic again increased dramatically at war’s end. Auto ownership grew from 25.8 million at war’s end, to 52.1 million by 1955. Fueled by post-war prosperity, more and more families headed west on Route 66.
However, President Eisenhower, who had noted the success of the German Autobahn during the war, launched the construction of a new, Federal four-lane highway system in 1956 that would become today’s Interstate system. Five new Interstates (I-55, I-44, I-40, I-15 and I-10) would steadily replace Route 66 over almost 30 years, and in 1985 Route 66 was decommissioned.
Today, individual states and towns have elected to preserve the old highway, and many stretches of Route 66 retain the nostalgia and appearance of times gone by.
Near the end of a recent auto trip to Florida and back, we elected to follow much of the highway, from Oklahoma back to California (we have Illinois to Kansas targeted for 2016). Just into Oklahoma on I-40, an Oklahoma Welcome Center provided a gorgeous Oklahoma Route 66 tour brochure. A staffer extolled the scenic old road, and we headed 60 miles north to reach the eastern portion of Oklahoma’s piece of the “Mother Road”.
We intersected Route 66 at Sapulpa, OK, then turned southwest.. In Sapulpa, a town of about 900, we found an old downtown themed to the old route and a reborn Gulf gasoline station, reflecting gas, once just 19.9 cents a gallon!
Touring west, we admired the old red brick industrial buildings south of Kellyville, and in Bristow, we found miles of old red brick streets and a former Chrysler-Plymouth dealership with a towering neon sign, now an oil distributorship. Chandler, OK, is home to the Route 66 Interpretive Center, well worth the visit.
In Arcadia, we toured the old Arcadia Red Barn, built 1898, and refurbished and reopened in 1992. It’s a huge, circular barn, with a second floor used for dances and family gatherings, right on old Route 66, steeped in old memories.
We crossed into Texas and followed the old highway into Shamrock, admiring the newly restored U-Drop Inn, housing the Shamrock Chamber of Commerce, and then motored west to McLean.
There we find the McLean Prisoner of War Camp historical site and the Route 66/Devil’s Rope Museum, also housing the Old Route 66 Association of Texas. You’ll also find the first Phillips 66 station built and the old Avalon Theater.
In Groom, TX, we spot the second largest cross in the Western Hemisphere (concrete, 190 feet tall), and nearby, Route 66’s iconic Leaning Tower. We stopped at The Grill, newly reopened, for a good home cooked meal; here, Texan Amy Connors notes “Route 66 brings our little town a lot of traffic – we’re working to make it even more interesting from an historical perspective”.
A Texas Welcome Center offers a nice brochure on Texas Route 66, with the attendant claiming that Amarillo does a nice job showcasing the old highway. We head off to see that city, but find their one-mile themed stretch of old Route 66 (6th Street) is mostly antique dealers, a few old buildings and one restaurant/bar surrounded by 150 Harleys – we choose not to make that stop!
Further west, Vega offers a nice slice of old Americana, with the old 1940s-era Vega Motel, on the National Historic Register. Vega offers a host of old, vintage motor courts and eateries. You’ll soon realize that many of the frontage roads parallel to I-40 are original sections of old 66, complete with historic bridges for those with sharp eyesight!
Just before entering New Mexico, we decided to tour off old Route 66, and head northbound to the Four Corners area (where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada all meet) and then into Grand Canyon National Park – so New Mexico’s Route 66, featuring stretches through Albuquerque, Santa Fe and smaller towns, will have to wait.
What to take: Camera and binoculars, good walking shoes and Route 66 notes or brochures.
For more info on Route 66: Overall historic Route 66: www.nps.gov/nr/travel/route66/; Oklahoma, www.oklahomaroute66.com; Texas, www.rt66oftexas.com; New Mexico, www.rt66nm.org.
Next week, we resume our tour of Route 66 in Williams, Arizona (just south of the Grand Canyon) where old Route 66 heads west to Santa Monica, CA.
For other inspirational destinations in CA, see my Record blog: blogs.esanjoaquin.com/valleytravel!
Happy travels in the West!