Arizona dreamin’…Burma Shave makes comeback on historic Route 66!

‘Get your kicks on Route 66’ as it meanders through quaint, forgotten towns

In 1962, my mother piled my two younger brothers and 14 year-old me into the back of a ‘61 Ford station wagon, towing a tiny Nimrod tent trailer, bound from Ohio to California and back. My plumbing-contractor father planned to fly into LA and meet up, several weeks later.

Shops in Williams, AZ, are dedicated to the old Mother Road.

Our trip took us to Chicago, then then onto the country’s “superhighway”, Route 66, which, beginning in 1924, linked a series of state and local highways on a fairly direct route through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and into California, ending at the Pacific in Santa Monica.

“Get your kicks on Route 66” went the lyrics of the King Cole Trio in 1946. It celebrated a meandering 2,400 mile highway that dramatically increased tourism and travel to the west. With increasing families headed west on Route 66, “the Mother Road”, California, with less than 6 million people in 1930 mushroomed to over 20 million by 1970; Arizona boomed from  435,000 people to 1.78 million.

In 1962, virtually every stretch of Rt. 66 was a busy two lane, winding road, cutting right through the heart of the towns in route, taking advantage of the town’s’ gas stations, restaurants and motels. Once into western Oklahoma and further west, there would often be vast stretches with almost no towns or services. In 1961, folks had to be very hearty travelers, particularly a mother with three rambunctious boys.

Old Burma Shave signs line Route 66, with their old advertising jingles.

It’s funny the memories that stand out. I clearly remember wide expanses of the west, tiny towns and the series of Burma Shave signs which adorned much of the highway. My mother detoured north from Williams, AZ, to the rim of the Grand Canyon, where during the heat of the summer, I was said to have pronounced “it’s just a big hole in the ground” as we three boys resisted exiting the car to peer into that grand abyss. Camping on the edge of Lake Mead, we could pour chunky Skippy peanut butter onto our bread.

A month ago, returning from a trip to Phoenix for baseball spring training, we planned to camp a few days at the Grand Canyon. When it snowed the night before on our trailer in Williams, we revised our plan to explore the westernmost stretch of old Route 66 through Arizona. Would it look much like I remembered, I wondered?

We began in Williams; gateway to the Grand Canyon, it maintains a strong economic advantage over other Arizona towns along the old highway. Along its Business I-40 link (which once carried Route 66 through the city), a string of motels leads into the old downtown, still home to the Grand Canyon Railroad, motels and a lively old Main Street.

Abandoned truckstop in Ash Fork features trees growing through cracked concrete.

In the downtown area, five blocks focus on businesses themed to Route 66 – restaurants, shops offering 66 memorabilia, antiques, brewpub and more. Even on a cold, snowy morning in early March, tourists cruised the street, stopping to take pictures in the morning chill. Williams was the last town to be bypassed by the completed I-40 in 1984.  The Mother Road was soon decommissioned.

Just 19 miles west, we exit I-40 (which overlaid the old road in this area) at Ash Fork, with an abandoned truckstop complete with 1970’s pumps and trees growing through cracks in the pump aprons. Behind the old truckstop sign, the interstate looms just a 1/4 mile away, carrying thousands of cars and trucks daily past the dusty, discarded town.

Ash Fork offers a few businesses attempting to cater to Route 66 tourism such as the Oasis Cafe and Lounge; more prevalent are the abandoned businesses, the old truck stop, the Star Motel (up for sale) – shuttered when consistent traffic disappeared due to the freeway bypassing the town.

"The Eagle has landed": old van in Ash Fork is representative of tongue-in-cheek humor found on the route.

Parked beside the old truck stop and a nondescript, non-Route 66-themed bar is an early 90s Chevy van festooned with several hundred plastic Eagle heads and talons, emblazoned “the Eagle Has Landed”. I ask a local (who does not want to give me his name) what ‘s the story, and he responds, “we haven’t seen the owner for about three weeks – he’s kind of a crazy fella, way over the top with screamin’ eagles!”.

We follow the old stretch of Route 66 parallel to I-40, from Ash Fork to Seligman. It’s wide-open country, coursing through the arid high plains. We pass six vehicles on the 20-mile stretch, punctuated by pines, cattle and a series of re-created Burma Shave signs:

You can drive
A mile a minute
But there is no
Future in it
Burma-Shave

Further along the timeworn road:

If hugging of highways
Is your sport
Trade in your car
For a Davenport
Burma Shave

The Aztec Motel in Seligman features a mural of Marilyn Monroe brightening the restaurant portion.

Just about as I remember them, newly placed by the Route 66 Association! The next town west, Seligman, is perhaps king of kitsch in Arizona Route 66 towns.  The Burger Palace, Marylyn Monroe’s portrait painted on the Aztec Motel, the Route 66 Gift Shop. Of note, a yellow 59 Edsel taxi, the De Soto Lounge, with a 55 De Soto perched on the roof, another business adorned with a 62 Mercury Comet, matching the first car my father gave me to commute to college in 1965.

The lively Copper Cart/Route 66 Motoporium hosts college kids in the middle of the old highway, taking selfies!  While Susan shopped, I toured through several streets lined with tiny, dilapidated houses, some abandoned and some occupied by hangers-on. An old wooden rail car on one street was home to a failed butchershop – evidence of townsfolk’s ability to reuse and recycle old things.

Between Seligman and Kingman lies a string of towns wind-blown and forlorn: Nelson, Peach Springs, Truxton, Valentine and Hackberry. Peach Springs is home to the Hualapai Indian reservation and gateway to the glass floor overlook on the Grand Canyon. We pass a worn Grand Canyon Caverns (one of the first roadside attractions on the highway), remembering much busier days.

The road passes Kingman, faded Oatman and continues on to bigger towns like Needles as one enters California and it’s remnants of the old “Mother Road”, eventually ending in Santa Monica at the Pacific.

Plan a trip to get your kicks on Route 66!

The Cooper Cart and Route 66 Motoporium draw a crowd in Seligman.

For more info on Route 66: Overall historic Route 66: www.nps.gov/nr/travel/route66/; Arizona, www.aztr66.com; California, www.route66ca.org.

Contact Tim Viall at tviall@msn.com; follow him at recordnet.com/travelblog. Happy travels in your world!

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