Route 66; road tripping with history and panache!

Road trip on Route 66; find history and mystery!

“Get your kicks on Route 66”, goes the popular song from 1946 by Bobby Troup. My first exposure to Route 66 occurred summer of 1962, when my mother packed my two brothers and me in the back of a Ford station wagon towing a Nimrod tent trailer and set off from Ohio to Chicago, then following Route 66 all the way to Southern California. Before our dad flew into Los Angeles to join us – we had two weeks on our own, on a journey that changed my life.

Route 66 was rerouted in the 1930s, from its end in Los Angeles,
to a more scenic conclusion at the Santa Monica Pier.

With travel dreams on your mind and time to plan future trips, consider Route 66. Named America’s Mother Road, the historic route connected existing highways in 1927 and knit them together in a new Route 66; our government responding to the continuing popularity of automobiles and more and more American’s willingness to travel long distances.

For the route’s debut, gas went for $.16-$.18 a gallon, new Fords and Chevys could be bought for $350 and $525, respectively – a large sum in those days – and Americans were beginning to revel in the open road. Then came the Depression, the Dust Bowl, World War II and its aftermath – more and more Americans used the highway to head west to rebuild their lives.

Historic gas station in Monrovia, on old Rt. 66.

The new highway took shape in 1926 and debuted in 1927.  The result was a meandering 2,445 mile highway that began in Chicago and crossed Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, ending in Los Angeles (10 years later the western terminus was shifted to Santa Monica). Aggressively promoted by the US 66 Highway Association as “the shortest, best and most scenic route from Chicago to Los Angeles”, travelers poured westward!  

Large to tiny towns along the newly christened Route 66 looked at the road as an opportunity to promote their businesses, restaurants, motor courts and gas stations.  And, today, many of these towns actively promote the “Mother Road” with museums, preserved service stations and motor courts, wall murals and more. Nostalgia reigns supreme!

The El Garces Hotel, once a venerable Harvey House,
on old Rt. 66 in Needles, CA.

President Eisenhower, seeing the success of the German Autobahn during the war, spurred 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 (Williams, AZ was the last town bypassed).

To tour all eight states, Chicago to Santa Monica, you need at least 2 to 3 weeks. Better, for most, is to tackle the old highway in smaller segments.

Here is the compressed eight state route of historic Route 66.

Today, we’ll focus upon California and Arizona. We toured our first segment, from Williams, Arizona west to California’s border six years ago, followed by the Oklahoma, Texas and eastern New Mexico portion, then the Needles, CA to Santa Monica section four years ago, and, more recently, the stretch from St. Louis, Missouri through Kansas to Oklahoma. We still have the Chicago to St. Louis stretch to navigate – hopefully a diversion on our next trip across the central US.

Our favorite Route 66 memories would fill more than this column allows.  But, in California they have to include Needles and the grand old El Garces Hotel (an old Harvey House Hotel) built in 1906, the Needles Theatre, circa 1930 and old Union 76 and Texaco gas stations.  Like most states, California offers a good guidebook, offering notes like the moldering remains of the old Carty’s Camp Motor Court, featured in the Grapes of Wrath movie, just behind the Route 66 Motel. In lovely Monrovia, find the old Aztec Hotel and preserved service stations as they appeared in the 1930s, making the town a worthy stop. Amboy features the historic Roy’s Motel and Restaurant, and the end of the route, the Santa Monica Pier, retains its nostalgia. 

The historic Aztec Hotel in Monrovia, CA.

Arizona’s Williams takes a top spot for creatively capitalizing on the nostalgia of the old highway, and, just west, the tiny town of Ash Fork, with abandoned truck stop and motels, the town almost dried up, is sober testimony of a city that lost its luster when bypassed by the new Interstate. However, the next town west, Seligman, offers an example of how a small town off I-40 can recapture much of its grandeur by focusing on the highway’s drawing power.

The Canyon Club is an historic watering hole on Rt. 66 in Williams, AZ.

Near the California/Arizona border, at the end of a long, lonely stretch of Rt. 66, is the mountain town of Oatman, site of a half-dozen movies, still featuring the vibe of bygone days, and almost overwhelmed by wild burros that roam the city’s streets and mooch from visitors!

The Copper Cart, a local emporium on old Rt. 66, Seligman, AZ.
Wild burros welcome visitors to Oatman, AZ.
Wild burros mooch for food in Oatman, AZ.

By the way, that 1962 family trip down Route 66, then north through California and Idaho into Yellowstone Park, hooked me on the west and left me forever nostalgic about the old highway. That led me to a summer job in Yellowstone Park four years later where I met my future spouse. How can we not tour the balance of that old highway that changed my life?

For more info on Route 66: Overall historic Route 66: nps.gov/nr/travel/route66; for turn by turn insight, historic66.com; California, route66ca.org; Arizona, azrt66.com (other states have their own statewide associations).

Abandoned truck stop in Ash Fork, AZ, just three blocks off the then new I-40, offers mute testimony to the destiny of towns bypassed by the Interstate system.

Contact Tim at tviall@msn.com; search his blog, recordnet.com/travelblog. Happy travels in the west!

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