Route 66: Notes From the Mother Road

This entry is part 11 of 17 in the series GDB & Route 66

I’m behind in updating the actual travelogue for a number of reasons, not least of which is the photo-intensity of this trip, making backups and postings at typical hotel/motel speeds fairly draggy. While many old roadside motels are wonderful and equipped with all the modern conveniences, like the Roadrunner Lodge in Tucumcari, NM, others are not.

(One night I pulled in and asked first about internet access and second about vacancy. The owner/manager promised we would have internet. That turned out to be true only if I sat on the sidewalk outside the office, and even then my photo upload predicted it would finish at 8:16 the following morning.)

But there are a few notes common to all of Route 66 which I can share outside of chronological order.

The Route is Alive

Historic Route 66, main and 1920s alignment directions

Just look at the detail in this signage!

When I did the drive in 1998, we had a collection of internet-shared guidelines. Without GPS or standard guides, the Route was a consensus of compiled old maps and memories, confirmed by some die-hard road fans, and we would start a trip odometer running at an intersection to count miles and tenths of a mile to find the next unmarked turn.

Today, there are official maps, guide books, and signs everywhere. (Missouri wins for the most complete road signage, I think.) It’s mind-boggling. You can even get an EZ66 Guide for Travelers, and it really is EZ to follow.

It takes away a bit of the explorer feel to the trip, but it’s probably much more authentic to the original era, when drivers actually knew what road they were taking. And it certainly makes the Route more accessible.

And businesses all along the old highway are now claiming Route 66, in names or logos or decor. Even new businesses want the cachet of the old road. A couple of favorites I sighted are a liquor store called “Spirits of 66” and a hair salon called “Roots 66.”

I’ll call it the Cars effect. For having been de-certified for three decades, Route 66 is probably more alive than it was in its last couple of decades as an official federal highway.

66 People Are Friendly

Elmer in the midst of his creations at the Bottle Tree Ranch

Elmer in the midst of his creations at the Bottle Tree Ranch

I think this is self-selecting: if you are a shy or introverted type, you don’t choose to live or open a business along the Main Street of America. Consequently, just about anywhere you stop, you will find someone eager to talk with you about his passion. And lots of 66 people have made their passion their business (or professional-level hobby).

For example, Jon and I stopped to see the 66-themed folk art John Hargrove builds on his property near Arcadia, Oklahoma. On his Social Security pension, John buys and swaps for everything from vintage maps to classic cars, and his shop/collection, and his conversation, absorbed a couple hours of time. We were talked through the 1914 Ford he restored (which has climbed to Pike’s Peak), I sat in a VW Beetle painted as Herbie which protruded from the upper wall of his barn as if crashing through it (makes for a neat view below of the replica Twin Arrows and more), and we talked about long-distance running (John is 70 and regularly enters 100-mile endurance races — though when he took up the sport, it was over a year before he could run a mile without stopping). And I’ve found nearly all the 66 folks are similarly chatty (stop at SuperTam’s Ice Cream in Carterville, MO and just try not to talk about the room-bursting Superman collection).

wide gravel parking area surrounded by trees and a river

This is what the morning-after of a 66 rally looks like. No trash!

But the cruisers who don’t live on the road are also a friendly and cohesive bunch. We stopped to photograph a disintegrating tourist court while some others were doing the same, and found they were driving in for a memorial service for one of the road’s mainstays, Gary Turner of the Gay Parita Sinclair Station in Paris Springs, MO. Route 66 cruisers from all over the US and as far away as Norway, the Netherlands, and Germany had flown or driven in for the event. Sadly, a deadline of Jon needing to catch a flight out of St. Louis made it impossible for us to stop and join.

And the night before, a group of 66 fans had rallied at an endangered bridge, petitioning the state to “restore, not replace” the classic 1923 steel structure. We got to the bridge later that day, and there was no trashy evidence of an all-night rally just hours before. “Take only photos, leave only treadmarks” is the 66 motto.

The West is the Best

a winding road over desert mountain vistaDon’t get me wrong, I love living in the midwest. But my favorite part of old Route 66 is New Mexico, Arizona, and eastern California, though Texas and western Oklahoma have some of the same feel. Because of the low population density and the lack of competition from strip malls and housing booms, more of the original Route 66 businesses — or their ghosts — are preserved. Ghost towns rot more slowly where the climate is arid and there are fewer bored teenagers. And the businesses which have survived are not competing with CVS or Walgreen’s, so they have a more vintage atmosphere.

As you travel east, the first Wal-Mart hits like a ripe dead skunk under the tire. You couldn’t avoid it, and there’s nothing you can do about it, but you sure wish it didn’t have to be like that.

It gets harder and harder to find classic road food, with all the McDonald’s and Wendy’s pushing in from the nearby interstates. C’mon, if I’m going to have grease and salt on the road, at least let it be unusual and tasty!

That said, there certainly still is a 66 east of Oklahoma! I’m just stating a preference.

The Old Road is Awake


Okay, this probably isn’t the most visually stimulating, roll-with-the-land example….

I drive a lot for work as well as for pleasure trips, and I have to say this: while no one pretends that interstates are visually interesting, it’s probably under-recognized how much of a safety difference that makes. Though I drove far more hours in a day on Route 66 than a typical interstate trip, I never got the road glaze that comes with staring only at tail lights and familiar franchise billboards. Watching for signs, navigating a road that moves with the landscape, and just having ever-changing scenery instead of a chronic series of nearly-identical exits kept my brain alert, even without the emergency caffeine and peppermints I’d stowed.

On long interstate drives, I regularly stop for short naps or to do something to refresh my mind for safety. It wasn’t necessary on 66. Though I don’t argue there are long, empty stretches where anyone’s mind could be numbed! it wasn’t the same as driving the interstate.

Burma-Shave Signs Are Still Fun

If you don’t know
Whose signs these are
You haven’t driven
Very far

a collection of Burma-Shave jingles

From the Route 66 Museum in Kingman, AZ.

What started as a cheap advertising ploy for a struggling brand became a national meme. Burma-Shave signs became so popular and so recognized that they could stop advertising their product and just deliver public safety messages (with a humorous twist to send them down smooth) while keeping their brand recognition.

A chin
Where barbed wire
Bristles stand
Is bound to be
A no ma’am’s land

“At east,” she said
“Maneuvers begin
When you get those whiskers
Off your chin”

At school zones
Heed instructions
Protect our little
Tax deductions

More travel posts are in the works!

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Series Navigation<< Route 66: Arizona, part 1Route 66: Arizona, Part 2 >>
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One Comment

  1. This has been such an interesting series of blog posts, I’m actually going to be sad when the final one appears! You’ve had fascinating info, great pics, and have definitely made me want to run out and drive Rt 66 to experience some of this stuff for myself. I hadn’t even been aware of a few of the places you’ve described, and I thought I KNEW the Mother Road! :)

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