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Earth, Wind & Power Blog

Route 66 Travel Guide

Route 66: A Spring Road Trip Along the Fabled Highway

by Susan McKee

Road trips are especially enticing in the warm months. Driving long distances through rolling hills as the trees begin to leaf out and flowers start blooming can be an excellent exercise in meditation.

Consignment Store Artwork along Route 66 (Copyright Susan McKee 2007)
 

That’s particularly true if you’re heading west because, starting as far east as Illinois, you can plan to get off the fast track of interstate progression now and then and meander at a slower pace by following fabled Route 66.

Although the federal highway was officially decommissioned in 1984, Route 66 remains a potent symbol of American mobility. Established in 1926, it was the first U.S. road connecting Chicago to Los Angeles.

In the 1960s, it was elevated to cult status in the television series, Route 66 – and you can still watch episodes in reruns in the U.S. and around the world. I once stopped at a roadside motel outside Augsburg, Germany, and was startled to find black and white photographs of Route 66 landmarks used as the signature decor!

No bland, uniformly engineered, plain-vanilla interstate highway could ever replace Route 66 in the hearts and minds of its fans. That’s why the highway – affectionately called the Mother Road - lives on through an active effort to signpost it where pavement still exists, and to provide markers on the interstate highways that replaced it, showing motorists where to get off for a look.

Route 66 has its official beginnings right in the middle of Chicago at Jackson Boulevard and Michigan Avenue. Then it heads diagonally southwest through Illinois – past it and then into Missouri. I don’t find the Illinois segment very interesting, but I always get off the interstate and onto the old road in St. Louis. to stop at Ted Drewes Frozen Custard at 6726 Chippewa Street.

Ted Drewes is as much an old Route 66 landmark as it is an ice cream shop. Open February through December, the wait in line on summer evenings may be long (but worth it). Although I agonize over my selection each time I stop – there are dozens of freshly-churned choices each day - I usually end up savoring their creamy vanilla with black raspberries.

Duly refreshed, I continue heading out into the Missouri countryside on old 66. The road follows much the same route as I-44, providing many opportunities to switch back and forth between the two roads as one’s time schedule and daylight allow (interstates are much easier to navigate after dark).

When I’m driving west, I usually aim to spend the night in Cuba. No, not THAT Cuba! I mean the one just beyond Meramec Caverns (you did visit them as a kid, right?) Cuba is a nice, small, Midwestern kind of town with no interstate noise to keep you awake at night. A 1934 Ozark stone motel called the WagonWheel is my first choice there.

If I’m in an especially contemplative mood, I’ll be sure leave the interstate to drive the desolate stretch of old 66 that meanders from Springfield to Joplin. It’s eerie driving along a virtually empty highway through towns named Albatross, Rescue and Log City. Their former existence as busy towns on a bustling highway are hinted at by the surprising number of derelict roadside motels, diners and filling stations abandoned along the way.

After a zigzag trip through a corner of Kansas (following section boundaries), it’s into Oklahoma. This state, especially in the east, has lots of sections of Route 66 that remain in daily use. If I’m rolling along here in good daylight, I find myself stopping in every town to snap photos of the vintage Art Deco commercial architecture and other landmarks along the 260 miles from the Kansas border to Oklahoma City.

A Myrtle statue guards the entrance to the Route 66 Museum (Copyright Susan McKee 2007)
Myrtle guards the
Route 66 Museum

On my last drive west, I stopped in Elk City to see the Route 66 Museum – you can recognize it by spotting Myrtle, a Kachina-doll-style statue that once stood outside the Queenan Trading Post on the western edge of town. The displays of roadside memorabilia and history trace the highway through all eight states, and just outside is the Old Town Museum complex that includes a livery stable, train depot, wagon yard and other areas depicting Old Town Elk City.

Route 66 hits the panhandle of Texas before moving on into New Mexico. It’s worth stopping off in Amarillo, even if you don’t have a hankering to try one of the 72-ounce steaks at the legendary Big Texan Steak Ranch (if you can eat it in an hour, you don’t have to pay for it).

Although I-40 is an option in New Mexico, I love to veer off the interstate and take the old road angling north to avoid the Sandia Mountains that goes through Santa Rosa, Las Vegas and Santa Fe before heading back south to Albuquerque and on west to Arizona.

Towns like Gallup, Flagstaff, Winslow and Needles become a blur as the urge to reach Los Angeles becomes irresistible. In my mind, absolutely nothing beats the first view of the Pacific Ocean as you follow Santa Monica Boulevard to the end, where it Ts into the Pacific Coast highway.

IF YOU GO...

A great book to have with you on an exploration of any section of the old highway is Tom Snyder’s Route 66 Traveler’s Guide and Roadside Companion. I use the second edition, published by St. Martin’s Griffin in 1995.

Another good reference is the EZ66 Guide for Travelers. The spiral-bound book by Jerry McClanahan was published by National Historic Route 66 Federation in 2005.

Ted Drewes Frozen Custard has kept up with the times – there’s on-line ordering (as well as everything you ever wanted to know about the ice cream stand) on the website: www.teddrewes.com. There also are directions to the Route 66 stand from the interstates running through St. Louis.

Cuba, Mo. is a nice place to stop for the night. There are a handful of motels with national brands, but the place to stay with the most vintage Route 66 flavor is the Wagon Wheel Motel, 901 East Washington; 1-573-885-3411. The trees have grown taller, but the place is still recognizable from 1930s-era postcard pictures. It’s so traditional, it doesn’t have a website, so you’ll have to call for reservations, or just stop by.

The National Route 66 Museum in Elk City, Okla. (www.elkcitychamber.com/Museums) tells the story of the road from Illinois all the way through eight states to California through artifacts and explanations.

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