Route 66: Riding the Mother Road

Romance and rediscovery on Main Street America.By Jamie Elvidge

Just the name affects us deeply. It summons an era, an impulse and an infatuation all at once. Route 66. Can't you just picture it? That thin strip of asphalt, the crooked telephone poles, the lonely filling station and the dusty cafe where human connection is on the menu.

For many years I'd dreamt of exploring the road that conjures such intense emotion, and finally, this year I set out for a good, long visit, on her 75th birthday. I flew east from California so I could begin the journey in Chicago, Illinois after a quick stop in Minnesota where I picked up a 2001 Victory Deluxe at the Polaris factory. (When you live out a dream it's important to do it in style, and this bike offered just the right blend of suitable nostalgia and modern-day amenities.) Man, it's cold up there. It was mid-April and not a shred of green was in sight, except perhaps for the palpable envy of several Northerners lusting after a two-wheeled road trip. I felt like I was driving through the desert in a Sparkletts truck.

Since its christening in 1926, Route 66 has received a remarkable amount of publicity. In those heady days between the great wars, road building was a competitive venture. A man could simply dream up a plan for a highway, and given the right connections, he could chase the notion into existence. The father of Route 66 was Cyrus Avery, the state highway commissioner of Oklahoma at the time. Avery's dreams were about getting people where they wanted to go, but the bottom line was that a transcontinental highway running through his backyard would fertilize Oklahoma's economy. It became a goal to put his Route 66 on every American's To Do list.

The most extraordinary publicity stunt was certainly the 1928 Route 66 foot race, run from Santa Monica, California, to Chicago. After a fit of hoopla on the banks of Lake Michigan, the race would grind on to its finale in New York City (that's a total of 3422 miles, boys and girls). As remarkable as it sounds, 275 people shelled out a $100 entry fee to partake in the grueling event, and a half-million folks showed up to send them off. There were no gel-injected Nikes in those days either. Some runners wore work boots; some moccasins and a few even ran east with no shoes at all. Twenty-year-old Andy Payne, an Oklahoma farm boy, won the ultra marathon after 87 grueling days on the highway, limping away with a purse of $25,000 (enough to pay off his father's mortgage and have his bunions looked after). One doctor who studied the effects of the race said the strain would cut 10 years off a man's life.

Ill-fated timing caused me to launch from downtown Chicago during rush hour, which greatly intensified the promise of the open road that lay ahead. Grant's Park is the eastern terminus of Route 66, and it was here that I began my treasure hunt. I was carrying 20 pounds worth of books and maps to help unearth the oldest existing segments of the original route (its course was edited several times), but I soon realized all the studying I'd done beforehand would prove worthless in the real world. I ended up doing a thousand U-turns between Chicago and California, and I rifled through those maps on the side of the road until they were shredded and blowing bits behind me like a bread-crumb trail.

Route 66 has long been called The Main Street of America since it originally incorporated so many existing inner city avenues--and small-town main streets--into its meandering length. In fact, the original route was primarily a knitting of existing roads, which ranged from fancy brick streets and urban four lanes, to cattle paths cut across Farmer John's back 40. In the business districts, Route 66 still shines and you can easily picture the old Fords and Packards bumping their ways west. Outside the city limits, however, the old route is primarily a footnote to the massive interstates that have assumed its job. These days, Route 66 would more appropriately be called The Frontage Road of America.

Just below the buzz of downtown Chicago in Willowbrook, Illinois, I found my first Route 66 icon, Del Rhea's Chicken Basket. At first I wondered how the tiny joint had survived all these years, buried as it is by the city's runoff and virtually passed over by Interstate 55. But then I tasted the biscuits. (Two months later, I'm still thinking about those biscuits.) I was looking out the window from a dusty booth at Del Rhea's, sipping a "Route Beer" and enjoying the afterglow of my biscuit experience, when a sudden thought made me shudder. What if the meaning of Route 66 has nothing to do with the paved surface outside? What if it's all about an ideal that can't be measured with a map and a compass? It was a thought that tickled, and it would have me scratching for the next six days.

We've been fed images of Route 66 all our lives, and one of the most fascinating aspects of my trip was the kind of connect-the-dots theme that occurs out there. In the many books I'd read, the hallmarks were the same. For example, in Illinois, there's the Chicken Basket, a silly Gemini Giant statue, the Pig-Hip restaurant and the Chain of Rocks Bridge. All the way to California I'd be bumping into things that felt eerily familiar--places like the U-Drop Inn, Cadillac Ranch and Wigwam Motel. It was like a scavenger hunt, and every time I'd see something familiar my heart would quicken as I'd prime my camera and think, "Why am I taking pictures of the same stuff everyone else has photographed for the last 75 years?" In truth, there's not that much out there to point a lens at. Lots of cornfields, cows, barns and rusted trucks, but nothing that says Route 66 as clearly as all the things that, well, say Route 66.

Through Illinois, Missouri and into Kansas I agonized over the maps trying to find the original (pre-1937) route, a maze that takes you right through the backyard of small-town America. The old Route 66 crisscrosses the colorless interstate constantly, allowing you to take a quick dip in Americana, before you are delivered again to the concrete arrow that killed the economy of most outlying towns. "It passed 'em by and left 'em to rot," said one man I met whose father owned a fueling station on Route 66. "The stations nowadays are too don't even say hello."

People who make a true trek down Route 66 are referred to as pilgrims, and I was obviously a seeker as I burbled through trailer parks and back alleys on my shiny, well-laden cruiser. Staying true to the course certainly involved a lot of backtracking, and at times it grew tiresome. The signage pertaining to the old road is better in some states than others, but even at its best (Illinois and Arizona), it's sporadic. Kids on the side of the road would wave the first couple of times I'd ride by. The third or fourth time, I just looked like a nut and they'd turn away.

In fact, I found myself off course so many times I stopped counting--and pretty soon I stopped caring. At one point, I ended up on a little two-lane that I knew for a fact wasn't 66, old or new, but it was so serene and scenic I decided it deserved to be ridden. So, I sat back and followed the mysterious little road...and that ticklish feeling I'd had at Del Rhea's Chicken Basket returned. What is the draw of Route 66? Certainly it involves our heritage and pride as free and wandering people. It speaks of adventure--and once upon a time, I'm sure it was an adventure to travel out here. (But really, traveling anywhere before 1950 must have been an adventure.) Is the Route 66 draw simply media induced? The song says it's going to be fun. The TV show made it look cool. It was becoming more and more apparent, however, that the fields and the towns and the locals all looked pretty much the same whether I was traveling west on the famous 66 or southeast on some less dignified throughway.

In Oklahoma, all things 66 became more interesting. The tornadoes certainly livened things up, but so did my little adventures, like getting stuck in a muddy cornfield during a thunderstorm. How did I end up in a cornfield? I was searching for these little slabs of original roadbed I'd read about that are only nine feet across and curbed on either side. It is told that highway engineers made this portion of Route 66 skinny so they would have enough materials to pave twice the distance. Another thing that made reaching Oklahoma particularly interesting was the Grapes of Wrath slant. Now here was a Route 66 connection I could really get behind. Suddenly, I was on the road with the Joads, and all the other Okies as they fled the wicked dustbowl for the promise of California. And they did it without Chap Stick.

I was also eager for the imminent simplicity I knew I'd find in the Southwest. There wouldn't be a lot of confusing crosshatches on the map, which would make my connect-the-dots game pretty darn straightforward. In Texas I marveled at the beautiful, yet boarded up U-Drop Inn and wondered why, if the world's so infatuated with it, it is in such disrepair. Just west of Amarillo I contemplated the world-famous Cadillac Ranch, where local eccentric, Stanley Marsh 3 (he didn't like the traditional III), planted 10 vintage Caddys tail up and angled like the Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt. I was tremendously excited to reach Tucumcari, New Mexico, since I'd made a reservation at the quintessential Route 66 stopover, the Blue Swallow Motel. (I'll bet it has been a decade since I made a room reservation on a motorcycle trip.) The Blue Swallow Motel turned out to be everything I'd heard and hoped it would be--a faithfully restored vintage motel that was both cheap and clean. For all the significance Americans place on Route 66, I found only a handful of places that echo the same degree of pride. The Blue Swallow would have to top my list of highlights.

Most businesses still clinging to the crooked edges of old Route 66 maps are so desperate for dollars they'll do anything to make you stop. Fashion store mannequins seem to be very popular this year. I found scantily clad babes sitting on porches, drawing guns on rooftops and even waving from the windows of broken-down school buses. One plastic princess was hanging from the mouth of a giant green dinosaur.

By the time I approached Arizona my whole concept of Route 66 began to waver and shift. I was almost certain the whole phenomenon had little, if anything, to do with the road I was trying to follow. Yes, there were landmarks that brought a rush of nostalgia--knowledge that I was indeed traveling in the tire tracks of history. But the ride itself was pretty crappy, mostly straight and boring. There was some excitement in excavating the original route from the layers of modern sediment. There was emotion and wonder that came with witnessing the crumbling of so many small towns, and there was pride and humility in so blatantly touching the core of America's character. But isn't America's nostalgic essence everywhere? Even in the juvenile West, we have burned-out diners and really big flags.

My last night on the road I slept in a Wigwam in Hollbrook, Arizona. You know the place, with tepee-shaped cement deals with a door and one tiny window. I was talking to the man who owned the joint (inherited it from his father) and he was proudly showing me a photo album of printed features about the Wigwam motel and Route 66, the latest a colorful spread in AAA's Via magazine. While he was telling me how people come from all over the world just to sleep in a Wigwam, a nondescript car barreled into the parking lot. A rental perhaps. A young girl sprang out, fired off a shot of one of the tepees and dove back in the passenger's seat as the driver sprayed a bit of gravel on his way back toward the interstate. It was almost like they were stealing something.

Were they?

The guy behind the counter sighed. He said that doesn't bother him too much. It seems to me a lot of people like to wax nostalgic about Route 66, but not many are willing to feed it money for stale coffee and iffy lodgings, especially when Wendy's and Best Western are only a block away. Not all the Wigwams were occupied that night, but the little motel goes on...if only by the skin of its tepees. Most vestiges of the old Route 66 have wilted and died in the shadow of the interstates. The very last segment of the old road was finally bypassed in 1984 by mighty Interstate 40. There are a few terrific sections of Route 66 worthy of a road trip. My favorite was the road from Kingman to Oatman, Arizona, which includes a 3500-foot grade and the kind of squirrelly switchbacks that must have required a change of underwear for early travelers. Rusted hulks still litter the canyon walls.

As I fell asleep in my charmingly dilapidated tepee to the sound of trains and trucks (a favored lullaby), I realized the thoughts which plagued me during my pilgrimage had become a conviction. Route 66 is not a great getaway, and I wouldn't recommend it as one. Yeah, there are cool stops and sections along the way, but the other 2200 miles weigh too heavily against what still works.

In fact, I don't think Route 66 is a destination at all. It's a feeling. It's what we see in our heads and feel in our hearts when we hear the name. Route 66 is pride and romance, freedom and adventure all ground into a parched two-lane that connects us to our history.

And you don't even need to travel to get there.

In the 1950s, 66 was The Way West. Photos by Jamie Elvidge.
You can't keep them down on the farm after Route 66 has shown them the big city.
Newer roads and technology left just traces of Route 66 in its heyday.
They don't make them like this any more.
In places the old road lies unused next to the interstate,
You also see some forgotten marketing methods.
It's still here.
The section between Kingman and Oatman kept many unwary drivers from ever seeing California.
It's a memorable ride down to the Colorado River.