After a short time of rest and recovery, I’ve come to the conclusion that our Route 66 road trip was a profound and life-changing experience. Not to be overly dramatic, but the sights, sounds, people, food, history and our shared adventure contributed to an extraordinary journey of discovery. And it just might have made me a better person.
Here are some things that made the journey especially meaningful:
1) Our Route 66 trip was an expedition
There are a couple of fundamental things to understand about Route 66. First of all, it doesn’t formally exist anymore. Route 66 was officially established in 1926, consisting of a patchwork of roadways. The “Mother Road” was changed and re-routed over the years, and finally, in the mid-1980’s was officially decommissioned as the Interstates replaced the older roads. Secondly, it takes diligent research and work to follow Route 66 since there are multiple variations, much of it is unmarked and some of it no longer exists. Based on our library of guidebooks, each night my husband (like a modern-day Meriwether Lewis) would plan the route for the next day, download it into the Garmin, and I (his faithful William Clark) would plot lunch, dinner and sightseeing stops. This was no casual road trip.
2) We were purist in our route selection
Since there are multiple variations of Route 66, the traveler has many options along the way: the older routes (usually frontage roads and business routes, but in some cases dirt or gravel roads), the newer roads (which sometimes included 4-lane Interstates which replaced Route 66) or some combination. We opted to mostly navigate the older roads (including some dirt) and use Interstates only when absolutely necessary. This meant we could rarely travel more than 150-200 miles per day, but it took us through small towns and countryside we would never have seen from the Interstate. And we can now proudly claim to have traversed the true Route 66!
3) Route 66 produced a vivid lesson in American history
Driving Route 66 westbound was a fascinating and experiential living classroom on American history and culture. From Chicago through Missouri, we encountered much of the odd kitsch that I expected from Route 66. There were vintage gas stations, cars and motels; a host of giant objects like muffler men, hot dogs, rocket ships, rocking chairs and neon signs, designed primarily to attract attention and lure customers. From St. Louis and especially Oklahoma westward, though, Route 66 really captured me, as it became the story of America’s westward expansion, growth pains and migration. We visited excellent museums that brought to life narratives of the pioneers in covered wagons who bravely crossed rugged western trails (precursors to Route 66), the “Okies” and other human casualties of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression (and their courage, grit and determination in the face of tremendous hardship), the traditions and repatriation of Native Americans, and the history of American vehicles – from covered wagon to Model T to Corvette. As we drove Route 66, which, unlike the Interstates, follows the natural contour of the landscape, resulting in curvy, winding roads and steep grades, we were overwhelmed as we considered what it was like for an entire family to drive these roads with all of their belongings strapped to a Model T with no air conditioning, unable to go more than 150 miles on a full tank of gas. The experience made the tales of American 20th century travel and migration fly off the pages of history books.
4) The landscape was spectacular
On the same day that I took my favorite silly photo of the trip (standing on a corner in Winslow, AZ) we also saw the Painted Dessert and the Petrified Forest. We went from the lush green and plains of Illinois and Missouri, across the legendary Mississippi River, to the Great Plains of Oklahoma and Kansas to the cap rock and Staked Plains of the Texas panhandle to the purple mountains of New Mexico, and the deserts and mountains of Arizona and California. We saw the southernmost end of the Grand Canyon near Flagstaff. I was left in awe of the Creator of this masterpiece as well as the adaptability of the settlors of such varied habitats.
5) We learned the importance of roadways to towns
Route 66 demonstrated that roadways are like rivers – when they are re-routed, the effect on the inhabitants is dramatic. In many cases, we drove on frontage roads or business routes right alongside the busy Interstate. Elsewhere, Route 66 was far from major highways. In all instances, there was little traffic on non-Interstate sections of Route 66, and we drove through small towns that the Interstates now bypass. Some of these small towns are surviving solely from the resurgence of tourism on Route 66; others have become eerie ghost towns; still others either ruins or completely vanished. We learned and saw first-hand how decisions (some quite political in nature) as to routing and exits of Interstates impact the very survival of these small towns and their residents. We heard story after story of occupants or even entire towns forced to relocate due to re-routing of roadways over the years. The ubiquitous abandoned gas station we saw on every stretch was like fossilized evidence of the fluid nature of the Mother Road.
We also realized how much one misses when traveling solely on Interstates. We enjoyed seeing small towns and always made a point to stop at older establishments for lunch. We learned a great deal about the towns’ histories and cultures by talking with waitresses, proprietors and others we met. At the Lewis Cafe in St. Clair, MO, the waitress told us most of their Route 66 tourism business is now European, who see Route 66 as a uniquely American adventure and love eating at the old diners and staying at the old motels along the way. That news was surprising to me (Route 66 was hard enough to navigate without a foreign language in the mix and driving on the opposite side), and a little sad that fellow Americans are not taking the time to experience Route 66. In an older section of Albuquerque, NM, at Mary & Titos (est. 1953), a small hole-in-the-wall family-owned restaurant, we were treated to what was arguably our best meal of the trip, their award-winning carne adovada. The founders’ grandson gave us a detailed account of the peppers that are key to New Mexican cooking, and told us that many of their cooking staff have been constant for over 30 years and that few of their recipes are written (“its all in our heads”). Route 66, like a river, took us on an unforgettable passage through the core of America.
6) We had a terrific time together
I have to admit, I was a little nervous about the prospect of being cooped up in a car for at least 20 days (counting both eastbound and westbound trips) with another person (even if it was my loving husband). The potential was there to really get on each other’s nerves.
But I must say, like Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, we made a great team! There was one day where we almost killed each other – the first day we embarked on Route 66 from Chicago. That day, I realized a Route 66 expedition ideally takes four people (the driver, the navigator, the tour guide and the photographer) and that I had three of the jobs. All was going well until we got lost in a cornfield somewhere in Illinois and an argument between driver (husband) and navigator (myself) ensued. The situation was effectively remedied over dinner that night, when I politely tendered my resignation from the navigation committee. From then on, my husband planned and programed the routes, and followed the GPS. That freed me to take pictures, look for and point out sights along the way (although I did try to keep an eye on the map, just in case). Our revised system worked splendidly for the balance of the trip.
The important thing was that we worked well as a team – we enjoyed each other’s company, we resolved any disagreements that came up, and we completed the trip with an enormous sense of shared accomplishment. Although we were tired and looking forward to getting home by the end, we were surprised to both feel a real let-down at the trip end, and we almost immediately felt an itch to get back in the cherry red Traverse……..and do another Road Trip!!!!!
Wow what a trip! I’ve driven parts of it and been to either end of it but not the whole thing.
Yes, it was definitely an unforgettable experience!