The thin, crumbling two-lane road carrying just a few vehicles looked incongruous next to the busy six-lane dual carriageway running alongside only metres away.More United States:
But for decades, this innocuous- looking pavement was seen as the most important and best-known thoroughfare in the United States.
It was America's Main Street or Mother Road. Its gas stations, hotels, motels and diners serviced a flow of passing traffic carrying Americans on business, holidays or moving to another State in search of a better life. It was a key road for migration during the "dust bowl" Depression years in the 1930s and for the movement of troops and equipment in World War II. It was part of the rise of the culture of rock'n'roll and flash cars among young Americans in the 1950s and 60s.
These days, Route 66 is no longer a designated highway. The 4000km route from Chicago to Los Angeles was overtaken by a modern network of Federal cross-country highways, known as interstates, and was decommissioned in 1985, triggering its deterioration along many sections. The survival of what is left is due mainly to the passion of interested community groups and authorities in different States who have worked hard to preserve the facilities on their stretch of 66.
So what is on Route 66 that still attracts people to jump on their Harleys or in their cars for such a long road trip? I joined a two-week tour out of Chicago, with nine other travellers keen to learn why the route was so influential in America's social, cultural and economic history. For a start, being on Route 66 is no dash across America. It is not meant to be. The road commands respect. It passes through eight States with their individual approach to American life, their varied attractions and particular idiosyncrasies.
It asks the commuter to slow down and take in what it has to offer. There's no rush. Stories abound about the natural and man-made attractions en route. Whether in a Route 66 museum, by an old motel or road sign, in a restored gas station, or over a homemade burger and root beer in a roadside diner, they are well worth the attention.
We took the east-west option for our journey on Route 66, basically following the pathway of America's historical expansion westwards. We would visit all eight of the route's States on the way to Los Angeles - Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.
The route's starting point is near Chicago's Lake Michigan. Our objective was to reach Los Angeles, or more specifically, the end of the road at Santa Monica on California's Pacific coast.
Sadly, it is not possible to travel the old road in its entirety. Big sections have been incorporated into the interstate highway system and built over, been cut through by the newer highway, or simply dug up and carted away. In those cases, we had to travel on the interstate but the relevant exit signs were marked with Route 66 symbols, indicating where it was possible to rejoin the old road. That way, it was possible to drive on long sections of the route, taking in many old towns bypassed by the interstates.
On a journey of two weeks, there was plenty of time to contemplate the fascinating history and statistics of this veteran road.
Like the fact Route 66 was commissioned in November 1926; the original route distance from Chicago to Santa Monica Pier was 3917km; Oklahoma has the most driveable miles on Route 66 - 432 (691km); a key reference was made to Route 66 in the 1939 John Steinbeck novel, The Grapes of Wrath; the fact that Bobby Troup wrote the generation-defining song (Get Your Kicks on) Route 66 while driving to California to try to break into show business; the reality that the demise of Route 66 as a national highway came about because president Dwight D. Eisenhower had been impressed with Germany's autobahns during the war and believed America needed a more efficient road system.
More importantly, there were the people we met along the way. Like the two women in the museum and welcome centre at Joliet, Illinois, who made it their personal mission to pass on their love of Route 66 to us and make sure we knew about every interesting route stop all the way to the Missouri border. Their advice and stories were more than helpful. Or the family who have operated the Snow Cap diner in Seligman, Arizona, since it was opened in the early 1950s and still do brisk business in food and wacky humour.
We were fascinated by the passing parade of signs outside the multitude of motels, hotels, cafes, diners and trading posts on Route 66. One of the best-looking neon signs along the entire route is at the Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico, built in the 1940s. Not to mention the many restored gas stations, like the Standard Oil Company Station at Odell, Illinois, which provided important services to motorists during the heyday of Route 66.
Landmark sites of historical and cultural importance abound. Rangers at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, Illinois, provided a comprehensive tour of president Abraham Lincoln's lovingly preserved two-storey home. The El Rancho Hotel in Gallup, New Mexico, was a favourite overnight stop for us.
A national historic site, the 75- year-old El Rancho was the hotel of choice for Hollywood stars when making films in the area. The likes of Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Kirk Douglas and Ronald Reagan are listed on its guest register. Its lobby is breathtaking and the quaint guestrooms are named after film stars.
Route 66 is not just about smaller towns. Several big cities on the journey westwards have absorbed the route into their city limits. The Gateway Arch at St Louis, Missouri, commemorates the city's role in the westward expansion of the US. A small viewing area inside the top of the 200m arch gave us amazing views of the city and the Mississippi River.
At Oklahoma City, we were emotionally moved by the memorial to the 168 victims of the bombing of a Federal building in the heart of the city in 1995. Our mood was more joyous at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum with its superbly recreated western town, galleries honouring the American cowboy and Native Americans and a major collection of art of the American west. There is even a display devoted to the history and types of barbed wire.
At Santa Fe, Route 66 follows some of the fabled Santa Fe Trail into America's oldest capital city, rich in history and culture. The campus of the excellent New Mexico History Museum contains the nation's oldest government building, the 400-year-old Palace of the Governors, dating from Spanish colonial times.
Route 66 has its share of towns that have seen better days, their fall into hard times largely brought about by the advent of the interstate highway system. Just about every business and shopfront in the main street of the small village of Depew, Oklahoma, was boarded up, while Texola, near the Oklahoma-Texas State line, had been reduced to a population of just 26 and not much else.
As we had been keenly anticipating in the lead-up to our road trip, it was packed with "only in America" moments. Like the 7m Gemini Giant eyeing passing traffic at Wilmington, Illinois, a throwback to the days of tall roadside figures that promoted automotive muffler shops in the 1950s and 60s.
The 1898 round barn and modern-day pop bottle stood out at Arcadia, Oklahoma. The quirky Cadillac Ranch just outside Amarillo, Texas, could be interpreted as a type of shrine to the motor vehicle where old cars rise out of the ground in a field beside the road. Travellers can pay homage by spray-painting the cars.
Just down the road in Amarillo, the Big Texan Steak Ranch challenges diners to tackle a 72-ounce (2kg) steak. Those willing to take up the challenge to devour the steak and side dishes within an hour on a raised stage in full view of other diners get the meal free of charge.
Some, including a 63-year-old grandmother, have made short work of the slab of meat in the past, but many with eyes bigger than their stomach have failed dismally, including the bloke who fancied his chances the night we were tucking into a more moderately sized Texas steak. About 15 minutes in and it was clear he had no hope.
As I looked over the Pacific at Santa Monica Pier at the end of our road trip, I contemplated whether Route 66 would be around in a decade. While some States have moved to give historical recognition to structures on their sections of the famous road, other parts, along with the associated towns, are deteriorating to the extent one wonders what will be left in 10 years. Maybe it is time for the entire remaining Route 66 to be placed on America's National Register of Historic Places.
I'm sure the women at Joliet would be pleased to see that.Gary Hartree travelled on a 14-day Historic Route 66 tour with Trek America's Grand American Adventures. The itinerary included detours to the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas. trekamerica.com
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