Rediscovering the Mother Road: Route 66

RVing Route 66

2064403_the_mother_road_5.jpgIn 1985, cross-country adventurers lost a loved one when the federal government officially decommissioned Route 66, consigning the Mother Road to the graveyard of inefficient highways.

The iconic Route 66, which ran approximately 2,400 miles from Chicago to Texas and then west to Los Angeles, captured the imagination of travelers for decades. In the 1930s, Dust Bowl farmers followed the route’s dirt, gravel and paved paths, seeking promises of a better future in California, and author John Steinbeck immortalized the road in his classic 1939 novel Grapes of Wrath. In the 1940s, returning GIs traveled America’s Main Street, caught up in the postwar optimism. Then, in the ’50s and ’60s, growing numbers of middle-class vacationers explored 66, inspiring roadside attractions such as teepee motels, neon-signed cafes and tourist oddities.

But the good times didn’t roll forever. As vacationers motored the Mother Road, President Eisenhower championed a new interstate system. The interstate eventually took over Route 66 and bypassed the now-abandoned towns along its edges.

But nostalgia has renewed an interest in the old icon. Americans, plus many foreign visitors, are seeking vestiges of that postwar era when the journey mattered as much as the destination. Rejecting the get-there-now allure of the interstate, they trace the remaining portions of Route 66. As shown in Cars, Disney/Pixar’s animated movie set along Route 66, many of the old towns and sites are still out there, waiting to be rediscovered.

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To explore Route 66 today, guidebooks – for example, Jerry McClanahan’s Route 66: EZ66 Guide for Travelers – offer advice on orchestrating a turn-by-turn tour. You can take off on a cross-country adventure or focus on a specific area – such as the section of Route 66 that runs through the state of Arizona. Arizona offers the longest remaining continuous section of 66, many attractions from its heyday and stunning views of mesas and desert landscapes.

In Arizona, portions of 66 no longer exist, so you’ll be dependent on Interstate 40 at times. Starting in the east side of the state, Route 66 remains as a collection of frontage and local roads. There, you can visit old 66 towns such as Lupton, Houck, Sanders, Chambers and Navajo. Or you can head straight to Petrified Forest National Park, once the first major stop along 66 in Arizona, to find the ghosts of travelers past.

Once upon a time, the national park was one of the most popular destinations for weary Route 66 travelers. It’s actually two parks rolled into one – with multi-hued badlands of the Painted Desert in its northern section and desert fields of fascinating 225-million-year-old petrified logs to the south.

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You can spend several hours exploring the park’s wonders along its scenic drive, but be sure to stop where a 1932 Studebaker sits just off a pull out. There, a line of telephone poles eerily mark where Route 66 once cut through the park. Hop out of your coach, read the roadside exhibit, listen to the wind and imagine those ghosts of a bygone motoring day.

From the park, you can head to the nearby town of Holbrook and pick up 66 as it runs through town. On the left, check out the teepees of the Wigwam Motel – one of the few remaining relics from a chain of Wigwam Motels that once invited travelers to spend a night in a teepee. Even with your motorhome, you’ll want to pull into the large parking lot and check out the teepees and vintage cars. Or better yet, you can leave the rig for a night and experience one of the cone-shaped rooms for yourself.

After Holbrook, follow I-40 to Joseph City and the Jack Rabbit Trading Post, a fixture on Route 66 since 1949. Just look for its famous “Here It Is” billboard. This region offers many trading posts, but the Jack Rabbit is one of the most famous.

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From Joseph City, continue on the interstate to Route 66 and the town of Winslow. If you’re an Eagles fan, then you’ll recognize “Winslow, Arizona,” from their 1972 hit, Take it Easy. There’s an actual corner in the town with a small park that commemorates the song, offering a slice of hallowed ground for Eagles fans. At the same intersection, there’s a visitor center, plus a few shops offering plenty of Route 66, Eagles and Winslow souvenirs.

Moving on, you can take I-40 for another 20 miles to Exit 233. There, visit Meteor Crater – another popular destination for Route 66 travelers. Approximately 50,000 years ago, a meteorite weighing several hundred thousand tons crashed into the Arizona desert. With a force greater than 20 million tons of TNT, it blasted a hole 4,000 feet across and 700 feet deep. You can visit the crater and let your mind be blown away by the thought of the collision that once took place here.

Current-day Route 66 catches its stride in Flagstaff, where it serves as the town’s main street. With about 60,000 residents, Flagstaff is northern Arizona’s largest city and sits at the base of the San Francisco Peaks, the state’s highest mountain range. At 7,000 feet, it’s bordered by large ponderosa pine forests.

Along 66, you’ll find plenty of vintage motels, diners and the famous Museum Club, a roadhouse built in 1931. You can also visit one of Flagstaff’s most popular attractions – the Lowell Observatory. One of the oldest observatories in the country, it was founded in 1894 by Percival Lowell, an astronomer who studied Mars. The observatory offers guided tours, exhibits and a space theater, but the highlight comes at night, when visitors can view the universe through the observatory’s telescopes – including the telescope Lowell used to view Mars. Sedona – with its red sandstone formations – and Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument are also within 30 miles of Flagstaff.

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West of Flagstaff, Williams offers many vestiges of Route 66, but it’s best known as the gateway to the Grand Canyon, which lies just 60 miles north. Williams also serves as the departing depot for the famous Grand Canyon Railway, which takes visitors into the heart of the park. 

After Williams, you can kiss the interstate goodbye as you pull onto the longest remaining section of Route 66. An early stop along the continuous portion, and a must-see for Route 66 enthusiasts, is the town of Seligman. There, you should get a hamburger or an ice-cream cone at the Snow Cap Drive-In, built from scrap lumber by Juan Delgadillo in 1953. Today, his grown children continue Juan’s tradition of serving up antics and jokes along with their food, making it a popular draw along the route.

Another famous stop is a block away: Angel and Vilma Delgadillo’s Route 66 Gift Shop and Visitor Center. Angel, known as the “Guardian Angel of Route 66,” spearheaded efforts to preserve the road in Arizona as a historic highway. For decades, Angel ran a barbershop in the building, but his business eventually evolved into one of the best gift shops along the route. The building’s décor stands as it did 50 years ago.

Thirty minutes down the road, a large roadside dinosaur will welcome you to the Grand Canyon Caverns. The limestone formations, creating the largest dry cavern in the nation, are found more than 200 feet underground. Daily tours take visitors down elevators and along lighted trails to view the rooms, passages and fascinating crystals.

Near the caverns, the Native Americans of the Hualapai Nation offer visitors several Grand Canyon experiences, including river rafting and the Skywalk – a glass-bottom bridge that extends 70 feet over the canyon. 

Another 35 minutes farther, you can stop at the Hackberry General Store. Like Angel Delgadillo’s shop, this place offers plenty of Route 66 souvenirs, but the outside of the store is a sight to see as well. There, you’ll find vintage gas pumps, classic-era signs, and a candy-cane-red ’56 Corvette – reminding travelers of the iconic car driven in the 1960s television series, Route 66. 

After Hackberry, the Mother Road intersects I-40 at the town of Kingman. Because of the interstate, Kingman isn’t sleepy like many Route 66 towns. For Route 66 aficionados, the town’s highlight is the Powerhouse Visitor Center, home of the Historic Route 66 Association of Arizona – the association Angel Delgadillo helped form to save the highway.

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The large, converted powerhouse, located a block from the Mohave Museum of History and Arts, contains a Route 66 Museum with exhibits depicting the evolution of travel along the road. The visitor center’s staff is available to answer questions about any segment of the Mother Road.

From Kingman, you can head to the ghost town of Oatman, but first you’ll need to choose which way to travel. If you’re seeking adventure and driving a smaller size motorhome, you can travel Route 66 through the lonely Mojave Desert and over Sitgreaves Pass. The pass crosses the Black Mountains, and in the early days of 66, Model T travelers had to drive backward over the pass to keep the fuel flowing to the engine.

Not for the faint of heart or long of carriage, the winding road has no guardrails and is limited to vehicles less than 40 feet long. But it is beautiful and offers that authentic middle-of-the-desert experience. The alternate route is to take I-40 to Topock and backtrack to Oatman.

Half a million people make it to Oatman each year, drawn by the Old West buildings, the gun fights and shotgun weddings, and the wild burros. The burros are descendants of burros once used (and then abandoned) by the nearby gold mine operations. They saunter into Oatman during the day looking for easy food – usually provided by tourists who buy carrots for them in town – then lope back to the hills in the evening. Oatman offers plenty of unique shops, plus the historic Oatman Hotel where Clark Gable and Carole Lombard stayed during their honeymoon. From Oatman, continue on Route 66, through the towns of Golden Shores and Topock, to I-40 just before the California border.

RVers have an inherent desire for independence and a drive to explore the vast, sometimes lonely stretches of our country. By seeking the remaining sections of the old Mother Road, they can rediscover the spirit that helped start the auto tourist movement.

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