Route 66 received its official designation as a highway in 1926, making 2016 its 90th birthday. The road is immortalised in pop culture, with songs written about it (such as Bobby Troup’s Route 66), movies set along it (Disney-Pixar’s Cars, Thelma & Louise, and Easy Rider), and numerous nicknames (such as the ‘Mother Road’, ‘The Great Diagonal Way’ and ‘America’s Highway’). Despite its start and end points in Chicago and Los Angeles, it doesn’t hit any of the USA’s major iconic cities. So what is it about this road that has captured the imagination of road-trippers around the world?
Where it all began
The road was conceived in the 1920s as a way to connect the industry of the East with the new boomtowns of the West. In the process, it travelled through much of small-town America, giving many towns in the Midwest their first access to a major road. In the 1930s, it became synonymous with the Great Depression as part of the great migration of people from East to West in search of opportunity, immortalised by John Steinbeck in his novel ‘The Grapes of Wrath’.
After World War II, the road fell into disrepair and was replaced by Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System, eventually becoming decommissioned as a highway in the 1980s. But it is still one of those must-do road trips that many people have on their bucket lists, largely due to its association with classic Americana. Although you can see some famous sights such as St Louis’ Gateway Arch and the Grand Canyon along the way, the main attractions of the route are old-time drive-in diners, soda shops, motels and gas stations.
Route 66 is an unravelled tarmac monument to classic Americana kitsch. There are places like Cadillac Ranch, near Amarillo, Texas, where ten old graffiti-covered Cadillacs stick nose-down in the ground. There’s the Wigwam Motel in San Bernadino, where each room is actually a large concrete tepee. Then there are the ‘world’s largests’: the catsup bottle, the rocking chair, and the totem pole, each of which are found along the route. And if none of that takes your fancy, perhaps you might be tempted by the Barbed Wire Museum or Kansas’s haunted bordello or Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch? And for fans of the Eagles, you can visit Standing on the Corner Park in Winslow, Arizona.
The blue skies of the Mojave Desert.
Although Route 66 misses a few of the USA’s outdoor ‘classics’ (Yellowstone and Yosemite to name the most obvious two), it’s still a gorgeous drive. And for nature lovers, there’s plenty to hold your attention. The Grand Canyon is the obvious drawcard, which you’ll come upon as you drive west from Albuquerque New Mexico, but there’s also the Mississippi River (you’ll cross it at St Louis), Arizona’s incredible painted desert and Petrified Forest National Park – a weird moonscape of alien strata, cone-shaped hills and fossilised Jurassic trees. The most beautiful stretch of the Route though, in our opinion, is the unbroken emptiness of the Mojave Desert; the road unspools across the plain with nothing to break up the space, save the occasional sand dune or Joshua tree. Drive in a shoulder season when the road is quieter, and you’ll feel like a lone survivor on an unexplored planet.
A taste of the real America
People often forget that Route 66 passes through some of the country’s most interesting local cuisine. Start the trip with a deep dish pizza in Chicago (The Art of Pizza is widely considered the best), grab a toasted ravioli in St Louis, sit down to a massive T-Bone in Amarillo, Texas (The Big Texan Steak Ranch serves a 2 kilogram monster) and norteño Mexican food in Santa Fe, a local signature style built around chilli, beans, squash and corn. By the time you reach the West Coast, your system will be craving a serious detox, so cleanse the palette with a classic LA green smoothie (Nekter Juice Bar near Santa Monica pier is the place to go).
The combination of cityscapes, farmland, deserts and quirky tourist attractions is what makes this journey so special. In addition, it’s one of the best journeys for meeting local people and getting to know the real America outside of the large cities. Bring an open mind, a copy of Steinbeck or Kerouac, load your iPod up with the Eagles, Nat King Cole and Chuck Berry, and your sense of curiosity. Just leave the calorie counting at home.
Ready to get your kicks? Drive Route 66 on Intrepid Travel’s epic USA road adventure.