Ever since I can remember it had been an itch I had to scratch.
An iconic travel adventure to fire the imagination like no other. Steinbeck. Easy Rider. Drifters, Beats, hustlers, nomads, rock’n’roll songs, burning sunsets over the American desert. Few roads can rival Route 66 for sheer romance or the symbolism of freedom and adventure.
Our truck pulls onto Central Avenue in Albuquerque, New Mexico, early in the morning. It’s quiet. Cruising by, I can’t help but notice how many of the buildings are boarded up or in a state of decline. Beneath a bluebird sky, a sign reads “Disco” in giant red letters beside a shell of a building.
We pull up outside De Anza Motor Lodge, the first of a handful of Route 66 sights scribbled in my notebook. Before an unremarkable, vaguely retro building, there are a couple of well-preserved art deco hotel signs, a car park invaded by weeds and the unmistakable whiff of anticlimax.
Back in the 1940s and early ’50s this would have been a very different scene.
As a major Route 66 thoroughfare, there were close to 100 hotels and motels as well as bars, diners and a steady stream of polished Chevrolets, Plymouths and Pontiacs. Naively perhaps, my mind’s eye had conjured too much of yesteryear’s grandeur to make easy bedfellows with reality, but the truth is, Route 66 as it once was doesn’t really exist any more.
All this all started a few weeks back after my friend’s wife was offered a new job in New York. The company had gladly offered to cover all relocation expenses, all but the most important item; his beloved 1955 Ford F100 pick-up truck.
And so we find ourselves driving coast to coast from San Francisco with the mutual goal of tackling at least some of America’s historic Mother Road.
Nowadays, it’s sometimes confusing to navigate. Since decertification in June 1985, negotiating it essentially involves hopping off major interstates periodically to tackle specific sections now designated, “Historic Route 66”.
Through New Mexico, much of this is now on I-40 and plunging south-east from the alpine capital of Santa Fe, we traverse swaths of it without much of a plan.
Further east, the roads are quiet, potholed and flanked by a morose, bucolic landscape dotted with old barns and buildings now little more than ghostly shells.
We stop at abandoned gas stations to photograph the truck in all its vintage baby-blue glory, peer through the cracked windows of empty motels and try to imagine the padlocked shops and businesses in their prime as fleets of cumulus clouds roll in off the desolate plains.
Among the decay though, are some surprising contradictions.
In urgent need of coffee and cheeseburgers, we pull up at Penny’s Diner, a gleaming ’50s Airstream trailer in a sleepy hollow town off I-285. Inside there’s a jukebox, a black and white chequered floor and a countertop behind which a beautiful waitress makes it clear this was far from her calling in life.
Further on in the town of Tucumcari, we catch our first glimpse of Route 66 in a different light.
It’s dark when we roll in, but the gloom is sporadically punctuated by the gaudy blaze of neon. Above a sign reading “Motel Safari” sits a giant neon camel while a few blocks further on, the swooping avian outline of The Blue Swallow Motel lures us in.
As a notable historic Route 66 landmark, this place would ordinarily be booked out weeks in advance but as it’s winter, we manage to bag the last available room.
Established in 1939, The Blue Swallow had the same owner for more than 40 years but was most recently taken over by Kevin Mueller and his family, who moved to New Mexico for a project that might facilitate an escape from the rat race.
Their love and attention to detail towards the property is abundantly clear; each room has carefully selected vintage stylings and furnishings, from the beds to the telephones and even personalised neon signs out front. It has become a much-loved institution for vintage car heads and nostalgics and as we park the truck in the room’s private garage, we strike up easy conversation with an elderly couple making a similar odyssey in a 1987 Corvette.
The heyday of Route 66 as a transportation hub has undoubtedly passed; its death knell effectively sounded by the flourish of President Eisenhower’s pen as he signed the Interstate Highway Act in 1956. But in a strange way the Mother Road is experiencing a new dawn.
“The present-day Route 66 travellers are looking for an escape from the modern, sterile, homogeneous world of today,” says Mueller.
“They want to experience some of the mystery and adventure of the open landscape, an uncrowded highway, and a good old-fashioned road trip. They want to see unique places and meet interesting people, to make new memories along this road that has inspired people to do that since 1926. These adventures can happen on any forgotten two-lane highway, but no others can match the nostalgia of Route 66.”
Our journey continues east where we stop at more landmarks and museums before skimming the top of Texas. We check out Cadillac Ranch, a bizarre art installation near Amarillo comprising 10 Cadillacs buried nose down in the ground, where visitors are encouraged to add their own artistic flourishes to the cars’ bodywork using spray paint.
There are other sights too, but really, it’s about our interactions with people, the brooding Americana landscapes from another time, the individuals living day to day, just doing what they can to get by. Wherever we go, most are happy to take the time to hear our story or tell us theirs.
Soon our journey sees us tearing east towards Oklahoma City before veering south, back to the main interstates, back to the mainstream fold of a country that’s as rich and complex as it is troubled and divided.
Where the American Dream feels increasingly as cracked and potholed as the Mother Road that once connected it.
FIVE MORE ROUTE 66 ATTRACTIONS
OKLAHOMA ROUTE 66 MUSEUM, CLINTON
Operated by the Oklahoma Historical Society, this is a fun exhibit tracing the earliest origins of Route 66 to its present day. See clintonokla.org
BLUE WHALE OF CATOOSA, OKLAHOMA
Built as a bizarre 34th wedding anniversary present, this epic whale installation on a pond east of downtown Catoosa makes for an entertaining photo opp. See travelok.com
FANTASTIC CAVERNS, MISSOURI
Discovered in 1862 by an Ozarks farmer, this elaborate cave system can now be toured by jeep pulled trams. Located north-west of Springfield, Missouri. See fantasticcaverns.com
WIGWAM MOTEL, ARIZONA
Break up your journey with a night sleeping in a giant wigwam, only one that’s fitted with deluxe beds, power shower and all mod cons. See sleepinawigwam.com
SANTA MONICA PIER, CALIFORNIA
Mark the end of your journey with a photo next to the iconic “End of the Trail” sign that serves as the official last stop on Route 66 at the century old pier. See santamonicapier.org
Guy Wilkinson travelled Route 66 at his own expense.