Kicks, Kitsch & Route 66

By Pat Piper

It's still there, that "Mother Road" of songs and novels. Though broken in places, pushed aside by Interstates and speed, Route 66 continues its work, taking people from Point A to Point B, no matter the distance.

It's been called "America's Main Street" Route 66 was among the first numbered highways authorized in 1926. Then, the 2,400 miles between Chicago and Santa Monica became the path for "Dust Bowlers" to find work in the West during the Great Depression of the 1930s. After Pearl Harbor in 1941, Route 66 was used to move military supplies across the country. More southerly than other roads to the West, Route 66 provided better weather conditions for travel during the winter. "Eighty percent of Route 66 is still there," observes Frank Gifford, a photographer and Route 66 fan who operates the website"In fact, in Texas and parts of Oklahoma, the original concrete used by the Dust Bowl travelers decades earlier can still be seen. I see the road as a destination and when you travel it, your whole perspective is different because you can't do this 'Interstate' style. Instead, you have to be prepared for whatever comes 'round the next bend."

Map of Route 66

Five Interstates run over or parallel to Route 66, but if you can avoid them, that next bend is sure to include mom-and-pop motels, many with signs still offering "Free TV" and gas stations that have been transformed into museums portraying the days when a fill-up included washing the windshield and checking the oil. Route 66 provided a path for America's love affair with their cars to grow and go places. six places along the road where Route 66 is still very much alive and where boats are part of the scenery, too.

Barstow, CA

Bottle Ranches, Tuna Boats, And Classic Cars

Elmer Long operates the Bottle Tree Ranch along Route 66, south of Barstow. He's lived here 42 years and during that time has collected bottles from the desert as well as along the road and attached them to iron rods to create "trees." He started with about 400 trees and there are many more today. "You know, there's a 50-foot shrimp boat not too far from here. Guy brought it here from Santa Monica and left it in a field. Lady that owns the land said, ‘If you want it, it's yours,' so I took a look but couldn't figure out how to haul it here with my Tacoma pickup. I'd fix it up if I could get it here." When you're at the Bottle Tree Ranch, Elmer will tell you that he's a boater but hasn't been out lately. The reason? Well, the boat's filled with bottles.

Following Route 66 south, the next large city is Victorville, where the International Route 66 Festival is scheduled this August 9-12. The daughter of Bobby Troup, who wrote the famous "Route 66" song (see "Route 66 Facts" sidebar), will talk about her father's fascination with this road at the festival. Classic cars, food from 1950s diners, and dancing to 1950s tunes are all part of this celebration.

Flagstaff, AZ

Long Highways

The longest continuous span of Route 66 runs through Arizona between the Colorado River (on the Arizona/California border) and Ash Fork. For nearly 159 miles, the Interstate is generally far away. Then to the east is Flagstaff, so named because a lone pine tree had been stripped of its bark and was used as a trail marker for wagon trains prior to the road being built. Today, you'll see trailer boats passing through Flagstaff en route to Upper Lake Mary, just south of town. Flagstaff is home to the Route 66 Days Charity Car Show, which takes place September 7-9 this year ( More than 100 classic cars will compete for prizes in a variety of categories, ranging from stockcars to modified trucks. Sorry, there's no category (yet) for tow vehicles, but the event is a must-visit for those in the area.

Catoosa, OK

Whales, And Fred & Ethyl

Photo of the Blue Whale in Catoosa, OklahomaThe Blue Whale in Catoosa, Oklahoma, was built with 126 bags of cement and lots of imagination.

The Tulsa suburb of Catoosa has the country's most inland seaport in the United States. This town of almost 7,000 people along Route 66 also has a must see stop: the Blue Whale, an anniversary gift from Hugh S. Davis to his wife who enjoyed collecting figurines. Prior to the whale making an appearance, travelers stopped at the pond to take a swim or a boat ride before continuing their journey. When you're in Oklahoma, Route 66 goes by the name "Will Rogers Highway" in honor of the vaudeville commentator and actor, the state's favorite son.

Next up, Route 66 passes just north of Grand Lake, Oklahoma's largest lake. Laurel Kane is a former sailor from Darien, Connecticut, who decided with her husband to find another way of life. They bought a 1930 DX gas station in Afton a decade ago, fixed it up, and turned it into a Route 66 museum, complete with 15 Packards and a pair of gas pumps named Fred (regular) and Ethyl (ethylene gas — a higher octane than Fred). Gas was 26 cents/gallon back in the '50s. "People have traveled to the East Coast and the West Coast, but Route 66 was always part of what we call 'the flyover,'" she says. "One tour operator brings people from New Zealand to Chicago where they rent Harleys and drive Route 66 to California. Then they fly back to Australia and a new group lands in California, gets on the same Harleys, and rides them back to Chicago. They've seen the old TV series and heard so much about this road. Paul McCartney came through here a few years ago, but sadly, he didn't stop. In the Afton Station Museum you'll see a 1957 Herter Duofoil Flying Fish boat, complete with fins. It goes with the territory. Laurel writes a blog about the variety of visitors who stop by Afton Station.
Check it out at

Eureka, MO

Route 66 Eureka!

Route 66 crosses the Meramec River in Eureka, Missouri, on a bridge built in 1931. But when Interstate 44 was built nearby, there was a movement to tear down the old bridge out of concern it was falling into disrepair. Three years ago, the bridge was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, but it was closed and its fate remains a point of contention. The state will remove the bridge deck (driving surface) this year but the structure will remain. Efforts are underway to raise revenue to make the bridge part of a bike trail through the area. Route 66 State Park is nearby with a free, public boat ramp. Anglers have always talked about the rainbow trout that are found in the river, both from the days of Route 66 to the present.

Springfield, IL

Under Water

Route 66 went right through the Illinois capital until the Spaulding Dam was built across a tributary of the Sangamon River. The result was Lake Springfield but it was also the end of Route 66 because the new lake covered the roadway on the south side of the city. A new bridge was built across the new lake. Though many Route 66 attractions such as Shea's Gas Station Museum and the Cozy Dog Drive-In, are still in business, the original road underneath the lake is now part of the Lake Springfield Marina. Springfield hosts the International Route 66 Mother Road Festival September 21-23.

Route 66 ends, or if you're traveling west, it begins, close to Lou Mitchell's Restaurant on Jackson Boulevard in Chicago. The restaurant was in business three years before Route 66 had its start in 1926. It's still feeding hungry travelers. 

This article was published in the Summer 2012 issue of Trailering Magazine.

Route 66 Facts

Route 66 began in 1926, spanning 2,400 miles from Chicago to Santa Monica, California, crossing eight states and three time zones. Only 800 miles were paved. By 1937, the entire length of Route 66 was paved. In 1985, it was decommissioned as the Interstate Highway System expanded.

  • John Steinbeck talked about Route 66 in The Grapes of Wrath, calling it "the mother road" and "the road of flight" to describe the movement by thousands to the West, seeking a better life as the nation came out of the Great Depression.
  • The TV series, "Route 66," ran from 1960-1964 and guest stars included Robert Redford, Joan Crawford, Martin Sheen, Julie Newmar, and Ethel Waters, among others.
  • A study by Rutgers and the State University of New Jersey for the National Park Service found that Route 66 travelers spend $132 million each year touring the road. Sixty percent travel from east to west.
  • "Get Your Kicks on Route 66" was written by Bobby Troup during a trip to California in 1946, and later recorded by Nat King Cole. The song has been recorded by the Rolling Stones and John Mayer, and is even a ringtone for cellphones.


Where The Mother Road Crossed The Mississippi

Photo of the Chain of Rocks bridgeLike many of the original bridges that were part of Route 66, the Chain of Rocks Bridge crossing the Mississippi River 14 miles north of St. Louis between Illinois and Missouri, is no longer in use... for cars. Today, the 5,353-foot long span is a pedestrian/bike path across the Big Muddy. One quirk in the Chain of Rocks bridge is the design of a 22 degree turn that provided southbound tugs and barges an easier channel to follow so as not to slam into a pair of water intake towers on the south side of the bridge (the towers provide water for St. Louis). The original pavement of the bridge remains in place and one can imagine potential problems as cars made the sharp turn without crossing into the opposite lane.



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