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

Photo of Elmer Long of Bottle Tree Ranch
Bottle Tree Ranch owner Elmer Long pulls a bottle out of his boat for Route 66 travelers.

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

Photo of the Santa Fe railroad in Flagstaff, AZ
The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad runs parallel to Route 66 through Flagstaff, Arizona, with the San Francisco Peaks in the background.

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.

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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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