Getting Some Kicks on Route 66

Route 66 Cadillac Ranch near Amarillo TX by Bruce Appelbaum

Almost at random, the idea of driving Route 66 came up among my friends from the UK and I (a New Yorker). While we did some planning, the idea was to meet at LAX and drive as far east as we could on main roads before driving back along Route 66. On the way east, we did make a couple of side trips (Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Sedona, etc.) but will save those photos for another time.

Route 66 is almost entirely a memory. With the opening of I-40 and its 75mph speed limit, there was little reason to drive the slow road. To a large extent, it has either become part of I-40, or become the north or south frontage road. While there are lots of small sections still open, the largest single section is in Arizona, from west of Flagstaff to almost the California border.

So we drove into Oklahoma, getting off I-40 in Texola OK, just across the TX/OK border. Pretty much a ghost town, with apparently fewer than 20 inhabitants, lots of abandoned houses and businesses. The only place open was a cafe/gift shop (the first of many).

From Texola, we made our way back into Texas, stopping in Shamrock to photograph the restored Magnolia gas station (not selling gasoline, but looking pretty). There were a few other restored gas stations along our drive, some mixing and matching gasoline pumps from different brands.

Continuing west, after Amarillo (the largest city in the narrow Texas panhandle) we stopped at Cadillac ranch. As an “art” project, somebody decided to literally plant 10 old Cadillacs in the earth in the middle of an open field. You can bring your own spray paint and graffiti to your heart’s content. An enterprising young man set up a tailgate store outside the fence, selling jewelry made from paint chips off the vehicles.

Further west, in Glenrio TX, adjacent to the TX/NM border, we stopped to photograph yet another abandoned motel and cafe. When I-40 was completed, it replaced much of Route 66. Some of the route is now part of I-40, partly forms the frontage road on the north or south side of the interstate. But the fast road made the need to have places to stay along the slower route obsolete.

The abandoned shop in Cuervo NM had a similar fate — local traffic is now non-existent.

Outside of Houck AZ, some enterprising person decided to build sort of a replica of Fort Courage from the old F Troop tv show of the 1960s. Basically a tourist trap, with a few fast-food restaurants and buildings resembling Fort Courage (now in bad shape), the site is for sale. Any takers?

Just outside of Joseph City AZ is the Jackrabbit Trading Post, selling souvenirs and cold drinks. It apparently has survived being bypassed. I bought a bottle of Route 66 lime soda there — 12 ounces for $2.50. A bit on the expensive side but it hit the spot.

Twin Arrows AZ is a true ghost town. Accessed by an exit from I-40, it is on the south frontage road and consists of the eponymous arrows in the ground and the remains of an abandoned gas station. The I-40 exit apparently services the farmers and ranchers. Route 66 dead-ends a couple of hundred yards west of the arrows and has been merged into I-40.

Peach Springs AZ is the home of the former Frontier Motel. Not much else there.

Oatman AZ is on one of the longest sections of Route 66, up in the mountains of Arizona — a slow twisty and turny route to get there. Oatman is an old mountain town, probably a mining town, now pretty much given over to tourism. Wild burros live in the hills and have been “tamed” to know that they will find food in town. These two were mooching corn. We were stuck there for a bit over an hour because a huge thunderstorm resulted in Route 66 being closed — luckily the bulldozers were close at hand because, at 5pm, everything in town had already closed. Once the road re-opened, our car and a half dozen others were escorted out by the local fire department.

We did make it from Texola to Santa Monica. The road from San Bernardino to the Pacific Ocean runs through a succession of towns and is incredibly commercial, supporting the Los Angeles exurbs. Strip malls, big malls, single businesses, commercial office buildings. No scenery, just traffic signals every couple of hundred yards.

A couple of things I learned from this trip. First, the interstate killed probably hundreds or thousands of businesses catering to Route 66 travelers. Hotels, motels, gas stations, cafes, trading posts. Second, while there is plenty to see along Route 66, there are also very long stretches of nothing to see except open fields (of course, in the southwest, the desert and mountain scenery is spectacular.

Third, there appears to be no single Route 66 — it had been realigned multiple times over the years, sometimes with more than one way to get from Point A to Point B. For instance, there seem to be at least three alternates from Pasadena to Los Angeles. And along our trip, one path following I-40 through NM while another hooked a right north to Santa Fe.

It was evident how I-40 killed Route 66. Driving along there was little traffic (except local traffic in the towns we passed through, many of which were business loops related to I-40). But on the longer stretches, we rarely saw any other vehicles.

Along the stretch in Texas and parts of New Mexico, we saw thousands of junked vehicles. They were either onesy/twosies on the lawns of private homes or there were dozens or hundreds in scrap yards. They ranged from rusted out hulks to more recent models in fairly decent shape. If you ever wondered where old vehicles go to die, this is the place.

Finally, most of the roadway of what remains of Route 66 is in pretty decent condition, and one can drive on the paved sections at highway speeds — but it is hard to image driving the route at slower speeds because of traffic, road conditions, or other factors.

On the other hand, some of the “decommissioned” sections had the pavement (either asphalt or concrete) stripped and were dirt and gravel roads. Some of these were interesting to drive — literally washboards in sections — and there were warnings posted about not accessing those roads during heavy rains, including signs warning against driving through sections that might have been flooded. There was no drainage, just dry washes that would fill in heavy rains, and the washes often were directed across Route 66.

We did try to be adventurous where we could — driving unpaved sections on gravel and dirt where the road went through. There were plenty of dead-end sections, and we did venture down a few, but not many.

We put 3500 miles on the rental minivan during our expedition. A long strange trip. We passed through many other towns along the way — we stood on a corner in Winslow Arizona; had a lot of chili and burgers, made a few side trips, and saw lots of wide-open spaces.

For the technically minded, the photos were made with a Canon 5D4 and a 24-105mm f/4 zoom. Three bracketed exposures were made of each scene and blended into a high dynamic range (HDR) final exposure using Photomatix. Unfortunately, my circular polarizer bit the dust when my camera bag fell out of the van, but it did protect the lens from damage.