“The Mother Road” and the Resurgence of Route 66
Story by “Chez” Chesak
Photos by Austin Coop, Two Lane America
It’s 2,448 miles of blacktop Americana, stretching from Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, California. It passes through three time zones, eight states, and takes at least two weeks to drive (if you do it right).
Hit songs have been written about it, it once had a TV series named after it, and it has a prominent role in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. It is also the centerpiece of the Pixar film Cars. It is, of course, Route 66, A.K.A. “US 66,” “The Will Rogers Highway,” the “Main Street of America,” or, perhaps most eloquently, “The Mother Road.”
“It’s a road that truly tells the modern history of America. From dustbowl refugees to GIs headed to serve in WWII to post-war families in their massive station-wagons, the Route has carried them all,” says longtime automotive travel writer Austin Coop, founder of the blog Two Lane America. “A trip down Route 66 takes us back to the days when you drove to have a great time, not make great time.”
Austin would know. He estimates that he’s covered some 18,000 miles driving on the route and his blog has an entire section on Route 66 (naturally under “Best Drives”). There are 21 articles there on everything from renown icons along the route (like the Blue Whale of Catoosa), a breakdown of what actual attractions inspired various scenes in ‘Cars, the rise and fall (and then, generally, the rise again) of various businesses along the route, and quite a bit more.
“We are definitely seeing a resurgence of travelers and businesses,” says Bill Thomas of The Palms Grill Café in Atlanta, Illinois (population 1,649). “The first year we began booking bus and large group tours here was 2009. We had four that year. Last year we booked 53.”
Thomas notes that sales tax revenue for the town during peak
tourism months has gone up 43% since they started tracking it in 2009.
Austin can’t help but add that he believes that the Palms Grill Café has the best pie on the entire route. And he can call out plenty of other notable stops along The Mother Road.
“One of my favorite stops along Route 66 is Gary’s Sinclair Station in Gay Parita, Missouri. To find it, you kind of have to know about it. Once you have, though, you’ll never pass by it again. Gary Turner, the founder, was considered the person to go to before the days of GPS if you were making your way out west. Once you’d met Gary, he considered you a friend for life. His daughter and son-in-law now carry on this tradition. They welcome us every year with fresh coffee and plenty of kitschy stuff to see.”
While it’s the most well-known, Austin dispenses the idea that the final segment of the highway, which runs through New Mexico, Arizona and California, is the best part. “While some of these portions are certainly the most scenic, there’s something great in every single state. From the vintage filling stations of Illinois to the caves of Missouri to Cadillac Ranch in Texas, there’s not only something to see in every state, there are also plenty of nice folks to meet along the way.”
But planning a trip down Route 66 isn’t necessarily easy, due to its length and multiple alignments over the years. The original road was designed for narrow little Model-T and Model-A cars, which were so prone to mechanical problems that service stations had to be placed close together. Not only did these cars stop often for gas (their tanks only held 10 gallons and their fuel efficiency was 13-21 MPG) – they had to stop for actual service on their inline 4-cylinder, 20 horsepower engines. As the cars got bigger and more dependable, the road changed too. By the 1950’s, they were trying to update the route into an actual highway, but too often, just built a new highway nearby, cutting off the towns along Route 66 from the passerby traffic.
“Because of these various re-alignments and changes, you can’t just follow a map – or even a GPS,” Austin adds. “Planning can be daunting because of all the shifts [of the route] over the years.”
When he does drive it, Austin likes to ‘do it right’ and really take in the attractions along the way. He drives 4-5 hours a day, takes frequent breaks, and stops for a full day when passing through the three major cities (Albuquerque, Oklahoma City, and St. Louis) to enjoy what they have to offer.
Through his articles and the blog, Austin was getting so many queries about running the route that he decided to start running trips for people himself. “It just got to the point where it just made sense, for everyone,” notes Austin. “And now I’m just really excited to get to share my knowledge and expertise of this classic American experience with people right there, right with me on the road. I’m pumped.”
Thomas is also pumped about the future prospects of Route 66, thanks in part to some legislation. There’s a bill in the Senate that will designate Route 66 a National Historic Trail, putting it in the company of the Lewis & Clark Trail, the Sante Fe Trail, and others. A second bill would establish a National Route 66 100th Anniversary Commission to plan the celebration of the road’s 100th birthday in 2026. That one passed in the House by a vote of 399 to 22 and is now before the Senate.
“The future of Route 66 is very promising,” he adds. “These pieces of legislation, along with the great work being done by the eight different state-level Route 66 associations and the upwell of interest by the general public, makes me believe that more and more people will want to experience this adventure and see what all the fuss is about.”
“Chez” Chesak is a travel writer, tourism consultant and 15-year veteran of the travel industry. He focuses on adventure travel and family travel. He’s lived all over the U.S. and traveled to some 35 countries but has the most fun when he’s exploring with his wife and two daughters.