Get Your Kicks on Route 66September 26, 2011 No Comments
Sometimes I think I was born in the wrong era. Although you would never know it to look at me, I would have been a great child of the 1950s. I love poodle skirts and saddle shoes, malt shops and car hops, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. But nothing retro makes me happier than a good old-fashioned road trip. Interstates are fine for getting from point A to point B in a hurry, but to me, roadside Americana is where it’s at. So naturally, I was thrilled to discover that portions of Route 66 are still drivable.
What Is Route 66?
One of America’s earliest highways, Route 66 opened in 1926. Sometimes known as the Mother Road, the 2,448 mile road connected Chicago to Los Angeles. It played a major role in the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s, but tourism forever linked Route 66 with the car culture of the 1950s and 1960s.
Passing directly through major tourist stops and tiny towns, the road gave birth to a new form of tourism–the roadside attraction. Giant concrete tepees, gemstone shops, oversized advertising icons, live animal exhibits…the race was on to develop bigger and better attractions to lure passing motorists and their precious discretionary dollars. Route 66 has even been credited with the proliferation of the fast food industry–in the newly mobile car culture, travelers didn’t always want to take time for a full sit-down meal. From the first McDonald’s to the first drive-through, much of what we now take for granted was developed along Route 66.
Route 66 Today
Ironically, Route 66 was largely killed by the same thing that made it an icon–progress. By the mid-1950s, the new car culture had created another new phenomenon–traffic. In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, authorizing funding for the construction of 41,000 miles of interstate highways over the next 20 years. Gradually portions of Route 66 were swallowed up or bypassed by the new interstates.
Though much of it was already gone, Route 66 was officially decommissioned in 1985. But historic associations banded together to preserve what was left. In 1999, President Bill Clinton signed the National Route 66 Preservation Bill, which provided $10 million in matching grants for historic preservation along the route. Portions of the highway are designated state or local historic places, and most of the remaining route is marked with Historic Route 66 signs.
Dad and I got our first glimpse of Route 66 in Williams, Arizona. Home of the Grand Canyon Railway, the city of Williams was everything I expected an old Route 66 town to be. Kitschy shops and 1950s-style diners served as the backdrop for nightly Old West gunfights. The tiny town was warm, welcoming and filled with roadside fun. A day in nearby Flagstaff taught us that Williams is not the only place that celebrates its status as an old Route 66 town.
Leaving Williams, our goal was to drive as much of Route 66 as possible to Kingman, in extreme western Arizona. The route continues a bit further to Oatman, Arizona and then south to Toprock, Arizona, but we were warned that the hairpin turns and steep mountain grades were not appropriate for our RV.
We had to merge onto I-40 just outside Williams, but we took the first exit that mentioned Route 66 on the interstate sign. This took us to Ash Fork, Arizona. As it turns out, Ash Fork is a terrific little town with a great roadside museum, but its segment of Route 66 dead-ends just past the museum. So we picked up a Route 66 guide and made a U-turn (quite a feat when pulling a 27-foot travel trailer!) back to the interstate.
We exited again at Seligman, Arizona. This is the beginning of the longest remaining section of Route 66, at 160 miles from Seligman to Kingman. The road veers significantly north of the interstate, making it feel as if we had entered a completely different time.
Here the road passes through quiet farmland and billboards are nowhere to be found. But all of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere, I saw something I thought I would never get to see (that whole being born in the wrong era thing)…Burma Shave signs! I squealed with excitement and grabbed the camera, causing my father, who grew up in the Burma Shave era, to disintegrate into fits of laughter.
Introduced in 1925, Burma Shave could have been just another brushless shaving cream if not for a series of gas station signs. A member of the founding Odell family realized that if sequential signs could lure motorists to a particular filling station, they could also convince people to buy a particular product. The cute advertising jingles were divided into five parts and painted onto unassuming roadside signs. A sixth sign read simply “Burma Shave.”
The signs were an instant hit. By the 1930s, they could be found all across the country. Like Route 66 itself, Burma Shave signs became an indelible part of the American car culture. But like all good things, the Burma Shave campaign eventually came to an end. The company was purchased by Phillip Morris in 1963. By this time, the expanding highway system made the small roadside signs impractical, and Phillip Morris officially ended the campaign.
Whether the signs on Route 66 are authentic or recreations I don’t know, but Dad assured me that the jingles were authentic to Burma Shave’s history. Reading the signs was great fun and surprisingly addictive. I definitely see why they were so popular in their heyday.
There were just enough small towns to break up the drive nicely. It was truly like stepping back in time, photographing buildings and random roadside attractions that have changed little since their creation in the first half of the 20th century.
These spots also provide great opportunities to get out of the car and stretch your legs. In places that were bypassed by the interstates, friendly folks wait to welcome you, genuinely excited that you stopped by. In this era of increasingly crowded tourist destinations and impersonal service, it’s worth the trouble to discover America’s small towns, where real hospitality is a way of life.