I have often written about my joy of driving the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP), but only a few times have I mentioned another one of my road trip goals to drive the famous US Route 66 (Good Roads!). For anyone living in the United States, this is probably the most widely recognized highway in the country, often referred to as “the Mother Road.” And given the number of international Route 66 fan clubs there are, it is not just a US phenomenon. Sadly, the road does not exist today as it once did, since it was decommissioned as a US highway in 1985.
It’s demise, like many other US highways built in the early 20thcentury, were replaced or obsoleted with the building of the US interstate highway system. Another reason for US Route 66 being decommissioned is that having opened in 1926, a number of the original bridges were in need of significant repairs. With highway maintenance dollars scarce, it just became too difficult to justify the bridge repair expenditure on such a less traveled road. But despite these issues, people’s love for this iconic road have not diminished but probably have even grown.
Most US highways are predominately laid out on East-West coordinates (even numbered roads) or North-South routes (odd numbered roads) using a two-digit number identifier with those numbers ending in “0” or “5” designated as major roads and all other numbers considered secondary roads. Route 66 is somewhat unique in that it begins in downtown Chicago, Illinois and then follows a southwesterly direction through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma before turning due west towards Los Angeles cutting across Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California for a total of 2,450 miles.
If you are interested in learning how this distinctively numbered road came into existence, reading Father of Route 66: The Story of Cy Avery by Susan Croce Kelly will provide an excellent history. When I read this book in 2015, it made me want to drive the road even more.
But another book I have read more recently, Route 66: America’s Longest Small Town by Jim Hinckley really got me itching to jump in the car and hit the road. This book follows the road through each of the eight states highlighting some of the most famous sites that one would want to see along the way. And in the very first chapter, it was interesting to learn that in the state of Illinois, the small town of Carlinville was viewed as the crown jewel along Route 66, which just so happens to be my son-in-law’s birthplace and where I got one of my first chances to drive along part of Route 66.
But this book also pointed out that it is more difficult today to drive Route 66 than it has been in the past for not just the causes previously mentioned. Another reason I never considered is that over its lifetime as an active US highway, a number of sections were rerouted, in some places as many as three or four times as communities grew or shrunk. So, it is impossible to say that you are going to drive the entire route since there are numerous parallel sections and some sections that have been plowed under by other roads (only about 85% of the original road still exists).
Although Radiator Springs is just a mythical town in the 2006 Pixar movie, Cars, it accurately portrays what happened to many small-town communities when they were bypassed by the building of Interstate 40 which traverses much of Route 66’s East-West routing. Fittingly, many of the main characters in Cars were inspired by real life individuals that the creators met and interviewed along Route 66 as they took a road trip in preparation for making the movie. And yes, there was even a real “Fabulous Hudson Hornet” which led to the creation of the character Doc Hudson, voiced over by Paul Newman.
On a recent trip to San Francisco with a layover connection in Los Angeles, I realized as we flew high above the “flyover country”, that I had traversed much of Route 66 in the air. To bring the point even more to home, as I was walking through one of the terminals in LAX, I found a recreation of one of the famous restaurants along the way.
And serendipitously, as I drove home after returning to Memphis, I was listening to the NPR show Car Talk (Tom and Ray’s voices are also featured in Cars), a show I had not listened to since Tom died in 2014, when incredibly one of the callers was planning a Route 66 road trip celebration with his father and was asking what the ultimate car would be to drive Route 66.
I could not imagine how the stars could align any better to serve as motivation for me to do this. And as I was turning the last few pages of the book, I was further reminded that I had previously driven along another portion of Route 66 on the famous Colorado Boulevard, and even stayed in the equally famous Saga Inn on my first trip to Pasadena to visit my first grandson.
So now I have to decide when I will take this road trip. The year I drove the Blue Ridge Parkway, it was the 75th celebration of its opening making that a special trip for me.
The next celebration for Route 66 will be its centennial in 2026 but I don’t think I want to wait that long. It may just be I need to wait until I don’t have regular granddaddy duties so I can take a multi-week road trip. Because that will probably be what it takes to do it right, to see all the things I would want to see and to ultimately “get my kicks on Route 66.”
But then again, maybe some of my more car-loving grandchildren will actually want to get their kicks on Route 66 with me!