Jim Conkle, 71, vividly remembers his first trip on U.S. Route 66—piling into his family’s 1939 Plymouth sedan with his parents and three siblings and riding for days from St. Louis, Mo., to San Bernardino, Calif., during a move West.
“I remember the sights and the smells,” recalls Conkle, who was age 9 when he first saw the fabled highway’s seemingly endless string of service stations, diners, motels and roadside attractions, many beckoning travelers with blazing neon signs and unique Art Deco architecture.
“We had a canvas water bag on the front of the car and drove mostly at night because we had no air conditioning. The windows were down, and you smelled everything from agriculture to gasoline to exhaust [fumes]. It was an adventure.”
Like other travelers of the day, Conkle’s parents viewed the east-west route as the quickest way to drive across America in 1949. The road was fairly flat and, in 1938, became the first completely paved U.S highway.
Conkle, who now lives in Phelan, Calif., since has logged more than 200 trips on Route 66, including hitchhiking as a young Marine and today leading tour groups along the highway. For him, the two-lane highway has become its own destination—a Mecca for travelers seeking a nostalgic view of roadside America cultivated during the heyday of what author John Steinbeck called “the Mother Road.”
“What draws me is the people, the culture of the road,” says Conkle, a Route 66 adviser to the National Park Service. “We want to bring back a simpler form of life when everyone was not in a hurry.”
America’s Main Street
Commissioned in 1926 as the first national highway from Chicago to Los Angeles, Route 66 spans 2,400 diagonal miles, three time zones and eight states: Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.
The road served as a migratory path for people traveling West, especially during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression of the 1930s. The traffic supported the economies of communities along the highway, and Route 66 evolved into a series of roadside businesses and attractions.
America traveled in a different direction during the 1950s when, with President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s backing, Congress passed legislation to build an interstate highway system similar to Germany’s high-speed Autobahn. By the late 1970s, most travelers bypassed Route 66, and the road was decommissioned in 1985, crippling the economies of many towns along the highway.
“One day you took your life in your hands when you tried to cross 66. The day after it was bypassed, you could lie down in the middle of 66 and not be run over,” Conkle says.
But the people who lived and worked along the road refused to let Route 66 die. Angel Delgadillo, a barber in Seligman, Ariz., spearheaded the first state Route 66 association in 1987, and other states followed. In 1999, Congress joined the campaign with legislation and funding to preserve or restore historic properties along the route.
Today, Route 66 has recaptured some of its glory. Old businesses are being restored, and new ones are opening. Historical markers dot the road, and more than 13 million people drive the route each year. The highway’s mystique—captured in songs, on television and in the movies—lures travelers from around the world.
“Most of Historic Route 66 is still there to enjoy. More than 85 percent of it can be driven to this very day,” says Michael Wallis, 66, author of Route 66: The Mother Road, a best-seller published in 1990.
An unabashed Route 66 cheerleader, Wallis encourages travelers to get “off that boring superslab” interstate to experience the people and roadside attractions of America’s Main Street. “I write about a lot of other subjects, but 66 keeps calling me back,” he says. “Every time I go out on the road, I find something new.”
The spirit of Route 66 in many ways reflects the spirit of America. The road traverses thriving towns filled with “66” pride and forlorn communities dotted with empty buildings that once housed someone’s dreams. Miles pass amid scenic rivers, red dirt, Texas Panhandle cowboys, majestic mesas and freight trains rumbling nearby. Wallis calls it “a road of rednecks and bluebloods, a place where people are the most important resource.”
Sprinkled with superlatives and oddities, the highway beckons travelers to eat a “hot dog on a stick” at The Cozy Dog in Springfield, Ill., see the world’s largest rocking chair in Fanning, Mo., savor French silk pie at The Country Dove in Elk City, Okla., sleep in a concrete teepee at the 1950 Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, Ariz., feed wild burros roaming the former gold mining town of Oatman, Ariz., or browse curio shops in Tucumcari, N.M., one of the route’s best-preserved towns.
“People who come here want to experience good old-fashioned Americana,” says Richard Talley, 46, who with his wife, Gail, 54, own Tucumcari’s refurbished 1959 Motel Safari with its distinctive neon camel. Originally from Houston, Texas, Talley remembers traveling on Route 66 as a child with his grandparents to visit relatives in Salinas, Calif., and recalls “signs that said ‘Last Water for 110 Miles’ in the desert and sitting in the car’s floor because it was shady.”
“This road is globally iconic,” Talley says. “You can listen to people who have lived the route’s heyday, who will spin stories for hours about feeding hobos during the Great Depression. And all on one road, or nearby, you can see the Grand Canyon or the Petrified Forest and end up on the Santa Monica Pier in California.”
John Kafides, 50, of Apple Valley, Calif., fell in love with the road after his wife, Terry, was crowned “Mrs. Route 66” in 2009 and the couple started traveling the celebrated highway. “Every town has a unique personality. Listening to the folks who run the little mom and pop shops is like opening a history book,” he says.
Wallis agrees. “Never use the word predictable when you travel on 66,” he says with a smile. “Life begins at the off-ramp.”