If you ever plan to travel west in the US, take the highway that’s the best, the so-called Mother Road that winds west from Chicago to the Pacific coastal city of Santa Monica. That’s a 4023-kilometre journey crossing eight states and three time zones.
Given its scale – and expense – it’s not an odyssey you do on a whim. My excuse was our 30th wedding anniversary and a pent-up desire, with our three sons having flown the nest, to do more than two weeks poolside.
My knowledge of the road extended only as far as Bobby Troup’s hit song (You Get Your Kicks On) Route 66, and Cars, the Pixar movie, so Nicola and I put our holiday in the hands of Freedom America (“No.1 for America holidays”), choosing its self-drive Route 66 package of return fights, accommodation and hire car.
With detours, we then clocked up 4828 kilometres, stayed in 12 motels and hotels (the distinction is important) and created memories which will stay with us for years.
As the song says, you get your kicks on Route 66 and we had kicks aplenty – only some of them were on the shins, too. Here’s what we learned about the iconic route – and how you can avoid getting bruised on your drive of a lifetime.
History of the famous road
The road’s origins date back to 1893 and the foundation of America’s National Good Roads Association. The plan for the route was set out in 1925 and it was named Route 66 the following year. It wasn’t until 1937 that all the road was surfaced. After the war, the booming economy saw thousands of tourists take to Route 66 on two-week vacations. Growing demand for higher-quality roads meant that, by the mid 1970s, the new interstate highways had replaced large sections of the old road. In 1985, Route 66 ceased to be a federal highway.
Ash Fork to Kingman
There are times when you’ve no choice but to follow the interstate highways for brief stretches until Route 66 shrugs them off and goes its own way. Where it leaves the I-40 at exit 139 after Ash Fork in Arizona, home to Zettlers Store (“serving routers since 1929”), is one such moment.
Take it and you’re rewarded with not only the longest, uninterrupted section of the old road but also its most memorable.
Smooth and quiet, a lot of the time it rolls straight and level through the vast, green-blue expanse around and above it.
You pass through the old Route 66 town of Seligman first where, if you can beat off the other pilgrims there, you can meet town barber Angel Delgadillo, co-founder, in 1980, of the Arizona Route 66 Association and dubbed the guardian angel of the route.
And then it’s onwards, the grass turning to desert rock, through Crozier Canyon to the Hualapai Valley, marked by the Hackberry General Store. Crouched against the hillside, it’s a Route 66 gift shop and experience in one.
If, like us, you’re lucky to catch the blues busker strumming in the shade against a backdrop of rusting automobiles, you’ll swear even the shabbiest Days Inn motel was worth it for this one moment.
From there, it’s onwards to Kingman to see the magnificent, refurbished El Trovatore motel.
- The starting point on Adams Street, Chicago.
- Breakfast at the Cozy Dog Drive-in, Springfield, Illinois.
- Driving from Springfield, Missouri, to Joplin with its authentic, rural feel.
- The ghost settlement of Glenrio, on the Texas/New Mexico state line.
- Tracking down Breaking Bad locations in Albuquerque, and El Rancho hotel in Gallup, where the stars stayed when filming the series.
- The Petrified Forest National Park, near Holbrook, Arizona.
- Exploring Williams, a popular Route 66 town in Arizona.
- Eating pancakes at the Midpoint Cafe in Adrian, Arizona.
- The finish on Santa Monica pier.
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