As the main highway in the United States – and arguably one of the most popular in the world – the Route 66 stretches from the outskirts of Chicago to Los Angeles, tapping into 8 states and various landscapes, through what is known as the heart of the country. Moreover, driving on Route 66 is the ideal way of catching a glimpse of some authentic bits and pieces that make America, America.
On top of the actual driving experience and interaction with the people, the road also has an interesting history that dates back more than 100 years – an adventure in itself. Prior to 1926, when it was still unpaved and bore a different name, Route 66 was crossed by the National Old Trails Highway, one of the first transcontinental roads opened in the US. From the mid to late 1900s, Route 66 gradually lost its fame and importance as other high-speed highways began to connect neighboring states. By 1984, the last stretch of freeway was completed and the old road became the Historic Route 66.
However, despite losing its official purpose, the route still holds the charm and mystery that brought it to life in the past, and which continue to lure people from all over the world onto its asphalt. From East to West, the original route begins in Chicago, Illinois and cuts through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, until finally reaching sunny California. Hence, when taking a look at the map to have an idea of its grandness, you will know that you are in for a trip of a lifetime.
Below are some of the most iconic (and perhaps strangely interesting) motels, diners, and gas stations that will add a touch of Americana to your journey:
- Soulsby’s Service Station, Mt. Olive, Illinois
Back in 1926, the Soulsby family opened a Shell gas station on the outskirts of the U.S. 66. Once the highway was realigned in 1930, the new route happened to pass right in front of it their business, which was enough reason for them to expand the building. The service station was running until 1991 under the same family, after which time it was restored by a local NGO.
- Bob’s Gasoline Alley, Cuba, Missouri
As the largest collection of the 1950s and 60s memorabilia found on Route 66, Bob’s Gasoline Alley is home to things like vintage signs and advertising from popular petroleum, alcohol, and soft drink brands. Only a couple of hours southwest of St. Louis, nearby Fanning, this is a great stop for those who relish places with character.
- Bush Creek Bridge (the Rainbow bridge), Riverton, Kansas
James Barney Marsh, a renowned American engineer, was a bridge specialist (famous for his Marsh Arch Bridge design) who successfully completed more than 70 projects in the Midwest, with about half still being used.
A new concrete road was eventually created in the 1920s as a way to link the mining towns of Baxter Springs, Galena, and Riverton. For the connection to happen, in 1923 a 130-feet (40m) bridge with concrete arches (inspired by Marsh’s design) was constructed on this section of the old route, being the only one of its kind in Kansas. It was repaired in 2005 but nowadays all you can do is walk across it.
- Charles C. “Cash and Carry” Pyle, Oklahoma
As a sports agent and theater owner, Charles Pyle had the idea of creating a footrace that would take runners from Los Angeles, California all the way to New York, passing through Chicago, Illinois.
In order to make the race work, Pyle recruited a group of interesting characters: from professional runners like Arthur Newton and Juri Lossman, to a Hindu philosopher and an Italian singer. Moreover, he tried to officialize and profit from the event by making the towns along the route pay a fee, with the “punishment” of being skipped if they didn’t. There was a very peculiar funfair prior to the arrival of the racers, marking their passage through each town.
The first race was organized in 1928 but wasn’t as successful as expected. A year later, Pyle came up with the “return” version of the race and was again met with failure, eventually leading to a temporary bankruptcy.
- Buggy Ranch, Conway Texas
After establishing a service station and souvenir shop in 1967 by the crossing of the I-40 with TX 207 in Conway, the Crutchfields saw their business turn upside down when a truck stop opened right across from them, drawing most of thei potential customers. Hence, as a comeback and way to get back on their feet, they created an attraction on their side of the Interstate by burying five Volkswagen Beetles (Bugs) with only the rear sticking out from the ground.
- Blue Swallow Motel, Tucumcari, New Mexico
If you are a fan of the 50s and 60s paraphernalia, or simply enjoy the feeling of stepping back in time for a while, then a stop at the Blue Swallow is a must. The motel has been operating since 1939 – a trait that has awarded it a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. Its interior is decorated with old-fashioned furniture and objects and art deco touches; while outside the classic car parked by the lawn and its impressive neon sign stand out to attention.
- Dollar Bill Bar, Oatman, Arizona
The town of Oatman is known for the vestiges left by gold miners in the 1800s. Among them was the habit of starting a bar tab by sticking a dollar bill on the wall with their name on it. This tradition is still alive at the Dollar Bill Bar, where tourists stick their signed bills on any bit of wall they can find between the more than 100,000 others that cover the place.
- Emma Jean’s Holland Burger, Victorville, California
One of the best places to get an authentic feel for the dinner experience on Route 66 is Emma Jean’s Holland Burger. The spot is renowned for its thick milkshakes, crispy chicken-fried steak, and mouth-watering burgers, as well as the impressive size of portions. You may recognize Emma Jean’s from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill 2, as the place where Uma Thurman walks into after digging herself off the ground. But once you try their Brian Burger, all you will be associating the place with are Swiss cheese and parmesan-crusted garlic bread.