There is perhaps no better, no more powerful metaphor of human progress than that of the windshield. That wide piece of glass is our eyes not only to what lays ahead, but also what lays within. It took a harried Pixar executive loading up his family for a cross-country road trip to figure this out and share the undeniable truth with the rest of us: life is a highway. Hot on the heels of blockbuster hits like Toy Story, A Bug’s Life and Toy Story 2, Director John Lasseter found himself in need of a new tale to tell. It took the stress of overlapping release and production schedules to cause his wife, Nancy, to insist that John slow down and enjoy his kids, before he woke-up one day and found them all grown.
More than perhaps any other highway in the US, Route 66 has always been a road of opportunity. Whether they were escaping drought or boredom, the Mother Road has always fostered an “anything is possible” mentality amongst its pilgrims. Maybe it is the dramatic and diverse geography that paints the eight states that make up this iconic highway, or perhaps the mystery or opportunity that waits just around the next bend.
Assigned by The New York Times Magazine to photograph Route 66 in May 2000, I continued on the project after the piece was published for another eleven years, documenting the road’s demise and the social conditions of those who were living out their lives on the lost highway. Contrary to the myth of Route 66 being a place of postcard fun and adventure, what I found on my trips across the ‘Mother Road’ was a road and a culture in distress.
From the day construction was completed until the day the wrecking ball cast it asunder fifty- four years later, the Coral Court Motel stood as both an architectural masterpiece and a place of mystery and nefarious activities. Its reputation was brought to bear by the shadowy John Carr, who owned and operated it for forty-three of those years.
ROUTE Magazine caught up with bestselling author and Route 66 ambassador, Michael Wallis, who shared on his enviable career as a writer, his famous book Route 66: The Mother Road, and his favorite places and people along the iconic highway. A well-respected and known persona on the Route, Wallis reveals some things that even those who know him best may be surprised to learn.
The journey begins in the Windy City of Chicago, and ends 2,400 miles away in the Golden State of California. Known as the Main Street of America, Route 66 crosses the grand open landscapes of the United States. Broken and disconnected in some stretches, Route 66 remains the most enigmatic route accessible to curious road travelers in search of the unique as they seek the freedom of the open road.
In today’s hectic, busy world, where we are inundated with emails and phone calls, text messages, Facebook messages, FaceTime requests and a myriad of other stimuli, it is hard to take a break and simply check out, even on a road trip. But when life has worn you down and you decide to hit the open road, especially when that road is Route 66 and you are on your way, heading west to the Windy City, where The Mother Road traditionally begins, there is a gem of a stopover that welcomes everyone.
“In 1962 my father got an old Willys Jeep. That was our ticket to going far out into the desert. We started collecting quickly on these camping trips. It was just an accident. We started bringing stuff home. One day he found a bottle, and that was it.” Most serious collectors have a genesis story like this. Hobbies seldom start out of volition. They just happen. Elmer Long, 72, is no exception. He did not find a hobby; it found him.
For a growing number of savvy travelers looking for a more authentic hotel experience, a restored historic hotel may be just the answer. And the restoration of La Castañeda — the Queen of Las Vegas — is poised to be just that. The venue’s restoration by the Winslow Arts Trust is set to put the classic venue back on top.
One of the things that makes Route 66 so special is its uniqueness: there’s nothing else quite like it in the world, and its magic cannot be replicated. One of the key driving factors that formed the persona of the Mother Road was, as Oklahoma Route 66 Association member Rhys Martin put it, “the advent of station-wagon tourism.” The creation of the route coincided with the new wave of automobile culture. With the development of more affordable cars, beginning with Ford’s Model T in 1908, and the rise of expendable income after WWII, family road trips became the norm, and every business along the route was vying for these potential customers’ attention.
You might not believe Joy’s full name the first time she tells it to you. When you initially ask her, she’ll say something like, “If I told you my name, you’d just die laughing.” You’ll probably think she’s making it up, but honestly, her full name is Joy A. Weed.
A former band member of a garage punk band called The Scarred, now turned YouTube Vlogger, Justin Scarred has amassed over 100,000 subscribers with his highly entertaining videos of his trips to Disneyland, the Old West, and more recently Route 66, where he traveled the entire Route, documenting his travels on his channel. His boisterous, goofy and witty nature infused with informative narrative, has captured and brought a whole new audience of road warriors, of all ages, to Route 66. In this interview, Scarred talks about his approach to his positive YouTube videos, his experiences filming on the Mother Road, and his adventures along Route 66.
While skilled in many disciplines, from painting to sculpture to metal work, artist Lowell Davis is perhaps best known for his farm animal figurines, distributed to thousands of gift shops across North America. His collectors and fans regularly make the trip to visit the “Norman Rockwell of Rural Art” at his home in Red Oak II, just outside of Carthage, Missouri.
The humidity hangs thin over southwest Missouri, near where the land starts to open up to the west, and things begin to dry out. It is lush and green most years, and always hot in the summer. It is the place of small quaint towns every few miles, with buildings constructed in the vernacular style of native stone and rocks. Families sit on front porches after supper, swatting flies and reflecting on the day’s events.
Anyone who recalls traveling on Route 66 in the 50s will fondly reminisce that one of the highlights that they remember the most were the mysterious Jack Rabbit signs that dotted the old road — huge billboards strategically placed all along the route that featured a black, almost sinister, jackrabbit silhouette over a bright yellow background, with the remaining mileage to the advertised ‘destination’. Travelers were intrigued. The destination was the Jack Rabbit Trading Post, an iconic stop on Route 66 in Arizona, that has become a living part of Route 66 history, and one that continues to capture the imagination and instill the thrill of traveling the Main Street of America.
The history of the Mother Road can, ironically, often seem to be dominated by male protagonists and male storytellers. However, while less prominent in literature, women have certainly played an integral and fascinating role in the life and development of Route 66.
The first thing you see when driving down a special section of Route 66 in Oklahoma is hints of blue through the trees. When you get a little closer, an image begins to take shape: the sharp lines of a whale's tail, a large gregarious smile, and a bright-blue rounded body topped with an adorable little hat. You are looking at one of Route 66's most famous attractions, the Blue Whale of Catoosa, a Mother Road icon that evokes childhood nostalgia and was born out of one man's love for his wife and his community.
Tonopah's Clown Motel sits midway between Las Vegas and Reno, eerily cheerful against its muted desert backdrop. Clowns wave and smile strangely from the road; they line the lobby walls; they hang above the beds. An elephantine Ronald McDonald welcomes you at the check-in desk. Oh, and there's a cemetery next door that's home to 300 long-deceased miners.
Few towns along Route 66 represent the Mother Road more magically that Pontiac, Illinois. Located in the lovely county of Livingston, the small town paints the perfect picture of middle America with its idyllic parks and swinging bridges that cross the Vermilion River. The town was even honored to be the chosen location for the 1984 film, Grandview, USA.
Even in its heyday, Route 66 was not the continuous benign bright ribbon that some might imagine. Almost without exception, life was as hard as anywhere else – sometimes harder – and highway traffic was comprised not only of the military, the commercial traveller and the tourist, but of darker elements. Some places seemed to attract sadness and tragedy more than others, and one such place was Toonerville in Arizona.
Cuba, Missouri, is one of those Route 66 towns that no matter how many times I’ve been, it makes me want to spend even more time there. Recently, I spent two and a half weeks in the town on assignment, exploring Cuba and getting to know the friendly local folks, and of course creating photographs. Cuba has quite a bit to offer the roadtripper. From one of the top stays on the road, to an extensive collection of murals, a winery on top of a hill, with a fantastic view, tasty treats from a sweet retired lady, living her dream of owning a pie shop, to the delightful culinary experience that is set in an old Phillips Cottage style gas station right on old 66, and much more.
California’s 314 mile section of Route 66 is home to some of the old road’s most vivid scenery and unique attractions. There is something about the moody desert atmosphere, with its numerous fading ghost towns and lost in time venues, that leaves a deep etch in the heart of intrepid travelers. Every dilapidated structure seems to have its own story, and it is not difficult if one closes their eyes and listens carefully, to hear the ghosts of yesterday. The desert has a way of opening the mind and nudging the spirit. Yet, perhaps even more memorable and captivating are the people of California’s Route 66. In many cases, true to Old West stereotypes, these are pioneers and dreamers, each with a destiny to fulfill and a heavy helping of true grit.