Jerry McClanahan’s relationship with the Mother Road began in 1959 at the age of two. Over the decades, and hundreds of trips that followed, McClanahan changed from a curious child with a fascination with maps, to one of today’s foremost experts on Route 66. McClanahan’s 2005 book, Route 66: EZ66 GUIDE For Travelers, has become an indispensable part of every roadie’s toolkit, and his evocative paintings of classic cars and Route 66 landmarks are a favorite amongst collectors, both domestic and foreign.
An artist with many diverse interests, McClanahan has spent many years scouring forgotten off-ramps and alignments of the old road, reclaiming them from obscurity, and in the company of other well-respected Route 66 personalities, leading the way in a massive scavenger hunt along the highway.
McClanahan is also heavily involved with the route community. He is a member of the Oklahoma Route 66 Association and plays an active role in grassroots efforts to maintain the highway. Whether that means promoting the history, or organizing building restoration and road maintenance, he is a relentless advocate for the road.
These days, McClanahan lives in Chandler, Oklahoma, his gallery located just about a block away from Route 66. We caught up with him to learn more about his artwork, his bestselling guidebook, and his lifelong passion for Route 66.
You’ve been traveling Route 66 since you were very young with your family. What are some of your earliest memories of the highway?
Well, I was born in ’57 in Oklahoma. We moved to California in the fall of ’58. So, the fall of ’59 would have been the first time we came back to Oklahoma and Arkansas. Now, when we moved out to California, we didn’t take 66. We went down through Phoenix, so coming back in the fall of ’59 was my first Route 66 trip. And I don’t remember it, but we stopped at the 66 Courts in Groom, one of the few times we ever spent the night on the road, because dad liked to drive from southern California to Arkansas in one stretch.
So, we stayed at the 66 Courts (closed now, only the sign was saved and is in the David Wickline collection) and they tell me I cried and cried, because I wanted to go see Grandma. But my memories are sitting in the backseat of a car looking at the billboards, wanting to stop at everything. Dad wouldn’t stop of course.
I liked to watch the scenery go by. I liked the mountains. I had an atlas open that would tell you the name and elevation of the mountains. I would want to spot the next mountain that came up on the horizon and see what its name was and how high it was. I remember one night we were in Arizona, I know that we were early in Arizona, and I asked them to wake me when we got to New Mexico because I liked seeing the cliffs and everything on the New Mexico state line. Well, of course, they did not wake me up, because when you got a sleeping kid, you’re not going to wake him up.
I was in the back of the car as long as possible at night; I wanted to stay awake because I wanted to see that neon in the towns. And we’d be out in the middle of nowhere New Mexico where there’s a long way between towns. Sometimes, I could see it, but other times I would fall asleep. I remember that going to Albuquerque took forever. Before they bypassed Route 66 we had to sit at every traffic light for just about the whole 15 miles. It drove dad nuts, but mom and I liked it because we got to see the people in the shops and stores, the people walking around, it was interesting. The year that dad was able to bypass Albuquerque, he was delighted. But I was talking to my mom about it and we were sad, because we missed it. And you know it’s stuff like that, the roadside frustration of not getting to stop, the fascination, it was just ... like when school had let out, we’d go to Arkansas first to visit my mother’s parents, and then head back to Oklahoma to see my father’s parents. You know, it was exciting. It was my vacation road.
For you, living on the route, was there a feeling of decline or change over the years?
Well, I didn’t live on it. When we lived in southern California, we lived probably an hour from Victorville, and that’s where we would hit Route 66. But well, seeing it during the 60s, you know, ’59 to ’69, every year during the late sixties, I noticed that the trip was getting less interesting. I didn’t look forward to it as much because we were on more interstate every year. There was a fake cliff dwelling just east of the New Mexico State Line on the road to Manuelito. And I would look for that every year. One year I missed it. Where was it? Well, we were on the new I-40, and we were about a mile away from it. And there were constant construction zones. I could look off to the side and see an old section of 66 that still had the signs and curves, and I wanted those signs. Every year there was a little bit cut out on those trips. And then from ’69 until ’81 I had no connection with Route 66, no trips at all, because we moved back to Texas.
What caused you to reconnect with the Old Road?
There was a book I got, about 1980, Souvenirs from the Roadside West by Richard Ansaldi. I got this little book of things that he saw and photographed in the western United States, and a lot of it was on Route 66. And I’m looking at the Club Cafe in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, and I’m looking at the Ella’s Frontier in Joseph City, and I’m looking at some others, and I remember those, it triggered those memories. While I was in Texas I got a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in painting and drawing. I’d always drawn since I was a child. I drew dinosaurs, I drew airplanes, and I drew trains. This was just how my brain worked as far as artwork. I had a vague idea about maybe breaking into comic books or something; I wasn’t happy with the art field. I didn’t like modern art. I ended up working at a camera store and developed more of an interest in photography. I found the Ansaldi book. I [also] found one by Margulies about some of his roadside photos and that triggered a desire in me to start photographing these things. So, in ’81 my dad and I took a trip from Texas. We headed up to Shamrock, which is on Route 66, and got off at Victorville, California, because we went back to where we’d lived (Saugus, California).
But that was my first adult Route 66 trip and the first trip where I photographed it.
How much of the highway had changed by that trip?
Oh gosh, by that time, by 1981 the only places that were still not bypassed was a section through McLean, Texas, and that was bypassed later that year I believe, and then the next year the section through Williams, Arizona, was bypassed. There was still a lot of Route 66 we could drive, but we would be going down the interstate, and I’d see another road or a line of telephone poles slanting away, and when I asked dad, “Is that Route 66?” he didn’t know. So, that’s why I started looking at the old highway maps from the 30s, 40s and 50s.
I wanted to photograph Route 66, but I had to know which road it was first. And it was hard; there were no convenient Route 66 maps or guidebooks, I had to look at old road maps. I had to look at county maps, aerial photos. I had to go out and drive every exit in western Oklahoma. I would drive every Frontage Road in all directions until I would run out of concrete. Then I’d go and pick it up on the other side. Just adventures like that. So, it became a mission to find the road, photograph the road, and then paint the road.
What does it take to track down an abandoned roadway?
Well, we’re still finding sections today. We use a lot of aerial photos. You know, Google Earth, the quality has gotten to where you can see individual culverts. You can see something you couldn’t see from the ground. Then you go out and if you can get to an exit, we go “boots on the ground” as Jim Ross would say, because you’re trying to determine, “Is this really a road, or is it a ditch, or a pipeline?” And there’s historic records. Jim had managed to get a lot of Highway Department Records from Oklahoma, which lead to his Oklahoma 66 book. We got records from Texas and from Missouri, but unfortunately, a lot of the places we definitely needed records from, like New Mexico and Arizona, are hard to find. So, it’s a combination of just whatever you can find that will give you a clue. You know, last year, I was driving through a part of Oklahoma that I’ve driven dozens of times, and it’s in the winter, and I look over here and bam! There’s a culvert that we didn’t know existed! And Jim looks at the records and says, “Oh yeah, that was bypassed in 1928.” Things like that. It’s detective work.
What section are you most proud to have rediscovered?
Probably the Jericho Gap [Texas], because that includes the section from Jericho to Groom, but it also includes the dirt roads that run from McLean to Alan Reed. Nobody knew those were still there. Even local experts thought that they were paved over or abandoned. I looked at old county maps, and I looked at new county maps, and I said, “Wait a minute, that all matches up!” I went out and drove it, compared all the mileages, and yeah, I found a whole section between McLean, Texas, and Groom, Texas. All sections of original dirt Route 66 that you can still drive as long as it’s not muddy.
You referred to Jim Ross earlier. You and Ross first combined your research in the Here It Is! map series in 1994. How did you two meet and when did you decide to collaborate on the map project?
Well, there was a Route 66 publication, and ... I think that I wrote a letter to it and invited anybody who wanted to swap photos of Route 66 to write to me. So, Jim sent me some photos of things he had taken on the road. And I think I’d already picked up his Oklahoma Cruising Companion, his first little Route 66 Oklahoma book. And he called me up and asked what my favorite site on Route 66 was, and I said, “The Painted Desert Trading Post,” and he said, “Mine too.” I knew from then that we could work together. We were both researching Route 66, and we decided not to compete. We pooled our resources and brought out the map series, as you said, in 1994. We shared the research; I drew it all and he did all the directions.
And we’re continuing to work together. We’ve done Route 66 Sightings, we did Bones of the Old Road, that’s out of print. We’re still working together on researching a lot of old Route 66. He’s taken more of that over. I have to devote some more time on artwork and things now.
How do your paintings allow you to explore the route’s history and culture?
Well, there’s a couple of different ways I paint. Sometimes I will paint something as it looks today. Rusty, weather- beaten, textured, rough. Like an old regular gas pump I did from Oklahoma City. Other things, like with The Painted Desert Trading Post, I will restore how something used to look. I have a photo I took in the 90s, straight on of that old weather-beaten place. I found some old postcards and I found an old vacation movie taken, I guess in the late 40s, where someone had run out of fuel in an airplane, and they had to land on Route 66. They taxied up to the gas pumps and began filling up. [It was a] blurry thing. I went back and forth many times, and by comparing it with my gas pump books, I was able to tell which brands of gasoline and which pumps they used. I was able to restore that place on paper.
With some things, I’m capturing the memory of something that you cannot see or photograph anymore. I was lucky taking photos in ’81 and ’83 and ’86 and all these other years in the 80s and early 90s. I photographed things that just no longer exist, things that other roadies don’t even know about. Recently, there was a thread on Facebook about the diving girl neon on various old signs, you know, where you have your pool advertisement [with] a girl in neon diving off the diving board. Well, I had photographed one in 1983 in Weatherford, Oklahoma, and it was for the Mark Motor Hotel (now a Best Western). And I dug that old Kodachrome up, and I scanned it, and nobody had seen it. It’s a shame that all my slides are so out of order, I’m sloppy. If I pull something out, it never goes back.
In your early days, business owners would be suspicious of your interest in photographing their establishments?
I’ll give you an example: in 1983 I stopped in Newkirk, New Mexico, and there’s Wilkerson’s, an old country store. Next door was an old motor court and a little curio shop that had, so far, unbroken glass that said, “Figaro Bottles.” Now, this is an often photographed ruin; it’s an old adobe stucco thing crumbling to the dirt. But in 1983, it was still open, and I went inside to ask the people if I could photograph it. And there’s several people sitting there, all the shelves stocked with things. It was an old fashion country store. And they thought that I was with the government. They thought I was taking pictures because I wanted to shut them down. They thought I was with the EPA or something, they couldn’t understand why somebody would be out there in 1983 wanting to take a picture of their place that was bypassed, on an old highway that nobody cared about.
One time in western Missouri, I think probably along a Highway 96 section now, between Carthage, Missouri, and Springfield, Missouri. There was an old gas station, and on the old pumps somebody had put up a sign that said: “Barbershop.” So, I stopped to ask the guy [for a picture], and he was really belligerent. He said, “I know you, you’re with the Russians! You’re trying to take pictures of the poor Americans for your Russian propaganda!” No kidding! I took the picture from across the street.
How has the route community evolved since then?
In the early 80s there really wasn’t a route community. All the newspaper articles and magazine articles just had eulogies saying Route 66 was dead, that it was grimy, it was rundown. If a newspaper reporter did a story about it, he would emphasize the sordidness. I think the turning point ... of course you have Juan and Angel Delgadillo, and the Arizona Association and the Oklahoma Association, but probably one of the big turning points was Michael Wallis’ book. When he brought out his Mother Road book, that brought a lot more attention to the route. And around the early 90s, there was more interest in it. There were more people that started to write about it and to photograph it and to drive it.
I entered a Route 66 art exhibit in Gallup, New Mexico, about ’91, and I won a contest to design a mural for the Chamber of Commerce (Gallup). And after that it just started a momentum. Every time someone would write an article about it or publish something about 66, it grew. The state associations did tremendous work and still do. It’s all volunteer efforts. I’m on the board of the Oklahoma association. I’m the representative for Lincoln County, and we have quarterly meetings. We have done things like, we repainted the Lincoln Motel sign, trash pick-ups, sponsored events ... The other associations do their best too; it’s all these grassroots. And it’s a worldwide thing. Now we have Route 66 associations [across] Europe and in Japan.
My wife ... I met Mariko because she bought my EZ66 Guide in about 2010 in Victorville, at the California Route 66 Museum. We met on Facebook in 2014, and got married a year ago in January. And maybe this June the timing will work out where she can get her green card and be over here. She’ll post a new Route 66 photo on about seven different pages; she posts a Route 66 blog every day. We have some projects planned, we have some Japanese projects and we’ll do some American things too. We would like to get a lot more Japanese people to do the whole route, not just the western part, you know, the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas and LA. We want them to do the whole route. And with her, I have a built-in translator.
I want her to do her own book: it’s exciting. I had a couple from Norway yesterday; we get a tour from Norway every year. I get three tours from Dale Butell, an Australian tour guide, every year, and I get tours from others. So many people are doing the route, many people from overseas. And these are people that don’t have the nostalgia that I have as a child from discovering it. I ask why they come and they will tell me that they like American movies, they like American music, they like the West, and they want to come out and see the scenery. And sometimes they’ll tell me, “Well, I started researching what can I do in America, and I found Route 66.” What they discovered here is a road that goes to a lot of the places they want to see, and there’s plenty of books and maps and information on it. So instead of having to plan a trip across the country themselves, they latch onto Route 66.
Your EZ66 Guide was first published in 2005, and has been one of the best-selling route guides since. How has your life changed since it was released?
Well, the royalties from that book allowed me to buy a house and a business property just off of Route 66 here in Chandler, Oklahoma. And since I was able to do that, I’ve been able to meet people from around the world. And because of the book, I met my wife, so yeah, it’s completely transformed my life. I think that the luckiest thing was meeting Jim Ross, because that led to the map series and articles I did for magazines, and to the Bones of the Old Road. So, when David Knudson [Director of the Route 66 Federation] wanted to bring out a guidebook, Jim was busy with another book, and he called me up and said, “Jerry, the road needs a good guidebook.” I said, “Okay!” It took me about two years to do it. For about a year-and-a-half of that all I did was work on the book, nothing else. There’s a couple hundred maps, there’s the eastbound, westbound directions, there’s attractions and options, and it was an undertaking.
I need to drive as soon as possible this year. I’m waiting until Mariko can come, but I drove every bit of it in 2016, both directions, all alignments, over the course of six trips. I didn’t get to drive much last year because of three months I spent in Japan. I want to drive it fresh, so I can do a new edition. I can’t just trust my 2016 trip, you know? So many things change; I want to hit it and just see what I can do to make it even better.
How have you and Mariko dealt with the separation?
Well, Mariko is much more independent and mature than I am, because she handles it pretty well. I would categorize her as this calm cat and I’m more of a slobbery puppy dog. So, for me, it’s been very rough being separated from her. We, of course, have Facebook Messenger so we can communicate every day. But it’s just not the same. I haven’t seen her since November 23rd. But I haven’t been able to go there this winter because I’ve had to be here to do different things for her immigration process. And I can’t really go this month because I have too many Route 66 obligations. So, it’s been difficult. She had to sell her condominium and move. She shipped 13 boxes of her possessions to me, by ship, you know? It takes a couple of months to get here. Then when she gets here, she wants to re-decorate. She says I must wait until she’s here. (Laughs)
I’ve had this house for ten years, and I haven’t really done anything on the inside. When she visited me in the fall of 2016, she painted the bathroom and bedroom, because she loves doing that type of thing. When she’s here, my whole lifestyle is going to change completely, and I’m all for it, because I was 59 before I ever got married. So yeah, Route 66 brought me something good. I just have to make it [through] the next couple of months. I’m glad I didn’t know how hard it would be, because I might have chickened out! And you know, you have to jump through hoops, there’s all these papers to sign and then there’s always questions about the papers. And [the] translation of her documents ...
What have you learned about Route 66 via Mariko’s interests, or through her eyes?
People from another culture see 66 differently than we do. Mariko will take photos of things that I haven’t photographed, because to me it’s like, maybe not as significant, or I’m just taking it for granted. I’m more into gas stations, motels, cafes, and Mariko is more into historic things, like a historic house in Rancho Cucamonga, California. She has opened me up to things in the corridor that aren’t so much travel-related, but they’re a part of the history that Route 66 is going through. It’s more [like] context. We spent several days on Route 66 between Pasadena and San Bernardino, California, in November of 2016, and we stayed at three different motels there on that section, while we explored (in-depth) all the historical places in downtown. She’s a good travel companion.
We hear that she is interested in graveyards?
I am too, for sure. Gosh yeah! I’ve been photographing Route 66 graveyards forever, and there’s some that I haven’t hit yet, and that’s in our plans. We want to hit the one at Amboy, California. We want to photograph it.
What made you choose to settle in Chandler, Oklahoma?
I was born in Duncan, Oklahoma, which is southwest of Oklahoma City, down towards Highway 81. So, I was coming back to Oklahoma, but I had no roots in Chandler. But Jim Ross and Shellee Graham, my two best friends, live nearby, and they kept showing me houses. They’d send me emails: “Here is this house, you should look at this house, buy this house, and move to Route 66.” So, when they sent me this one, I said, “Okay, I’ll bite.” I moved here and I bought an acre of land from a former electrical shop that I turned into my gallery. It’s a big old house that’s been added onto since the 20s, so nothing quite lines up straight, but I’ve decided that’s quaint. My gallery is probably a block off of 66; I have a vacant lot next to my house that I own and my neighbor, his car is on the driveway, that driveway used to be 4th Street. And that was the original Route 66 corner before they changed it slightly and built a new overpass in about ’28 or ’29. So, if I go out to the back of my property, I can throw rocks and hit cars on Route 66, but I try not to do that.
It’s a little inconvenient; I’m hard to find because I’m not right on the road, and the corners are all, like reverse Ys. I could get more customers if I was right on the road, but my friend Bob Waldmire, the late Bob Waldmire had his place right on Route 66 in Hackberry, and I think he got to the point where he didn’t like all the people stopping by. It’s hard for an artist to do work when you’re constantly interrupted. Now, during the season, sometimes there are days where it’s lunchtime and I don’t eat until 3 pm because people constantly come in. But the good thing is that the people who come to see me have my book. They’re not just casual people, they want to meet me. We have good conversations, and I can enjoy it. I would have to hire a shopkeeper if it was hundreds of people a day. I would have to hire employees, you know? But this way it’s more laid-back, getting to visit [with] people from all over the world.
What are some of your favorite things to paint?
Well, I like cars, of course, I’ve always been into cars since I was a kid, hot rods, and things. I used to have Studebakers, now I have a ’57 old Chevrolet station wagon, and it’s got four rotted tires on it because they’re 20-years-old. It’s on my to-do list. I love gas stations, motels, neon signs, all the stuff I saw when I was a kid. And I like old cars, so I’m lucky I get to paint and do artwork of things that I enjoy. I love the shapes of the old gas pumps and the different types of gasoline signs and brands, I like the neon sign reflections. I’m doing one that has Tucumcari Mountain in the background right now.
Do you think that American and global visitors have a different experience when traveling Route 66?
Well, Americans, many of the Americans are baby boomers, like I am, who did similar trips when they were kids, or they like cars and the culture. Now, we do get younger Americans now because they saw Cars or they are interested in the culture like rockabilly, rock and roll, and things like that. Some of the younger people in America are picking up on that. The Europeans, they’re cued into some of the same things. They don’t have the traditions of long road trips like we do. The Australians do, the Australians know what I’m talking about when I’m talking about driving for days and days and days across the country. But somebody from Germany, they are here for the culture, they want to experience American culture.
Now here is one difference: I’m at the El Vado Motel in Albuquerque, before it closed, and I’m talking to a guy from Germany, and he says, “You have this gas station from 1926, but I live in a house built in 1400.” So, their perspective on what’s historic is different from ours, you know? We are a young country. Something that’s 100 years old can be historic to us, but to him, that’s like, new. So, there is a little difference there. Of course, by the time they get to me they’ve been almost halfway across 66, stopping in towns along the way. They say it’s changed their perspective on Americans. They think it’s going to be like what they hear about in L.A or New York; people are going to be rude, you’re going to get shot at, something like that. But by the time they’ve gotten through Chicago and down through the Midwest, and they’ve gone through Missouri and Oklahoma, they’ve met some of the friendliest people on the planet. I get that comment a lot: they can’t believe how friendly the people are on Route 66.
It’s not the alignments now; it’s not the gas stations, it’s the people that are really fueling this value and interest in Route 66. And we’re getting new people coming to it every year. People are investing in it and restoring old cafes. Some people just bought the Gemini Giant in Wilmington, Illinois, there’s the couple that is restoring Meteor City in Arizona. But I think the people on Route 66 are really ambassadors to the world. I think we’re showing the world more of a true picture of America and Americans. Not what they’re seeing by watching the news or in the papers or on the internet, you know? They’re seeing real people, real honest people. They go to a museum or an attraction, the people they meet are volunteers, and they are there to talk. They love their history, and they’re proud of their town, and they will talk your ears off. I talked to a gentleman from Europe who had been in a diner in Illinois. He was talking to the waitress, with his accent, and there was a couple at another table that left. When he went to pay his bill, they’d already paid for him. That happens a lot.
What are some can’t miss spots for you when you travel down the Mother Road?
Well, if I’m headed out west, I will usually try to drive the original 1930 concrete from El Reno, Oklahoma, to at least Hydro, Oklahoma. That’s the section outside the old interstate [with] the old connection joints. You’ve got the Pony Bridge with its 30 truss expanse. It’s got many other concrete and metal bridges; it’s a time capsule. Sticking again with Oklahoma places, like the Blue Whale (Catoosa) and the Round Barn in Arcadia. Gosh, it’s like, which is my favorite grandchild? Going on there’s Sitgreaves Pass to Oatman, Arizona. Or places where there are people that I like. I always stop at Moriarty in New Mexico and the Sunset Motel, owned by the Pogue’s who have roots there and are active in preservation. Rich Henry at the Rabbit Ranch in Staunton, Illinois, Bob and Ramona at the Munger Moss Motel in Lebanon, Missouri. It’s just like, family all up and down the route.
Who do you think is the most interesting person you know on Route 66?
That’s kind of a toughy, I know a lot of interesting people. I know John Hargrove. I put him in the EZ Guide, because he has built a little Route 66 enclave on the side of the road, east of Arcadia, Oklahoma. He just carved it out of the woods. He has a huge shop building where he restores and upholsters old hot rods and cars. He has a 1914 Model T. He has a three-wheeled car he built himself out of a Chevy Malibu. He is building a replica of an Indy car from the 30s. He used to fly ultralight airplanes. He runs marathons. He’s older than I am, but he leaves his gate open, and people come and visit. He doesn’t charge admission. There are so many things ... he’s just a face and a place along the road that’s just welcoming. Of course, there’s Angel Delgadillo in Seligman, Arizona. I always enjoy when I get the chance to run into him. I find the best time to visit with him is early in the morning before the crowds of tourists come. I was there one morning, people were out washing their driveways, and there was nobody. I had the whole town to myself. He was at his shop, and we just sat down on the bench and talked. And it wasn’t long after that that there were two buses double parked in the street and hundreds of people just swarmed the town.
Do you have a favorite section of the route?
Well, the one I mentioned earlier from El Reno to Hydro, Oklahoma, is one of my favorite sections. The road from Kingman, Arizona to Oatman, Arizona, is another favorite. It winds over Sitgreaves Pass, [its] a very scenic and historic road. Every state has a section I enjoy; every state has at least one really, really great section of road.
What do you think is the best route 66 state and why?
Oklahoma, because I live here, and was born here of course! And I have friends here, and it’s got a lot of Route 66 towns and attractions and museums. It’s just packed full of goodness. Yeah, Oklahoma, you know, you start out at Miami, you have the Coleman Theater ... Just about every town in Oklahoma has something cool. And we’ve got some unique things, like I said, we’ve got the Blue Whale and the Round Barn, those are unique. We’ve got two great museums in Clinton and Elk City. We’ve got great stretches of road, where you can drive a long way on original Route 66. You can drive almost all the way across the state without being on the freeway. There’s just a little section I guess, in Oklahoma City, where you have to hit a bit. But most of the time, you’re just on old Route 66. And I’m here, so you know ...
What’s something that even people who know you well would be surprised to learn about you?
Well, the weirdest thing about me is that I like translated Manga (Japanese comic books or graphic novels) and Anime (Japanese animation), but all my friends know about that.