I started a new role at my workplace last week. It was the first time in a long time that I’d moved to a different office and worked with a completely new group of people; as such, they didn’t know anything about me. I talked to my new coworkers about my professional history and personal life, including my various travels. Someone remarked, “Man, I can tell how passionate you are about Route 66 by the way you talk about it.” He asked how I became interested in the historic roadway, which inspired me to go back and take a closer look at how it all came about.
I returned to the US in early 2010 after spending ten months abroad, living out of a backpack. The next couple of years were rough, to say the least: divorce & the loss of both my grandmother and father. Once I was on the other side of those life changes, I found myself seeking a new story to tell. I’d shared my experiences from all around the world through writing and photography; I wanted to tell the story of my home state now. At the same time, I thought Tulsa’s famous Meadow Gold sign had been demolished. I was devastated to think that this great old neon construction was gone forever and I’d never captured it! Thankfully, it was just about a mile west…but that near-loss inspired me to look closer at Route 66 as a subject. So, on July 5th 2013, I decided to head up to see the Coleman Theater in Miami, OK. Although I took the turnpike on the way, I drove the slow road home.
I was stunned in amazement. It was like I’d discovered a Christmas present that had been left in the closet long after the holiday had passed. Vintage gas stations, rusted signs, historic markers, truss bridges, roadside attractions…they were all still there! I wrote about that first trip specifically here, after which I began planning journeys to see more of the road in the Sooner State. However, my next Route 66 experience was a total surprise.
A few weeks after that trip to Miami, a good friend and I took a week-long road trip to Salt Lake City, Utah. We swung south to the Grand Canyon afterwards, which brought us to Williams Arizona. I didn’t know it was the last town to be bypassed at the end of the Mother Road’s official life; all I knew was that it was so alive! Downtown Williams felt like a time capsule. The drive home wasn’t pre-planned with any Route 66 detours, but now that I knew that our journey home aligned with the road, it was impossible not to hop off I-40 to see landmarks in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Tucumcari especially had quite an impact on me; it had an authenticity that is impossible to fabricate. Those few days in the American Southwest fully cemented my understanding that the same experience I had in Miami, OK stretched all the way from Chicago to Los Angeles. Route 66 wasn’t just a part of my Oklahoma heritage, it was a bonafide National Treasure.
I drove the stretch from Tulsa to St. Louis in the spring of 2014. Later that year, I finished the rest of Oklahoma. I attended my first roadie gathering in March 2015 at the first rally to Save the Gasconade Bridge in central Missouri. Three months later saw me flying to L.A. to drive from the Pacific Ocean to New Mexico. In August of that year I completed the last section I had not yet experienced, driving from Chicago to St. Louis. I’ve met so many wonderful people along the way and understand that I’m really just getting started.
Although it’s been called The World’s Largest Open Air Museum, it’s a dynamic place. Every year more long-standing institutions close their doors while new visionaries plant their flag on America’s most famous passage, hoping to make a living and add their story. It’s the embodiment of the American Dream and a literal thoroughfare of deliverance. Dust Bowl Okies traveled its cement lanes towards a better life in California, soldiers convoyed on it during World War II, and baby boomers fed it with commerce during post-war prosperity. Although it fell into obscurity around the time I was born, 66 was given a new life by those that refused to let it fade into the horizon. Folks like Angel Delgadillo of Seligman and Michael Wallis of Tulsa spoke up and said, “The Mother Road is Still Here!” It’s now up to my generation to keep that renewal going. Since I have been a part of the great linear community, I’ve seen revival efforts and preservation movements spring up all across the country. I’ve talk to travelers from all around the world that come to America just to travel Route 66.
When is the best time to take the trip yourself? Yesterday. When is the next best time? Right now. How long should you plan for? To do it end-to-end, no less than three weeks; otherwise you’ll be rushed. But don’t let that prevent you from driving it a piece at a time. That’s how I did it. People come and go; some businesses are saved while others are lost to “progress”. But the spirit of the road remains the same. That spirit is now inexorably merged with my own and I wouldn’t have it any other way.