Route 66 in the News
Route 66 Still Offers Kicks
SELIGMAN, Ariz. - Road-trippers, get hip to this timely tip: No one could ever mistake Delgadillo's Snow Cap for a Burger King.
The menu features "Dead chicken," "Oink burgers" and "Cheeseburgers with cheese." The walls are papered with business cards and small-denomination banknotes from the world over, and your meal comes with a complimentary serving of cornball humor.
When I asked for a straw, for example, a deadpan employee reached under the counter and produced a handful of hay. Straw, hay, get it?
Delgadillo's Snow Cap squats gaudily alongside the old Route 66 in western Arizona, and it's as good a reason as any to exit the 80 mph interstate with its numbingly familiar fast-food chains for a more leisurely and contemplative journey along America's two-lane highways.
No two-lane highway is more iconic than Route 66, which once ran diagonally for 2,448 miles across the West, from Michigan Avenue in Chicago to Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica. It hasn't existed officially for a long time -- it was decommissioned as a U.S. highway in 1985 -- but it retains an outsize place in our national consciousness, largely because it was immortalized in two very different ways by two very different writers.
John Steinbeck dubbed it "the Mother Road" in "The Grapes of Wrath," a novel in which the highway is almost as vivid a character as the desperate Depression-era farmers who used it to flee the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma and Arkansas in threadbare jalopies piled high with families and worldly goods.
In Bobby Troup's 1946 song "(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66," it's a much happier highway, teeming with the newly affluent postwar tourists who pretty much invented the American road trip.
Troup's version of Route 66 is what we set out in search of, a world of wide-open landscapes, one-of-a-kind motels and roadside diners so confident in their real-deal authenticity that they don't even tack up the usual posters of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis.
It might no longer exist as a U.S. highway, but large stretches of it remain intact as local roads. We Californians, though, are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to Route 66 nostalgia runs: We live at the wrong end. What's left of the old highway operates in both directions, obviously, but in popular culture, and popular imagination, it only runs one way: west.
West is the direction Steinbeck's Joad family pointed their overloaded Hudson truck as they fled the Dust Bowl in hope of something better in California. And west is the orientation of the song recorded by Nat "King" Cole, the Rolling Stones, John Mayer and countless others. After all, no one ever sings, "If you ever plan to motor east ..."
Our solution: We stuck to the big interstates -- the "super slab," as Route 66ers deride them -- on the eastbound part of our journey, all the way to Tucumcari in eastern New Mexico. There we pulled off the whooshing freeway, made a U-turn and started back slowly along the two-lane remnants of the old Route 66, motoring in the proper direction: west.
In Route 66's heyday, the 1950s, Tucumcari was an oasis of neon-lit auto courts boasting swimming pools and "refrigerated air." Through the endless, boring scrub of the Texas Panhandle, billboards beckoned with "Tucumcari Tonite!"
A few of the 50 one-of-a-kind "motor hotels" that once lined the town's main drag still stand, most notably the Blue Swallow Motel, a pilgrimage site of sorts for Route 66 fans.
Bill Kinder, a Vietnam veteran from Florida, spent years restoring it to its former glory, installing Bakelite dial phones, vacuum-tube radios and light fixtures, showerheads and toilets from the 1930s. It's now listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
"People on the interstate just want to get from point A to point B," said Kinder, who was forced by health problems to sell the motel shortly after I talked to him. "All they ever see are chain gas stations, chain fast-food places and chain motels. Route 66 is about slowing down and seeing America."
Ironically, the vast majority of those slowing down on Route 66 to see the real America hold foreign passports. At the Blue Swallow and countless other stops along the highway, I ran into mobs of Europeans and Japanese, but relatively few Americans.
"For us, this is our dream of America," said Steffen Voight, a German tourist who was photographing the motel's classic neon sign.
In Holbrook, Ariz., we stopped to gawk at the Wigwam Motel, where the rooms were ensconced in concrete tepees. Back in the halcyon days of Route 66, businesses needed a highly visible gimmick to pull tourists off the highway. Today the owners maintain the 1950s aura by parking vintage Chevys and Studebakers in the lot.
Not every Route 66 motel we encountered was a delightful blast from the past. In Albuquerque, I stopped to photograph one and noticed that it advertised monthly rates and had a poster in the office window for a crystal meth hotline.
Seligman, a former western Arizona railroad town with a population of 550, attracts an improbable number of international tourists -- middle-aged Germans in sandals and socks, Belgian motorcycle gangs, punk-haired Japanese -- largely because it's home to an 85-year-old semiretired barber known as "the Father of the Mother Road."
Angel Delgadillo was born in a house alongside Route 66 in 1927, a year after the highway was officially commissioned.
"As children we'd stand out by the road and laugh at the Okies driving past," he told me. "We joked that the poor Okies only had one mattress tied to the roof of their cars. The well-off Okies were the ones with two."
Then the Great Depression caught up with the Delgadillos, and the jokes didn't seem so funny. They were loading their possessions into an old Model-T and getting ready to leave for California -- "Turns out we were no different than the Okies," said Delgadillo -- when a last-minute job offer kept them in Seligman.
Delgadillo settled into a long run as the town barber and watched his town prosper in the 1950s and '60s as a steady flow of tourists discovered the romance of the road.
But in 1978, the new Interstate 40 replaced Route 66 as the main route across northern Arizona, and the freeway bypassed Seligman. Tourists stopped coming. Motels were shuttered, diners boarded up.
"We were dead," Delgadillo said.
Refusing to accept the fate of so many small towns, Delgadillo began what would eventually be a 10-year campaign to get Arizona to designate part of the decommissioned highway as Historic Route 66.
The move brought not just Seligman but Route 66 itself back from the dead. Delgadillo was an inspiration for the Pixar animated film "Cars," in which Radiator Springs stands in for Seligman.
While I interviewed him in his barbershop, a line of eager German tourists waited outside for an autograph and shave. The barbershop is connected to a souvenir store selling all manner of Route 66 bric-a-brac; it's down the street from Delgadillo's Snow Cap, built by Angel's late brother Juan and run today by Juan's children.
Today, the 156-mile stretch of the road from Seligman to Topock, on the Colorado River, is the highlight of any Route 66 run. Elsewhere in Arizona and New Mexico, 66 mostly serves as a frontage road for Interstate 40, but this section traces a separate route through the Hualapai Indian Reservation and over the Black Mountains. It's a classic two-lane highway following the contours of the undulating, chocolate-brown landscape, past sagebrush and curious prairie dogs.
A few miles out of Seligman we began seeing Burma Shave signs. Readers of a certain age will remember these: They were little roadside ditties, often about highway safety, told in a series of signs spaced roughly 100 yards apart:
If daisies are
Your favorite flower
Keep pushin' up
Those miles per hour
(Alas, these are fanciful re-creations. Burma Shave signs lined much of Route 66 in the 1950s, but for some reason there were never any in Arizona.)
Beyond Kingman, which rarely misses an opportunity to remind you it was the hometown of raspy-voiced cowboy actor Andy Devine, Route 66 climbs steeply up into the Black Mountains in a series of airy hairpin turns, often sans guardrail.
I felt a twinge of the fear that gripped the Dust Bowl migrants of the 1930s as they confronted their first real Western mountains. Some paid savvy locals to drive the threadbare jalopies over this stretch, made even more frightening because the cars, lacking fuel pumps, often had to be driven backward to keep the gas flowing.
At the crest of the mountain we came to the weather-beaten old mining town of Oatman, where, oddly, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard spent their honeymoon in 1939. Old-timers say Gable liked to play cards with the local prospectors, presumably while his new bride drummed her fingers on the night table, wondering what she'd gotten herself into.
Today Oatman is usually packed with tourists from nearby Laughlin, Nev., who come to watch fake gunfights and photograph the not-so-wild burros that wander the main street. When one of them -- a burro, not a tourist -- lunged out from between two parked cars and tried to stomp my dog, I decided Oatman was not my kind of town.
On our last night, I was idly retracing our journey on a map, looking at all the towns we stopped in -- Gallup, New Mexico; Flagstaff, Arizona; Kingman; Barstow; San Bernardino -- when I realized we'd made a terrible mistake, one no self-respecting Route 66er would ever make.
Bobby Troup warned us. Nat "King" Cole warned us. The Rolling Stones and countless others warned us. But still we managed to do it.
We forgot Winona.
~John Flinn, SFGate.com