I spent a lot of time preparing for my epic Route 66 drive, probably too much to be honest. I mean, there’s only so much research you can do before it all becomes pointless, but it helped me assuage my concerns that I would miss something along the way. Tackling the entire route in less than two weeks, while that sounds like a lot of time in practice it felt like I was racing. I still managed to experience just about everything I had hoped to though, but the memories that are now the most indelible are the moments I never expected. So today I thought I would share some of those experiences and in the process hopefully encourage you to tackle your own travel dream.
My Route 66 drive across America was done in kind partnership with Marriott International, traveling the country staying with a different brand each night. However, as always, all thoughts and opinions are entirely my own.
Leaving Chicago, mentally I prepared myself for endless farms and prairies until we hit the Southwest. But almost everyday we witnessed incredible changes in the landscapes that, yes, did include a lot of wide-open spaces, but so much more than that. Missouri is probably what surprised me the most, a lot of Route 66 through the state includes the Ozarks, complete with dense forests and rivers running through them. In fact, those gorgeous landscapes changed so often that they unexpectedly added a lot to the adventure. It was my first time in many of those spots, from Kansas to New Mexico and beyond and I was shocked at how off my preconceptions were. It forced me to rethink everything I thought I knew about my country and, in the process, to appreciate it that much more.
I knew that there were some Route 66-themed stops along the way, but I never fully appreciated just how many there are or how passionate some people are about the old Route 66. Every day there was a new museum or quirky site, in existence just for those of us driving the historic road through America. The individuals working at these spots were always kind and welcoming and never surprised to hear that we were endeavoring to tackle the entire drive. They answered our questions and even offered tips along the way. From the smallest of towns to large cities, I learned that there is a vast army of passionate people who not only want the memories of Route 66 to survive, but to thrive well into the 21st century.
Driving the real Route 66 means you can’t use those navigational aids we’ve all become so very reliant on. At first I thought I could “cheat” the system by changing the settings to avoid highways, but instantly I saw that wasn’t going to work. The apps and navigational aids are just too efficient, they want our trips to be fast and easy which is the opposite of a proper Route 66 drive. The Mother Road takes time for a variety of reasons, and right away I stopped trying to use Waze and Google Maps and relied entirely on the guidebook. It’s for this reason that I really don’t think a solo trip on Route 66 is even possible. You have to have a navigator paying very close attention to every detail in order to ensure that you haven ‘t accidentally deviated from the true road. It’s challenging, especially in larger cities, but on the first day Brendan and I agreed that if we were going to drive Route 66, then we were going to do it in the right way. Plus it’s more fun having someone there with you, experiencing the beauty of America and exploring places you never even imagine existed.
Before the drive I knew I would enjoy my time in places like Chicago and St. Louis, but what I didn’t expect was to love many of the smaller towns along the way. In Springfield, Missouri I found a wonderfully quirky city that revels in kitsch, whether it knows it or not. In Carthage, Missouri I was dumbfounded to find one of the most beautiful town halls I’ve ever seen and in Las Vegas, New Mexico I discovered a quirky arts community I certainly never expected. Just as the landscapes opened my eyes, so did these towns and cities. Each one was full of people who had lived there for their entire lives and, most importantly, enjoyed living there. They are proud and fiercely eager to share what makes their communities so special with outsiders and for that I am grateful.
Far From a Dead Road
I didn’t know what to expect from Route 66 before I started the drive. I thought that the cobbled together roads and trails would lead me to places long forgotten to time. While that was true, what is also true is that nearly every community has warmly embraced the Route 66 legacy. Whether it was a simple road sign or a full-blown Route 66 roadside attraction, most towns and communities along the way still honor the route today. Route 66 is anything but dead, it’s an active drive whose history and legacy is apparent on nearly every one of the 2,300 miles that stretch across the continent. It’s kept alive thanks to curious tourists, drivers who want to discover a different side to the US and to perhaps relive more than a few nostalgic moments. It’s kept alive by the many businesses that line Route 66, from diners to motels and everything in between. Route 66 only existed for 59 years, yet its importance and legacy continue well on into the 21st century with no clear signs of dying anytime soon. That’s amazing I think, in an age of tablets and jets thousands of people want something different. They want slower travel where maps are again king and every corner reveals another surprise. Route 66 is all that and more and, after spending two weeks exploring the full width and breadth of the Mother Road, I can happily report back that it more than delivers on this promise.