This post was created in partnership with Marriott International, but all thoughts and opinions are entirely my own.
There are many reasons why The Mother Road calls out to millions of people around the world. The natural sights are stunning, the people along the way are kind and the drive itself cuts through a perfect cross-section of the country. But an important aspect for many is the kitschy Americana found along the way in decades old roadside attractions and quirky stops that have been drawing in curious drivers for decades. I admit, the promise of those funny stops was an aspect to driving Route 66 that excited me and now, even a few weeks removed from the experience I already know that they will help form the most lasting memories from the experience. Not all are created equal however, so today I thought I’d share some of my favorite quirky and odd stops along the iconic Route 66.
Stores and restaurants along Route 66 have struggled for decades to contrive new ways to attract drivers, to get them to stop and hopefully patronize their business. The best way to do this was to offer a reason to stop, something to do or see and all along Route 66 the most popular way to do this was, and still is, by creating giant sculptures. Whether it’s the Gemini Giant in Illinois, or an enormous lumberjack eating a hot dog (because, why not?) these giant structures can be found everywhere. They’re so common that our bible for the duration of the drive, the EZ66 Guide For Travelers, has separate notations for when they pop up along the way. While we didn’t manage to see all of them, there are just too many, we did stop to admire many of the older examples, lasting reminders of days gone by.
The Blue Whale
I can’t explain why exactly, but the Blue Whale in Catoosa, Oklahoma was my favorite roadside attraction of the entire drive. Built in 1972 by a local zoologist, the massive whale took two years to complete and was a gift for his wife, who collected whale figurines. Surrounded by a small pool, the whale quickly became a favorite summer hotspot. Kids could fling themselves off the tail, slide down the water-coated fins or just explore inside the massive whale. There’s a small picnic area, making this the perfect spot to take a break from driving and to embrace the quirky kitsch of this, one of Route 66’s most famous sights.
Oklahoma Route 66 Museum
One thing that quickly became obvious was that there are many Route 66 museums around the country. Every state has at least one, with most hosting multiple museums or small displays dedicated to commemorating The Mother Road. Before the drive, I foolishly thought we would stop at all of them, but I soon realized that was impossible. That being said, we did manage to visit a great many along the route including the Oklahoma Route 66 Museum, which I think is the best in the country. Operated by the Oklahoma Historical Society, the museum is well organized and interesting, a bit of a rarity among the museums we visited. Taking visitors through the history of the Route across the country and not only in Oklahoma, it’s the best portrayal of the Route and its impact on society that I’ve seen. This is a place to spend some time and don’t miss their gift shop, it’s just as good as the museum itself.
VW Slug Bug Ranch
The Cadillac Ranch near Amarillo may get all the attention, but I loved this rarely visited attraction a lot more. Also just outside of Amarillo, the VW Slug Bug Ranch is a tongue in cheek nod to the more famous Cadillac version. Five half-buried, heavily graffitied VW bugs sit silently, just waiting for someone like me to come by and snap a pic.
Gary’s Gay Parita
Simply said, there is no better representation of a restored Route 66 service station than Gary’s Gay Parita. The station is a painstakingly restored 1930 Sinclair gas station, complete with more nostalgic artifacts than I thought possible to even exist. When the original owners recently passed away, family members thankfully moved to the area to take over the tradition, hosting Route 66 through-drivers every day and sharing their own stories of life on Route 66.
The Big Texan
I had grand plans for the Big Texan in Amarillo, Texas, but alas, I had overdone the food aspect of the Route before I got there. In 1960, The Big Texan Steak Ranch opened on Route 66. Its kitschy signs and buildings quickly becoming a hallmark of the drive. It was here where the concept of “if you can eat it, it’s free” was also born. Still today, hundreds of people attempt the challenge every year of eating in one hour a 72-ounce steak with sides and an appetizer. If you can manage this Herculean feat, then the meal is free. If you can’t, well, you’ve had a nice meal in the process. I wanted to try the challenge for myself, but an upset stomach prevented me. I promise though, I will return one day and join the ranks of those who have eaten at this still popular restaurant.
Tucumcari, New Mexico
This entire town is worthy of mention and I’m not alone in considering it one of the highlights of driving The Mother Road. Originally a true wild west town where shootouts were commonplace, during the heyday of Route 66 it became known as an oasis where motorists could spend the night in one of the literally thousands of motel rooms available. Today only a fraction of those rooms are still around, but the main street through town is a testament to their will to survive. Old neon signs light up the road highlighting such famous establishments as Teepee Curios and the now-famous Blue Swallow Motel. Opened in 1940, it remains one of the best examples of an old tourist court on the Route. Each room is decorated with period furniture and has an attached garage, most of those painted with scenes from the movie “Cars”. It’s a great example of the passion I witnessed from hundreds of small business owners along the way, each one fiercely committed to preserving their own slice of Americana.
There is no motel more famous along Route 66 than this, the original Wigwam Motel. Often copied in TV and on film (watch “Cars”), this is as classic and kitschy as it gets when it’s time to spend the night somewhere. When they were originally built in the 1930s, the Wigwams were part of a chain that stretched across the country. Today there are just a few left, and this one in Holbrook, Arizona is by far the most famous. On-site are 15 wigwams, each 21-feet wide and 28-feet high with private bathrooms, TV, air conditioning and more. Vintage cars sit out front and there’s an aura of classic Americana everywhere. Although I didn’t spend the night, I made sure to stop and spend some time admiring this iconic destination.
Any classic rock fan will immediately recognize the importance of Winslow, Arizona, immortalized by The Eagles in their hit song “Take it Easy.” While the mention of the town is brief, Winslow has more than adopted the song and the band as their own, creating statues in the city, you guessed it, right on the corner. Winslow is about much more than one song though; it played an important role on Route 66 and was a favorite stop for many of the drivers on their way to California. Just as The Eagles are found everywhere throughout town, so are nods to Route 66 making this a not to miss stop.
Driving through Arizona and California, we noticed a travel phenomenon we hadn’t seen anywhere else along Route 66. Day trips for visiting tourists are set up to take people to certain stops along Route 66. Never really driving along the true road, they instead use the Interstate to reach certain towns that have become iconic. While I don’t approve of skipping the drive itself, I know how important these tours are to struggling communities, including one of the top tourist spots, Seligman. The couple of blocks that make up the downtown are chock-a-block with cafes and small businesses, all paying homage to Route 66, which does indeed run through town. For us, it was a nice pit stop along an otherwise nondescript road and a great place to buy some souvenirs, in all honesty.
Jack Rabbit Trading Post
Yet another roadside attraction that owes recent popularity to its feature in the movie “Cars,” it’s impossible to miss this small store as you approach Joseph City. For miles the sign “Here it is” leads the way to the strange, definitely quirky and slightly creepy Jack Rabbit Trading Post. The store isn’t what’s creepy, it’s the logo of the menacing rabbit but that, along with everything else here is what makes it so memorable. After visiting I fear that this important store may be seeing its last days, so be sure to visit while you still can.
There are literally hundreds of funny, strange and decidedly quirky stops along Route 66, all coming together to make The Mother Road what it is; a journey back in time. Driving the entirety of Route 66 is the only way I know of to simultaneously learn about where we have been as a country, where we are now and where we’re going. It’s a snapshot of what America is really all about, just as important for foreign visitors as it is for Americans like myself.