By Guy Genin and Barbara Keer
“Here we are on Route 66”, the book, immediately caught my attention. When I was a child living in Chicago, it was a trip on Route 66 that brought my family to Los Angeles. I grew up there, married, had children and then returned to Chicagoland when my husband was offered a job in Evanston, a suburb just north of Chicago, where we raised our children. The Art Institute of Chicago has been a place that each member of our family has enjoyed. Each time I step out of the Michigan Avenue door of the Art Institute, I see the famous lions but what always gives me a “start” is looking at the sign across the street that says ”Route 66 starts here”.
In this time of limited travel because of the impact of COVID 19, I chose to do my cross country traveling virtually – Chicago to LA on Route 66 courtesy of author Jim Hinkley. The book is visually attractive and designed to capture the reader’s attention. The photos combined with fascinating stories made for a great trip. The size of the book makes it perfect to bring along when traveling or to keep on a table for visitors to enjoy. I enjoyed my travels through the book learned so much. It is a great book for a gift.
Guy Genin and I wanted to learn more about Jim Hinckley and his adventures on Route 66, and he generously answered our questions about the book and his travels:
Pontiac’s courthouse and its statue of Abe Lincoln on his first trip is must-see stop in Illinois. In your many years of traveling Route 66, how have your interactions with traffic enforcement been? How often do you they invite you to the courthouses along the way?
With the exception of the last couple of years, I have traveled all or part of Route 66 annually since 1959. Since my days as a truck driver I have not received an official invitation to visit a courthouse.
Often I find law enforcement in Route 66 communities to be a bit more tolerant of minor infractions. Route 66 has long been the highway of dreams. And so on any day you might encounter someone driving the highway with a motorcycle manufactured in 1916, a French mime attempting to set a stilt walking record, a couple celebrating a 60th anniversary by driving to California in a ’57 Chevy with tear drop trailer, and a group traveling the iconic highway by bicycle.
With Route 66 associations in Italy, Czech Republic, Japan, the UK, Germany, Australia and the Netherlands organizing events and tours, the police in most towns have become accustomed to dealing with people unfamiliar with traffic laws, or what side of the road to drive on. And of course there are many travelers, such as Australians, who use English as a second language.
In many communities the police department actively works to foster good relations with travelers. As an example, some travelers carry patches from police departments in their home towns to trade with police officers encountered along the route. In Kingman, Arizona, the chief of police often attends receptions for groups organized by groups such as the Kingman Route 66Association. There have been occasions when the police department will provide an escort through town for groups or assist with traffic so a group can stay together.
Route 66 is renowned for its quirky roadside displays. What impressions have you taken away as you have met the creators of these the years? Do proprietors along the way view these as the classic Americana they have become, or as the advertising gimmicks that of their beginnings?
Route 66 is in the era of renaissance. U.S. 66 is not America’s most scenic or most historic highway. But from it inception Route 66 was the most promoted and hyped highway in America. And so it is, arguably, the most famous highway in the world.
The 2018 Czech Route 66 Association’s second annual European Route 66 Festival drew more than 20,000 attendees to Zlin, Czechia from throughout the world, including Brazil. This is rather amazing when one considers that officially the highway does not exist. It was decertified as a US highway in the 1980s.
Today the iconic highway has evolved into a caricature, a romanticized vision of the classic American road trip – neon and tail fins. But it is much more than that. It is a string of time capsules, an almost magical place where the past, present and even future blend seamlessly. Consider the Powerhouse Visitor Center on Route 66 in Kingman, Arizona. Housed in a powerhouse built in 1907 is the city’s tourism office, an exhibit from internationally acclaimed artist Bob Boze Bell, an award winning museum that chronicles the evolution of highway development in western Arizona and an embryonic electric vehicle museum. Directly across the street is a roadside park that dates to the mid 1930s with a 1920s locomotive as the focal point. And on the corner is Mr. D’z Route 66 Diner, a restaurant that opened in 1940 and was converted into a stereotypical 1950s diner in 1992.
Roadside attractions are an integral component of the road trip experience just as they were when then 21-year old Edsel Ford drove to California in 1915. They have also been a manifestation of the American entrepreneurial spirit. And so in the era of Route 66 renaissance the roadside attraction has become crucial to the preservation of that highway’s idiosyncratic nature.
Original attractions such as the Jack Rabbit Trading Post that opened in 1949 near Joseph City, Arizona blur the line between past and present. The family that has owned the property since 1960 take their role as steward very seriously. They work tirelessly to ensure that the visitor experiences the very essence of Route 66, and the great American road trip.
A new generation of entrepreneur such as Louie Keen is building attractions for a new generation. He is the proprietor of Uranus Fudge Company & General Store near St. Robert, Missouri. Juvenile humor reigns supreme as every effort is made to capitalize on the name. A towering neon sign with a dinosaur eating a flying saucer standing along the highway hearkens to an earlier time. The complex also includes escape rooms, the world’s largest circus sideshow museum, a miniature golf course, and a restaurant in a British double decker bus.
Like the herds of buffalo before them, the herds of oversized fiberglass buffalo and beasts that grace Route 66 are slowly dwindling. What changes have you seen in this roadside art over the years, and what are some of the ways that you have seen people trying to preserve these?
Route 66 has always been in a state of evolution. The highway roadside of 1930 was quite different from the roadside of 1950 or 1960. Roadside art mirrors this.
The giant “muffler men” created by International Fiberglass in the 1960s are treasured and often repurposed. The City of Atlanta in Illinois recovered and refurbished one of these statues complete with giant hot dog. Placed in a downtown park along the highway, it has become a popular photo stop for travelers.
Cuba, Missouri launched an ambitious program to chronicle the towns rich history with a series of colorful murals. This fostered development of a sense of community as well as community purpose. And it has fueled an increase in foot traffic along Route 66 and in the historic business district, an economic boon for businesses.
Artist Gregg Arnold acquired a defunct gas station and cafe near Hackberry Arizona, and created a giant garish green Easter Island styled head he dubbed Giganticus Headicus. It is has become a destination for legions of Route 66 enthusiasts who stop for pictures, to see his gallery, and to see what projects he has in development. Totem Pole Park near Foyil, Oklahoma, a folk art masterpiece created in the 1930s has been refurbished. Historic neon signage is being restored or recreated for use in neon lit parks filled with an array of public art ranging from murals to sculptures.
You have explored many towns that are becoming ghost towns along Route 66, towns where even barbed wire constitutes museum pieces. What makes the people remaining in these towns continue to stay?
Let’s start with the Barbed Wire Museum and Route 66 Museum in McLean, Texas, a town that has been on the decline for more than fifty years … is actually a most interesting museum, and there is even a direct connection to the sinking of the Titanic.The museum complex is housed in a former brassiere factory that once gave McLean the unoffical moniker “Uplift Capital of Texas.”
The old town has definitely seen better times. The population is hovering around 800 people. And yet resultant of how popular Route 66 is, a lady moved from Houston and is refurbishing the mid 1950s Cactus Inn Motel. Another person looking for something more rewarding in life moved to McLean and opened a tap room.
The reasons people stay in these towns, or relocate to them and open businesses are diverse. For some it is family ties that stretch back a century or more. Others simply enjoy the quiet slow pace and the lax regulation that allows them to create a quirky roadside attraction and make a better than average living. And then there are the people that just enjoy life lived on the edge of being a hermit.
The ghost towns on Route 66, and towns like Texola that have lost more than 98% of their population, mirror American societal changes of the past century. The commonality is that they became ghost towns in the modern era.
In San Jose, New Mexico, the quaint adobe chapel has cast a shadow over the Santa Fe Trail, the National Old Trails Highway and Route 66. But the realignment of Route 66 in 1937 coupled with the economic calamity of the Great Depression, declining agricultural prices, and the exodus of young people to nearby Santa Fe and Albuquerque over the past seventy years have pushed the old village to near ghost town status.
Route 66 is one of the last holdouts of the mom-and-pop drive-up motel and the surprises of all sorts that they bring. Do you have any examples of experiences at Route 66 motels that differed memorably from your expectations?
All along the two lane highways of America you will find mom and pop operated motels. But as with everything else on Route 66, many of the old motels are special. Only on this highway will people restore a long shuttered, condemned motel and do it with a smile. Only on Route 66 will an old motel become a destination. But if the traveler is wanting the offerings of a Marriott or Holiday Inn Express they will be sorely disappointed by a lovingly restored 1939 motel even if it is a time capsule wrapped in modern amenities.
My dearest friend and I seek the old motels, and avoid chain motels if possible. But we know what to expect – the showers will often be small, there will be a limited number of electrical outlets, and the rooms will not be large, even at motels that were once resort properties.
But there is pride of ownership at many of the older motels. And you will often get services unheard of at chain motels. At the exceptionally well maintained Sunset Motel, the oldest single family owned motel on Route 66 that opened in 1959, we were invited to join the owners for breakfast in their home.
The proprietor of the circa 1936 Wagon Wheel Motel in Cuba, Missouri often hosts special evening events for guests such as meeting an author or sampling wine from regional wineries. With the public invited to attend, the added advantage is that locals have a better understanding about Route 66 tourism and its potential economic impact on a community. And the guests intermingling with locals, especially the international traveler, is left with memories that last a lifetime.
On occasion there have been disappointments. The only time that I have ever checked into a motel, looked at the room, walked out and demanded a refund was at an historic property in Victorville, California. But these kinds of problems are easily avoided on Route 66. If it is clean, well maintained, and the proprietor friendly, a motel will become a highly recommended destination in social media groups, on websites maintained by Route 66associations, and by popular travel bloggers.
Photos are courtesy of Jim Hinckley unless otherwise noted.