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The Can’t Miss List: U.S. Route 66

Whether it be from films like Pixar’s Cars, through sociological and historic study or through an interest in Americana, you’ve probably heard of Route 66.

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“The Mother Road”, as it was called, connects Chicago, IL and Los Angeles, CA and is really the first interstate the US ever saw. Motorists were sick of arriving at state lines only to find that the road they were on would just end, because each state was responsible for their own highway network and they didn’t always talk to each other to make sure everything lined up.

So, eventually, enough was enough, and the first interstate was born and with it a whole network of hotels, restaurants and truck stops the likes of which had never been seen before.

Route 66 still exists; there have been various formations (or “alignments”) over the years, however, so you can’t directly cross from one side to the other.

However, the sights and sounds still remain, but there’s a lot of ground to cover. Here’s a top 10 must-see list—arranged east to west–to make things a little easier.

Route 66 Food N Fuel, Joliet, IL

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Yes, on the surface this seems like just another truck stop/snack shop, but continue around the far side of the building and there it is, in all its glory: a 1974 Dodge Monaco atop a 50-foot pole, in full police livery. Yes, it’s the Bluesmobile from The Blues Brothers, and it forms a bit of a gateway to a stretch of R. 66 that will take you from the Food N Fuel, on to the Joilet Correctional Center (yes, where Elwood picks Jake up from at the beginning of the movie) and through to the (still operational, depending on the season) Joliet Kicks on 66 ice cream bar, atop which stand to life-sized statues of the Jake and Elwood themselves.

Across from that? Dick’s on 66, a service centre turned time capsule surrounded by classic cars and half an old F350 pickup. A must see.

The Gemini Giant fiberglass statue, Wilmington, IL

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The Gemini Giant definitely falls under the “eclectic” banner as far as your Route 66 sights go, but it’s significant for a few reasons.

One, is just how positively weird it looks. The way the Giant leers at you from behind a propane tank disguised as a welder’s mask is straight out of dystopian novels like A Brave New World  or 1984, but it remains a case of “I am scared, yet I cannot look away”. The pupil-less eyes really have to be seen to be believed.

Secondly, it is a representation of the space travel (and fiberglass; think Chevy Corvette) craze of the ‘50s and ‘60s, when everything from tailfins to toasters displayed rocket ship-inspired styling. It’s also a glimpse at a bizarre trend for the era, when International Fiberglass created a host of these giants to act as unique roadside advertising. Everything from hot dog stands to muffler shops used these billboard men, and three remain today: the Gemini Giant, a hot dog toting Paul Bunyan-like figure out front of a restaurant in Atlanta, MI and the Lauterbach Tire Man in Springfield, IL.

Ambler’s Texaco Gas Station, Dwight, IL

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There are a tonne of these classic gas stations all up and down the Route—some in use, some turned into museums, some sagging slowly to the earth below—but Ambler’s spot is the perfect microcosm. The pumps are frozen at .23 per gallon (about .05 per litre), and are pristine examples of something a collector might have in their garage full of classic cars. The “Sky Chief” and “Fire Chief” logos atop each one, meanwhile, look like they were placed there yesterday.

In a unique twist on old meets new, there’s actually an EV charging station in the parking lot!

Honourable mention has to go to the Shell station just down the road, proudly emblazoned with a mural of a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO, pristine examples of which can run as high as $20m at auction today. Who says you can’t have a little Euro flare with your Americana?

The Chain of Rocks Bridge, St. Louis, MO

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More of a side trip than part of the road itself, this nearly mile-long span across the Mississippi River just outside of St. Louis, MO (you can see the Peach Arch on the horizon from here) is worth a visit, even if you can’t drive it. Which you can’t, because the town that owns it isn’t prepared to foot the maintenance bill required for sustained vehicle traffic.

Walk it, however, and you’ll be treated to some of the more spectacular vistas of the area, with the giant Mississippi spanning the entirety of the horizon in either direction.

The retired water control towers rising from the depths of the Mississippi below that look like castaways from the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy are icing on the cake.

The star cars from Disney’s Cars, Galena, KS

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I don’t know about you, dear readers, but Pixar’s Cars holds a special place in my heart. Indeed, it was probably the catalyst to make me so eager to attempt this R. 66 odyssey.

What better way to honour it, then, then to visit one of the towns that helped inspire the film? Galena hasn’t forgotten about it, either; as soon as you enter the town, life-size versions of Mater and Red (the fire truck) greet you, along with a tow truck that inspired Mater.

This is actually a bit of a two-parter; for more Cars lore, you can’t miss the U-Drop Inn in Shamrock, TX (see gallery below); there are many buildings and establishments that inspired settings from the film, but few are more obvious than this fill station/café that looks very similar to Ramone’s paint shop in the movie. As an added bonus, there’s a great gift shop here where you can sample some “Route 66” brand soda.

Route 66 Museum, Clinton, OK

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Un-missable just off the route in Clinton is that town’s R. 66 museum, a veritable time capsule of all things R. 66 (which, of course, is a bit of a time capsule in and of itself) where you’ll find a comprehensive history of the birth, use and eventual decline of the route.

You’ll find an example of an International truck used to cross from Oklahoma to California during the Dust Bowl era, a classic ’57 Chev out front plus dioramas of a classic ‘50s diner and more. Indeed, the whole route through the museum takes a timeline theme; you start off in the Dust Bowl era with the International, and finish in the ‘70s with a hippy-fied VW bus, with die cast models of popular cars of the era—Mustangs, Camaros, etc.—to accompany the full-size exhibits.

The Cadillac Ranch, Amarillo, TX

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What do you do when you get one crack group of artists, a bunch of old Cadillacs and the vast openess of Texas? Well, one of the crazier vehicle-themed art installations you’ll find.

The Cadillac Ranch was established in 1974 by a group of artists called The Ant Farm, who obviously really wanted to leave their mark on the Texas landscape.

Better still, anyone who visits the Ranch is encouraged to leave their mark as well; you’ll find spray paint cans littering the ground that the cars (ranging from 1949 to 1963) are literally sprouting out of. They’re not empties, either; they’re there to be picked up by visitors and used. Just don’t expect your love note or favorite sports team’s logo to be there for long; the paint is over an inch thick in some places, and literally dripping off the cars, leaving the impression you’re walking through a multicoloured forest of stalagmites.

Tucumcari, NM

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A classic gas station or two not enough for you? Then perhaps the R. 66 portion that serves as the main drag in Tucumcari, NM will better suit your needs.

If there was one place that best embodies what R. 66 was about–hungry travelers needing a place to shack up for the night (or perhaps do more than shack up, in the case of the various no-tell motels you see here)–this is it. Classic hotel marquees (with names like “Palomino” and “Blue Swallow”) as far as the eye can see, some still active, some still standing on otherwise empty lots, diners, gas stations; as Judge Doom of Who Framed Roger Rabbit fame might say “My Gawd, it was beautiful.”

It’s all so wacky, too; the Blue Swallow motel has a 1951 Pontiac Eight in front of it, while the Historic Route 66 Motel—that’s what it’s called—has a classic single-engine prop plane in front of it, and quite the trendy coffee shop—still operational—on the tip of its west wing.

Throw in the fact that movies like Two-Lane Blacktop and Rawhide were shot there, and you have a town as steeped in lore as anything along R. 66.

The Petrified Forest and Painted Desert, AZ

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Proof that R. 66 is more than just cars and kitsch can be found in the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest, two natural phenomena that will inspire you with their beauty.

The petrified forest, a cause of floodwaters racing through forests, infusing the wood and eventually crystalizing is fantastic; picture a landscape littered with what look like tree logs, only to the touch, you’d swear they were solid stone. Which they pretty much are.

The Painted Desert, meanwhile, sits just past the Petrified Forest along the route. “Painted” refers to the way the rock formations can easily erode, bringing to the fore different rock compounds that form “painted” rings around each formation. Special stuff.

The Wigwam Hotel, Holbrook, AZ

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Like Ambler’s Texaco, the Wigwam is kind of a microcosm of another R. 66 phenomenon, and that’s themed hotels.

The beauty of these types of places isn’t necessarily the architecture—though that’s a big part of the experience, especially the Wigwam with its concrete teepees—but the details, or what goes on around the hotel itself. The Wigwam has a brace of static displays of classic cars; there’s a ’59 Impala over there, and a ’63 Beetle over there; the El Rancho in Gallup, NM has rooms named after famous movie stars that actually stayed there, and the EL Trovatore in Kingman, AZ has uniquely-designed rooms themed after Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, James Dean and more.

Remember; in the early days of film, the actors had to cross from place to place by train, which meant frequent stopovers in towns like Kingman. So you get to live like a star, even if it is a star from the black and white era.

BONUS: Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica, CA

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Technically, R. 66 ends just up the block from the pier, but it’s on the pier itself that the whole thing is really celebrated; indeed, there’s a big sign commemorating it. Any number of R. 66-themed gifts can be had here, or grab a hot dog or shake in any of the canteens scattered throughout. You’ll likely have seen places like this throughout your travels along the route, but there’s just something special about a corn dog at the very end. Or take a ride on the famous ferris wheel or roller coaster.

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