Route 66

Roam the historic road through the Western United States and you will ramble through many of the towns name-checked in Bobby Troup's musical ode to the Mother Road.
By: Eli Ellison

Looking to "get your kicks on Route 66"?

Roam the historic road through the Western United States and you will ramble through many of the towns name-checked in Bobby Troup's musical ode to the Mother Road.

Gallup, New Mexico, and Flagstaff, Arizona? You'll see 'em. Don't forget Winona, Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino and Santa Monica, too.

Completed in 1926, Route 66 winds 2,448 miles from Chicago to L.A. Through most of the Western states, Route 66 follows Interstate 40, which eventually replaced much of the Mother Road. In some areas, the remnants of 66 parallel the interstate as a frontage road. In others, the old road still goes directly through town.

Heading east to west, just like John Steinbeck's Joad family, we pick up the route in Tucumcari, New Mexico, about 40 miles west of the Texas state line.

New Mexico
Motoring through the state's Eastern plains, your chance to break free of the interstate and ride the old road comes in Tucumcari. Lined with mom and pop motor inns aglow in vintage neon, the spirit of 66 is alive and well in this atmospheric little town.

Ready to bunk down for the night? Lay your head at Tucumcari's classic Blue Swallow Motel

Up ahead, hit the brakes in Santa Rosa for the Route 66 Auto Museum, a mandatory pit stop for chrome dreamers and custom hot-rod lovers. Hungry? Fill your tank at nearby Joseph's Restaurant, dishing up belt-busting road grub since 1956.

Some 40 miles beyond big city Albuquerque, you'll begin to see signs for the Sky City Casino Hotel (Exit 102). Though not technically on Route 66, Acoma Pueblo's Sky City is well worth the 18-mile detour. Guided tours visit a traditional bluff-top adobe pueblo that dates from the mid-12th century. Bring cash; this is a great place to buy authentic pueblo pottery.

Back on I-40, a half-hour drive under the big New Mexico sky brings you to Grants, a town enriched by a 1950s uranium-mining boom. Route 66, Grants' main drag, is lined with quirky motels and ancient eateries. A matchbox of a diner, the homey Uranium Cafe cooks a good, greasy road breakfast.

West of Grants, indulge your secret love of souvenir kitsch (rubber rattlesnakes, jackalope postcards, Made-in-China moccasins) by taking Exit 47. Here, you'll find a wonderfully tacky cluster of Indian trading posts atop the Continental Divide (elevation 7,275 feet).

Made famous by the song, Gallup is a garish hodgepodge of motels, fast-food joints and pawnshops. Resist the urge to keep driving. Here you'll find two of the Mother Road's best sleeps and eats.

The El Rancho Hotel opened in 1937 and earned the nickname "Home of the Movie Stars" after hosting Hollywood actors shooting Westerns in the area. The hotel has a hunting-lodge feel and rooms (think wagon-wheel headboards) are named after celluloid cowboys like John Wayne and Joel McCrea. In downtown Gallup, a block south of Route 66 on Coal Avenue, dig into spicy New Mexican fare at the tiny Jerry's Cafe.

Generations of Route 66 travelers couldn't resist pocketing a chunk of petrified wood at Petrified Forest National Park. But you know better now, right? Good. Begin your visit in the Northern section of the park, where the brilliant hues of the Painted Desert are sure to max out your memory card. South of I-40, Route 66 winds past ancient trees turned to colorful stone.

Holbrook, Arizona, is home to the Wigwam Motel, one of the country's three remaining concrete tee-pee motor courts. Light sleepers, beware. Passing freight trains will cost you a few winks.

Just down the interstate, more roadside kitsch awaits. Look for the "Here It Is" billboards luring you to the Jack Rabbit Trading Post (Exit 269). Pick up a plastic tomahawk and then pose for pictures atop the giant jackrabbit out front. A Route 66 scrapbook must.

Farther down I-40, stand on the famous corner (Kinsley Avenue and Second Street) in Winslow, Arizona, where you'll hear the 1970s Eagles hit "Take It Easy" blasting out of every gift shop within earshot. A huge mural of the "girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford" provides a backdrop for Standin' On The Corner Park

Winona, a town Bobby Troup used only because it rhymes with Arizona, is a small, nondescript community you'll quickly forget. Flagstaff, its big next-door neighbor, lacks some of the nostalgia found in smaller towns. But it does boast the Museum Club, a 1931 log-cabin roadhouse specializing in live country music and stiff drinks.

Often overlooked, Seligman is a vestige of the old road's glory days. The antique neon motel signs are some of Arizona's best. For a good night's rest, check into the Historic Route 66 Motel. In old downtown, the Snow Cap Drive-In and Angel Delgadillo's barbershop/gift store are Seligman landmarks. Get a haircut, grab a cheeseburger and shop for that perfect Route 66 knickknack.

From here, the interstate cuts straight through to Kingman. Instead, you'll take old 66 toward Peach Springs. Twelve miles outside of town, a toothy T-Rex stands guard at Grand Canyon Caverns, a natural limestone cave reached by a 21-story elevator descent.

In Kingman, an old power-generating plant houses the Kingman Powerhouse, an excellent interactive Mother Road museum. Follow Route 66 west out of town to Oatman, a touristy Old West town known for the wild burros that wander the four-block-long main drag looking for handouts.

The end of the line is near. Before reaching the mighty Pacific, grab a bite at the funky Bagdad Cafe in Newberry Springs. The Mojave Desert town's starring role in the cult German film "Bagdad Cafe" draws thousands of European tourists each year.

A pair of interesting museums lies ahead. The first is Barstow's Route 66 Mother Road Museum, which occupies an old Harvey House hotel dating from 1911. The other, the California Route 66 Museum, is in Victorville near the steep Cajon Pass, the final descent into Southern California. Both museums house treasure troves of memorabilia.

In San Bernardino, the final town mentioned in "(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66," a beautifully restored Wigwam Motel fronts what is now Foothill Boulevard. The motel has been modernized (cable TV, high-speed internet). But unfortunately, the old sign that enticed travelers to "Do It in a Tee-Pee" has been replaced with a more politically correct version.

In the massive Los Angeles basin, the Mother Road rolls through urban neighborhoods that don't offer the romance of the wide-open West. But the finish line is a fitting one. Route 66 meets the sea at the Santa Monica Pier, where a neon-lit archway lets you know that you've just traveled the highway that's the best.

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