Traveling Route 66


Jane Clark at the Texas state marker along old Route 66 in 1961.

Route 66, known as the “Mother Road,” was the first highway to connect America from Chicago, Illinois, to Santa Monica, California. Construction began in 1926 and continued for more than ten years, stretching over 2,400 miles of asphalt, concrete, and in the early days, plank boards. During the 1930’s as Americans struggled to survive the economic depression, drought, and the “dust bowl,” many families packed up their belongings and headed west on Route 66 looking for a better way of life.
After the end of World War II, automobile factories were in full production, and Americans were invited to “See the USA in Your Chevrolet.” Thousands did just that, traveling America’s “Main Street” to explore the many tourist attractions along Route 66. The lure of Meramac Caverns, Carlsbad Caverns, the Petrified Forest, and the Grand Canyon offered adventure to those who traveled west. Hundreds of unique businesses sprang up along that highway to serve the booming tourist trade. There were many one-of-a-kind restaurants, cafes, motor inns, lodges, gas stations, and trading posts from Illinois to California.
I first traveled west in 1961 when my brother Kenny and I moved to Arizona. My husband Larry had agreed to help his Aunt Freda take a trip west on vacation that year with the understanding that if he found a job in Arizona, he would not be returning with her. He called me in October to say he had been hired as manager of a service station in Phoenix and that I should pack up our few belongings and come there to live.
My brother was interested in looking for a more promising occupation, so he decided to move to Arizona, too. One frosty October morning we packed a small U-Haul trailer with all our worldly possessions and headed west, much like folks did in the 1930’s—hoping for a brighter future.
In the 1950’s the increase in interstate commerce created the need for a more modern highway system, and much of Route 66 was eventually abandoned as a major thoroughfare. Five interstate highways were built to take its place. When Kenny and I went west, we travelled on part of the original Route 66.
We crossed the Wabash River at Vincennes, and when we saw the “Welcome to Missouri” sign at St. Louis, we were excited to have reached the “Gateway to the West.” On later trips across the country after 1965, we saw the St. Louis Arch after it was completed.
From St. Louis we headed west on Route 66. We were familiar with the song “Get Your Kicks on Route 66” from the popular television show and were thrilled to be traveling a portion of that historic highway. In the early 1960’s the highway system took us on a lot of the newer four-lane interstate highways.
The new interstate across Missouri meandered like a pair of wide ribbons through the Ozark Mountains, stretching as far as the eye could see. Even though it did not have the same notoriety as old Route 66, that highway was still a call to adventure for us. We had seen Meramac Caverns advertised on barn roofs across the Midwest, and it was exciting when we passed near that national park at Stanton, Missouri. We were in a hurry to get to Arizona, so didn’t take time to stop. Joplin, Missouri, is where Kenny and I spent our first night on the road.
In Oklahoma we traveled on Interstate 40, and near Tulsa we saw several dozen working oil wells. We stopped in Oklahoma City at Frontier City USA, one of many tourist attractions that dotted the highways. One memorable sight we encountered in was a restaurant which spanned across the interstate.
The “Welcome to Texas” state marker was a stone sculpture which was a popular place for tourists to stop and take photos. As we travelled across the Texas panhandle, my childhood fascination with cowboys made it seem that Gene Autry or Roy Rogers could be just over the next ridge. Amarillo was the largest city we saw in Texas.
Several times when we stopped to fill up with gas on the journey west, we pulled into Stuckey’s, a chain of restaurants with many locations along Route 66 and the interstate highways. It was a chance to stretch our legs and check out the souvenirs or buy one of their famous pecan log candies. Most of the time gasoline was about 35 cents a gallon, but in a couple of cities we were lucky to pay 25 cents a gallon because competing stations were having “gas wars.”
“Welcome to New Mexico” was our next milestone. We traveled through the Land of Enchantment where I saw my first real Indian at an Indian trading post where we stopped for gas and food. After crossing one large stretch of desert, we stopped again for gas in a small town. During that stop we also encountered radiator trouble. The water hose had busted, and the attendant told us we were lucky we made it there. It took over an hour and a large sum of money to make the repairs. We later learned that those kinds of repairs were sometimes “created” by unscrupulous garage attendants.
We were impressed with the big city of Albequerque which sprawled across a valley in the desert. The next town was Grants, New Mexico, where we spent the night in a small motor inn. On the third day we were in Gallup, New Mexico, the last city before we crossed into Arizona.
Holbrook, Arizona was our first stop in what was to become our home state. That’s where the Wig Wam Village motel is located. (It is still there as a museum.) When we arrived in Flagstaff, I was relieved to see tall pine trees, a welcome change from the desert country we had just traveled through. As a kid who grew up in the green hills of Indiana, I didn’t care much for the desert landscape.
We left the westward-leading highway and turned south toward Phoenix. Not long after we left Flagstaff, we were back in the desert again. When we left for Arizona, I didn’t know what kind of country to expect in Phoenix, and didn’t realize that it is also in the desert. I was not disappointed though when we finally arrived in Phoenix because with irrigation, the “Valley of the Sun” was green and lush with trees, flowering shrubs, and citrus groves. I found it to be a beautiful city where Larry and I called home for the next eight years.
Several times we made the 1,800 mile journey from Indiana to Phoenix, and each time we enjoyed the diverse scenery along America’s highways, whether it was on Route 66 or one of the modern interstates. After we started raising a family, Larry and I decided to move back to Indiana so our children could get to know their grandparents. That’s a decision I’ve never regretted.
A large percentage of the original Route 66 can still be traveled thanks to the efforts of motor associations in the various states. Many of the one-of-a-kind businesses and tourist attractions can still be seen along that route. Oklahoma boasts more than 400 miles of drivable Route 66. The open road is still out there waiting for you to discover the charm and treasures of America.
Jane Clark at the Texas state marker along old Route 66 in 1961.


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