Past and present on Route 66

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

“Ah, there’s nothing like a Polish sausage smothered with jalapenos to settle a queasy stomach,” I said to my skeptical traveling companion Bob Allen, adding a squirt of mustard for good luck and taking a humongous bite.

There’s something about driving the length of Route 66 — or even setting out to do so — that gives you a voracious appetite. It was Saturday, Oct. 8, 2011, and we’d just sat down to our first lunch of the journey, at Polk-a-Dot, a drive-in in Braidwood, Illinois, an hour or so south of Chicago.

In operation since 1956, the popular Route 66 landmark features remote jukebox music selectors on every table and life-size statues of Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Betty Boop in the parking lot.

Since embarking that morning, we’d toured the Route 66 Museum in Joliet, and were on our way to the next stop, the historic Standard gasoline station at Odell, before spending the first night in Abraham Lincoln’s home town of Springfield, Illinois.

America’s iconic old highway is no stranger to me. From 1959, I spent three years of my early teens living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, just a few city blocks off America’s “Mother Road” — as John Steinbeck dubbed it in “The Grapes of Wrath,” his classic 1939 novel about the Depression-era Dust Bowl in 1930s Oklahoma. But I hadn’t motored on Route 66 since I was on my way to Japan in June 1965.

In between then and now, a whole lot has sure happened to me — and to Route 66, which was delisted from the United States Highway System in 1985. That means routes with other numbers have now sliced it into bits, and fans are reduced to following “Historic Route 66″ plaques “all the way from Chicago to L.A.” — as Bobby Troup put it in the R&B song “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66″ he penned in 1946, and which has since been recorded by (among many others) Nat King Cole, Chuck Berry, The Rolling Stones, Depeche Mode and Tokyo’s own Guitar Wolf.

Moved half by an expat’s curiosity to see how America has changed in the intervening years, and half from a yearning to recall my upbringing in the U.S. Southwest, I decided to put an unexpected windfall from my Japanese nenkin (state pension) to use and embark on a Route 66 drive.

Bob, an adventuresome retired police official who was raised in Africa, eagerly signed on for the journey, although his stream of questions along the way glaringly exposed my shortcomings as a guide.

“Where are all the tumbleweeds?” he constantly badgered me. And indeed, the thorny weeds’ failure to materialize and roll in meter-high balls across our bows was one of our few disappointments.

To my amazement and delight, however, I discovered you can still get your kicks on Route 66 — as the song’s chorus urges — and during two weeks last autumn, I did just that.

Transversing eight states and three time zones, Route 66 remains an iconic time tunnel of historical and cultural images, kept alive by the shared memories of millions of Americans. Thanks to films and television, it attracts visitors from all over the world, even, I was surprised to see, from mainland China — perhaps because it’s now possible to get decent Chinese cuisine almost anywhere along the way.

This was not just a trip down memory lane; it was time travel with a vengeance. We strolled past the steps of the old Illinois State House in Springfield and saw where Abraham Lincoln and his Democratic rival for the Senate, incumbent Sen. Stephen Douglas, both gave electioneering speeches in 1858 focused on the divisive issue of slavery. We also drove across bridges that have been in use since the Model-T Ford was in its 1920s heyday. And we beheld innumerable magnificent examples of nature’s handiwork formed over millions of years.

All this and much much more was indelibly imprinted on our minds between Oct. 8, when we started from just off Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago, and two weeks later when we arrived at Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles, having racked up 6,424 km (3,992 miles) on the odometer.

Along with the constantly changing topography, the journey was full of unexpected surprises.

“Stop! Whoa ! Pull over !” I exclaim to Bob, while doing a double-take at a motel we’d just driven past in Chelsea, Oklahoma. “Did you see that ?! My god, it’s the spitting image of the Bates Motel — you know, in the (Alfred) Hitchcock movie ‘Psycho.’ It’s even got a creepy-looking old house behind it.”

We make a U-turn, swing around and pull up in front of the six-unit Chelsea Motor Inn. I disembark and with a mad grin on my face start snapping photos.

Frank Jugler, a Baltimore, Maryland, native, emerges from the motel’s tiny office and it soon became clear this is a man who relishes his role as proprietor of a facsimile of Hollywood’s creepiest lodging. Delighted to make our acquaintance, he kept up a constant stream of chatter, including a fond account of a female buffalo who used to roam free in his backyard. And, of course, he talked about the famous 1960 film.

“She (the female lead, Janet Leigh) would have been killed right here, in Unit 5,” grins Frank, swinging the door open and inviting me to inspect a spotlessly clean room with bedspread and curtains bearing the Route 66 shield (with no bloodstains evident).

Putting sharp knives to a more sensible use two days later, we sat down to lunch at the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, Texas. Long a Route 66 landmark, its operators from those days moved to the busier Interstate 40 back in the 1970s — but the deal remains the same: Gobble down one of their 72-oz (2,041-gram) steaks in no longer than 60 minutes and your $72 (paid up front) will be cheerfully refunded. Nowadays, though, your success, or failure, in conquering this carnivore’s Everest is captured on a webcam and broadcast over the Internet for the whole world to watch. Just for the record, I was content to pay for a much more modest 15-oz (425-gram) slab; both the cuisine and service were highly satisfactory.

Retracing Route 66 isn’t particularly easy. Think of a giant jigsaw puzzle that’s missing some of its pieces. Adding partly to the confusion is the sheer variety of names for it now in use: Historic Route 66, Old 66, I-40 Business, East Route 66 Blvd., Oklahoma 66, MO-Z, N. Front Street, US 69A, Central Avenue, W. Highway 66 and the ubiquitous “Main Street” — and in many sections, no name at all.

Including the various “alignments,” I’ve seen estimates that about 85 percent of the old road remains and is accessible to cars — although four-wheel drive vehicles are recommended for some stretches that are no longer being maintained.

For the uninitiated, driving and navigating this highway is definitely a two-person task. As our main navigation aid, we relied on the second edition of “EZ 66 Guide for Travelers” by Jerry McClanahan, which is published by the National Historic Route 66 Federation. The book provides maps and extremely detailed turn-by-turn instructions for those traveling both east to west, like us, and west to east, with regular updates posted on the Internet at www.mcjerry66.com.

To stick to our schedule and to spare the car from unnecessary wear and tear, portions of our trip were made on newer Interstates, principally the I-55, I-44, I-40 and I-15. From these roads, we could still catch glimpses of remnants of Route 66, in places downgraded to the lowly appellation “frontage road,” running roughly parallel to the highway — often with tracks of the BNSF Railway (a subsidiary of Fort Worth, Texas-based, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp.) close by. Parts of the old road are sometimes negotiable for half an hour before abruptly coming to a dead end, fenced off as private property.

Some of these vestiges are flanked by the forlorn shells of abandoned motels, with some ghost gas stations still displaying signs offering “Regular: 18 cents/gallon” (The current going rate is over $4 a gallon).

Our “time machine” for the journey was a dark maroon 2011 Infiniti G37 luxury-sports sedan with a 3.7-liter V6 engine (equivalent to the Nissan Fuga VIP version in Japan), for which I owe special thanks to the kind arrangements of Japan-based speechwriter John Harris, Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. and Nissan North America.

Whatever the old road or its newer incarnations threw at it, the Infiniti proved itself fully up to the task, happily zipping along the high-speed Interstates like an eager puppy tugging at its leash and then, with nary a grumble, automatically downshifting onto Route 66′s two-lane blacktop, where its wide torque band and nimble handling rendered it oblivious to the hills, curves and bumps.

En route, we also made several side trips, including a visit to the southern Ozarks resort town of Branson, Missouri, where we watched a spectacular performance by teenaged acrobats from China; to the historic New Mexico cities of Los Alamos and Taos; the Painted Desert, Petrified Forest and Grand Canyon National Parks in Arizona; and the “sin city” of Las Vegas in Nevada.

Our closest brush with glamour and fame along Route 66 was almost certainly the Hotel El Rancho in Gallup, New Mexico. Opened in 1937 by the brother of film director D.W. Griffith, the establishment — whose slogan is “The charm of yesterday, the convenience of tomorrow” — played host to dozens of top Hollywood stars who came to town to shoot Western movies on location. Each room in the hotel duly bears the name of an actor — ours was the Alan Ladd (of “Shane” fame) room; while just aross the hall was the Jane Fonda room.

While reveling in the sights and sounds of the good old days, I was happily reminded that America has made social progress since the first time I traveled the road. Back then, members of minority groups — black people in particular — had difficulty getting served in restaurants or finding accommodations. Now, people who discriminate do so in defiance of the law.

In addition, a program called “Adopt a Highway” appears to be doing a fantastic job of keeping the roadsides clean, so throughout our odyssey there was almost no litter or other jetsom to spoil the scenery.

Driving Route 66 is not limited to any particular season, but the hottest and coldest months would place more strain on both the driver and vehicle. As it turned out, early October proved an ideal choice. However, at that time of year many local attractions close as early as 4 p.m., so careful planning is definitely called for. Inconveniences were somewhat offset, though, by the availability of wireless Internet at all the places we stayed — which also gave us flexibility when reserving accommodations at our next destinations.

While U.S. gasoline prices are once again approaching historic highs, Route 66 maven McClanahan doesn’t believe this has had a major impact on visitors, particularly from overseas.

“For a majority of foreign tourists, what Americans call ‘high gas prices’ is a bargain to them!” he pointed out when we stopped by to see him in his little art gallery in Chandler, Oklahoma, adding, “Foreign visitors are keeping the Route 66 roadside alive.

“In my experience, the largest number of overseas tourists would have to be Australians, who come through in big guided tours (and also in ones and twos),” he told me. “On several occasions I’ve had more than 50 Aussies in my art gallery at one time. Many also come from Britain and Canada. France, Denmark and Belgium are also well represented.”

Of course, it’s not necessary to drive the road’s entire length to appreciate its many attractions. A week, or even less, can cover a lot of territory.

“Coming from Japan, you could fly into Los Angeles, then enjoy the stretch through Barstow, California, and into Arizona, going through Oatman, Kingman and Seligman to as far east as Williams or Flagstaff,” McClanahan suggests. “The vast reaches of the Mojave Desert you’d cross along the way are awe inspiring, and the rugged, scary, twisting trip through the mountains near the old gold-mining town of Oatman is not to be missed. Kingman has a great Route 66 Museum and the Hackberry general store there is a visual treat. and Seligman is home to Angel Delgadillo’s barber shop and also the Snow Cap drive-in — both historic Route 66 landmarks. Then, from Williams, there’s easy access to the Grand Canyon.

“My home state of Oklahoma is also full of fascinating attractions and history,” he adds. “You could fly into Oklahoma City or Tulsa, then see nearby sights such as the Blue Whale, Round Barn, Coleman Theatre, the Sidewalk Highway, Totem Pole Park, miles of scenic Route 66, old iron bridges, Old West attractions and all kinds of museums.”

Having seen much of the old road from end to end, I find it hard to play favorites. Nonetheless, what stirred my most vivid memories was the moment I knew I was on Route 66, even before I saw the signs — due to the characteristic ka-THUMP, ka-THUMP as the tires hit the seams that join its old concrete-slab sections. It was a rhythm that rocked me back magically to another time.