Riding Historic Route 66

A “serendiculous” adventure along the Main Street of America.

Route 66 Standard Oil Station
Restored gas stations dotted the entire route. Most are now gift shops or simply photo ops.Photo: Ed Kolano

I think I'll ride Route 66 this year. This ribbon of highway, once The Mother Road, Main Street of America, Will Rogers Highway, now lies threadbare and snipped. What's left is 2,448 miles of stitched-together pavement spanning space and time from Chicago to Santa Monica and nearly a century.

Naturally, objective number one on this epic ride was to snap a hero picture on my '04 BMW R1150R under the famous eastern terminus sign at the corner of Adams Street and Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. Midday on a Sunday, at the height of tourist season. While a summer festival was going on. Yeah, well, at least Scott, my riding buddy, and I managed a helmet-nod homage to the sign as we rode past at a respectful dirge pace.

Route 66 sign
Signs like this were reaffirming navigating today's stitched-together Route 66.Photo: Ed Kolano

Escaping the city, and a close call with a Prius taxi, Route 66 iconography flashed by in irregular succession. Some of it was not so genuine like the Jake and Elwood statues atop an ice cream shop, but others were, like Gemini Giant, a large, short-sleeved, helmet-wearing dude holding a rocket since the 1960s. Just standing there on the side of the road in Wilmington, Illinois, where the Launching Pad Diner once operated.

In the big man’s shadow, a woman approached and asked, “Can I go with you?” Then, as an afterthought, “Where you goin’?” Babysitting four grandkids evidently made her escape destination irrelevant. She settled for a six-pack of grandparent sedative from a nearby convenience store where the cashier advised her to go to Albuquerque, because “a year there makes everybody better looking.” Note to self: Spend a year—make that two—in Albuquerque.

I’ve never found conversations like this in the guidebooks or bombing down the interstate or riding 600 miles per day. You have to ride the two-lanes, explore small towns, and get off the bike and talk to people.

Eat at local restaurants, served by a waitress with a pencil-protruding coif... “You want that with lettuce and tomato or the right way?”

Sante Fe loop, Route 66
It looks straight and boring but the Sante Fe loop sported tolerant canines, wild horses, and a 100-mile vista.Photo: Ed Kolano

Stay at mom & pop hotels like the one where my checkout involved surrendering my metal key on a giant plastic fob to the hotelier lady wearing flannel PJs, terrycloth robe and, I must say, rather fetching fuzzy pink slippers.

Take your time in the little burgs like Odell, Illinois, the “Small town with a big heart, and everybody is somebody.”

It bothered me to come upon a town square surrounded by fast food joints occupying what surely used to be a soda shop or hardware store. They're foreboding encroachments to a grassy park and giant gazebo where you could almost hear the barbershop quartet harmonizing out Sweet Adeline. Okay, that metaphor predates Route 66, but still...sigh.

Route 66 arch bridge
The only remaining arch bridge near Galena, KS, served Route 66 from its beginning in 1926.Photo: Ed Kolano

Throughout its official lifetime, 1926-1985, Route 66 had been realigned several times. Stitched together paths now run as close as possible to the routing of the various eras while many original segments ultimately dissolve into empty plains and deserts. We opted for the 1926-1930 routing, which took us through dozens of these small town gems. So many wrong turns, coin-flip dining decisions and impromptu conversations with strangers resulted in ridiculously serendipitous discoveries. With that realization, all such fortuitous events were branded "serendiculous."

Snell Road
Part of Route 66 from 1926 to 1930, Snell Road near Auburn, IL, wasn't bricked until 1932.Photo: Ed Kolano

We eschewed the bypasses and interstates and rode America’s Highway even when it paralleled its four-lane replacement. Not as fast, but full of serendiculous nuggets like Gary’s Gay Parita Sinclair station in Ash Grove, Missouri. Hoping for a picture next to the period gas pumps, I rode through the gate. Proprietor George politely objected until he noticed the Marine sticker on my rear fender. With an extended hand, this former Marine said, “You can take your bike anywhere you like; you’ve earned it.” I don’t know about the “earned it” part, but semper fi goes a long way. When I asked if I could take his picture, he struck a cigarette-dangling pose with, “You want Brando?” I told him I preferred the Garbo era but only if the seams on his nylons were perfectly straight. I got Brando.

Interactions like this were the norm. Residents and retailers happily educated us about local history and lore and often freely mixed the two. The people we met were infinitely patient when asked questions and waited without complaint for yours truly to take a picture and get out of the road. In Springfield, Illinois, a county worker cutting the grass, stopped mowing and offered to take a picture of me and Scott in front of the capital. Nice folks doing nice things.

Route 66 Sinclair Gas
Proprietor George gave us the run of this place. We spent an hour at the Sinclair Station and could have made a day of it.Photo: Ed Kolano
George's Sinclair Gas Station
I don't know how long I stood in George's garage, slowly turning, taking in as much as I could.Photo: Ed Kolano

Not nice was more than 20 bug bites collected during the first two days on this trip. All those little itch-mines were above my waist, and new ones appeared at the end of each riding day. On Day 3 I finally got my hands on the pillaging insect ENIGMA machine. The suckers were living in my riding jacket. Jacket washed and voila: no more flesh-mongering little creatures. (Factoid: Cortisone cream makes you slimy but no less itchy.) By the way, there should be a rule against selling cortisone cream in a tube that’s the same size and shape as a toothpaste tube. Just sayin’.

Although Kansas can boast only 13 miles of Route 66, it includes one of the iconic rainbow bridges. This bridge was in continuous use from the start of Route 66 in 1926 until 1960; then renovated in 1994 for no apparent reason other than to allow tourists to cross it. The section of road it’s on is only about a quarter-mile long, looping from the current Route 66 back onto it. Nice.

Dead town in Texas, Route 66
It's sad to see an entire main street boarded up, but such was the fate of many Route 66 burgs that were bypassed by I-40.Photo: Ed Kolano

We stuck to Ms G’s (my electronic navigation assistant) magenta line for the 1926-1930 route all the way to Oklahoma City. Love the back roads, but most of this section of 66 was in poor shape. Buckled and patched, it provided a full day of bumpety-bumpety-bump and sometimes bumpety-BUMP-expletive-ety-bump. No matter, gotta earn it.

We picked our way through Oklahoma thunderstorms, then continued thumping through the Texas panhandle. Route 66 lies within sight of I-40 through western Oklahoma and virtually all of Texas. Sticking to our two-lane, we passed scores of former businesses, abandoned buildings, some well on their way to natural reclamation, each moldering hulk somebody’s broken dream. Entire streets of boarded-up storefronts stared blindly at the interstate but without access. Sad.

Route 66 decay in Illinois
Graceful decay, if there is such a thing, continues to claim this section of the Mother Road in Illinois.Photo: Ed Kolano

We had lunch at the Windy Cow Cafe in Windorado, Texas. I mean, how could we not? We passed a lot of cows on this trip. I’m fairly certain that if a cow and a horse are standing in the same field, the horse is having deeper thoughts. The cow just seems to wear an ever-present “Where’s my keys?” expression. I saw one cow running. I figured she was doing, maybe 3 mph. I suspect that like a Cheetah, the cow could only maintain this burst for a short time. How long? All I know is it’s longer than the time it takes to steal three brief peeks (The first for “Is that cow really running?” The second for “Cows don’t run.” The third for “Where to? Why?”).

Much of Route 66 has been buried by I-40 across New Mexico, and what hadn’t been runs alongside. Turning north toward Santa Fe, we quickly forgot the 120 miles of interstate drudgery that lead to it. The Santa Fe Route 66 loop was part of the original route until 1937 when, some say, a lame duck governor sought revenge on the newly elected governor and re-routed the Mother Road through Albuquerque, bypassing Santa Fe.

Route 66 El Rancho Hotel
The El Rancho in Gallup, NM, was the hotel of choice for the Hollywood set while shooting all of those black-and-white westerns on location.Photo: Ed Kolano

Now named US84 in addition to Historic Route 66, this was a gorgeous road. Great pavement. Scenery that seems to suck your eyeballs outward. Wild horses and lazy dogs along the roadside. Even the long straights were sensory smorgasbords. This 150-mile excursion from the newer Route 66 was incredible.

Gallup, New Mexico, provided another serendiculous find—the El Rancho Hotel. Opened in 1937 as a base for movie productions, it's now festooned with movie memorabilia and historical charms. Bonus entertainment: I pretended to be one of the Gallup High School Reunion folks celebrating there. Had them going for a while, but I didn't know the fight song, so… I slumbered in the same room that John Wayne once occupied. That is until the organized tour of Harleys fired up for an early start the next morning.

Arizona presented a Dickensian best-of-times, worst-of-times ride. Traversing the desert in the afternoon in August was, well, dumb. The Route 66 options here were I-40 or broken pavement and dirt. I-40 it was until Flagstaff area, which was excellent riding through trees at the 7000-foot level, and that made for a refreshingly cool temperature respite between desert slogs.

We holed up in Williams, Arizona, for the night. Scott’s early morning criteria was a hotel within walking distance of dinner, beverage and a laundromat. Scored on all counts at one of the many hotels right on 66, which is also the main drag through downtown.

Bikes parked, we dragged weary legs over our respective saddles as a tourist asked if he could take a picture of his young son standing next to the bikes. Scott offered to let the boy sit on his bike, and junior scooted aboard. Then a rapid string of staccato Chinese from Dad, and junior popped a thumbs-up and the beaming smile of a genuinely happy child. Click. Precious in every language.

The hotel desk lady explained that the rooms did not have phones, because “this is a historic hotel.” Flatscreen TV, mini-fridge and coffee maker must have had historic-exempt status.

Seligman, AZ whore house
Where else are you gonna find a man singin' and strummin' outside of a bordello facade on a Monday morning but Seligman, AZ?Photo: Ed Kolano

The main drag was rife with Route 66-ishness. A restored gas station, ’54 Oldsmobile parked curbside and a concentration of Mother Road souvenir shops like we hadn’t seen in a thousand miles. Touristy, yes, but friendly barkeeps and locals who never seem to tire of answering the same questions or providing the same directions, even if done by drawing an invisible map on the bar with a finger. The only thing missing was that Olds spitting tailpipe flames cruising the boulevard.

Seligman, Arizona, also had a true Route 66 main drag. Odd displays, old cars, a man playing guitar and singing (at 9:30, Monday morning, mind you.) on the front stoop of what I think is supposed to resemble a 1930s bordello, doing business today as Bone Daddy’s General Store. Between songs, he manned a broom.

The stretch west from here sported several Burma Shave signs. Back in the day, these signs were all along Route 66. There were four signs, spaced a few hundred yards apart, each with a line from a poem. The fifth sign was "Burma Shave." We came across some originals, but never a complete set. My guess is the missing signs are hanging in some thieves' man caves. Among the replicas:
* If Daisies Are
* Your Favorite Flower
* Keep Pushin' Up
* Those Miles Per Hour
* Burma Shave

Wigwam Motel
In case you're ever on Jeopardy, this shape is actually a teepee, not a wigwam as the name suggests. Wigwam Motels is a lodging chain built in the 1930s and 1940s. This one is in Holbrook, AZ.Photo: Ed Kolano

More desert and lots more Gatorade later, we had the choice of taking the more direct I-40 bypass or stick with 66 through Sitgreaves Pass. This stretch of the Mutha Road, connecting Kingman with Oatman over the Black Mountains of Arizona, is relentlessly serpentine. Narrow with precipitous drop-offs and no guard rails. Posted speed limit was 30 mph, and no vehicles longer than 40 feet were allowed. So that’s what we did.

Burros in Oatman, Arizona
It's not cool to refuse service to a burro in Oatman, AZ.Photo: Ed Kolano

Normally I revel in winding roads, but the combination of random patches of gravel and sand strewn across the road, blind curves and the prospect of having a lot of air time between missing a turn and the craggy valley below made this crossing quite a workout. Convinced we were a couple of jackasses for taking this path, we eventually pulled into the old gold-mining town of Oatman, Arizona, where it turned out we weren’t alone. Wild-but-friendly burros wander the street here seeking whatever edibles anyone might offer while depositing liberal amounts of skid-assist onto the street. These burros, by the way, are descendants of the original working-class burros that were used during the gold rush era.

Old service station along Route 66
Can't you just imagine rolling over the hose that rang the bell that produced the attendant, wiping greasy hands as a prelude to a cheery hello before filling your tank? For about two bucks.Photo: Ed Kolano

The desert schlep continued across the Colorado River into California. More desert and the same conundrum—when it’s 111 degrees, the faster you go, the hotter you get. Glass half full, my bug bites didn’t itch anymore.

At Barstow we committed our most heinous Route 66 sin. We opted to freeway our way to Santa Monica. Justification: The current 66 routing through the LA metropolis would have added several hours of stop and go riding for little Route 66 experience benefit. Yeah, we cheated, although there was an awful lot of stop-and-go on I-10 (or the 10 if you’re from California). Frustrated and hot with this continual speed up-stop-repeat experience, we saw a sign that read, “Tolerance Museum.” Oh, the irony.

Like Chicago, we couldn’t figure out how to get the bikes within the same picture frame as the western terminus sign in Santa Monica. So we paused, forearms on fence rail, overlooking the pier and mused about our odyssey.

Riding Route 66 was four different experiences. Illinois, Missouri and Kansas were what I expected Route 66 to be. Excellent signage, world-famous landmarks, kitschy attractions. Great stuff. Oklahoma and Texas seemed to present a cursory nod to the Mother Road, both in its signage (no way to stay on the route without the assistance of Ms G) and pavement quality. New Mexico and part of Arizona also lacked sufficient beneficial signage, but they offered a wholly different riding experience—not my emotional Route 66, per se, but a beautiful ride through beautiful scenery past tolerant canines. Then there was I-40, the highway that meant the abandonment of much of the original route and the demise of businesses and bypassed towns in the quest for destination at the expense of journey.

Santa Monica Pier, Route 66
America's Highway ridden, the author's arrival at the Santa Monica Pier was bittersweet.Photo: Ed Kolano

Navigational missteps, weather challenges, some awful road surfaces, parasitic itch-makers and a hotel room with no – get this – cold water, and I wouldn’t change a thing. The sights, experiences, terrific riding road segments and most of all, the people we encountered made for a 2,400-mile dopamine drip. Enjoyed every minute, even the miserable minutes, and I’d do it again. Except for crossing the desert in the afternoon in August—that was just dumb.

Smart was reading Jerry McClanahan’s EZ 66 Guide published by the National Historic Route 66 Federation. This definitive guidebook was filled with maps, alternate routes, points of interest and plenty of useful advice. Also indispensible was River Pilot’s Route 66 GPS Attractions Guide. This GPS file included navigation and location-specific pop-up points of interest. Reading screens of text while riding had obvious limitations, but without that magenta line steering us through hundreds of unmarked turns, well, we’d still be out there.