Driving on a myth
Driving on a myth
Norbert Meiszies

KINGMAN — The road to Seligman, Arizona, carries a famous name — the roadside sign reads Historic Route 66. This is the right moment to slide the CD into the Harley-Davidson Electra Glide’s music player.

“Well, it winds from Chicago to L.A., more than 2,000 miles all the way. Get your kicks on Route 66,” goes expand=1] the song, blaring from the speakers over the noise of the road. The cliché has become reality, the dream come true for bikers and tourists traveling by van, bus or vintage car down what may be the most famous road on the planet.

Robert William “Bobby” Troup Jr. wrote “Get Your Kicks on Route 66” in 1946 as a tribute to the “Mother Road.” The refrain lists places along the way — among them St. Louis, Oklahoma City, Amarillo, Flagstaff, Kingman, and let’s not forget Winona — that today more or less sum up the history of Route 66.

Coming from Kingman, Arizona, you drive along one of the longest and best-maintained segments of the first transcontinental connection between East Coast and West Coast American cities. Interstate 40, which gets people to Flagstaff in a hurry, is far away. Back here you only find people with time — real fans — on the lookout for a genuine Route 66 experience and hidden memorabilia.

Like the Hackberry General Store. If you’re going too fast, you’ll pass it without noticing it. There are no signs, nothing to point to one of the major relics of Route 66 history. At first glance, the store looks like a shack — until you notice the huge glowing red sign in the shape of a flying horse on the roof and the shiny red 1956 Corvette parked out front and belonging to store owners Kerry and John Pritchard. The old Mobil gas pumps, the rusty Ford Model T, and countless old posters on sheet metal look exactly as they would have back in the day.

The road was once hot

What comes to mind is John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath about poor farmers, so-called Okies, fleeing on Route 66 from the sandstorms and drought of the Midwest, the dust bowls of Oklahoma and Texas, to work in the California fruit plantations that seemed to promise a better life. Another of these soldiers of fortune was Bobby Troup, who ended up in Los Angeles and went on to make a career in music.

The stretch of 2,448 miles (about 4,000 kilometers) between Chicago and Los Angeles has since become a clichéd symbol of freedom and independence for many adventurers and travelers. But what used to be the most important East-West link has long lost this status, having been replaced by interstates with multiple lanes that take travelers straight through the country in less time.

Since October 13, 1984, Interstate 40 has replaced the last 5.7 miles of the original Route 66 in Williams, Arizona. The old, curvy, one-lane 66 still exists (about 80% of it is still drivable), but much of it is hidden and unmarked. The longest contiguous segments are mainly located in the West, in Arizona and southern California.

Among those who didn’t let the Mother Road go was Bob Waldmire (1945-2009), a hippy from Illinois, who earned a living as a painter. Since the 1960s, he’d been traveling the highway in a Volkswagen bus selling postcards, stickers and pictures he’d painted of sights along the Mother Road. He happened on the rundown Hackberry General Store that had been built in 1934 just outside Hackberry, then a mining town. On Route 66, the store was a major hub for cattle transports and supplied travelers with gas and provisions. Both the town and the store lost their raison d’être after the interstate opened. Hackberry became a ghost town, and the store closed in 1978. When Waldmire re-opened it in 1992 as a Visitor Center, he was Hackberry’s only resident.

When the interstate killed culture

Most of the businesses, hotels, gas stations and diners that used to exist along Route 66 didn’t survive the change. They had to close, and have since been quietly falling into decrepitude. The Mother Road herself has suffered: Tufts of grass grow through cracks in the asphalt, while the wind and weather do the rest. Route 66 now survives because of the charm of disuse — and pretty well in some cases, such as New Mexico's 66 Diner in Albuquerque and the El Rancho Hotel in Gallup, both of which have achieved cult status.

But all that’s left of other places is pretty much the façade. Take Oatman in California, which became a ghost town in the 1970s. Located on one of the most beautiful segments of Route 66, this former gold diggers stronghold now attracts some 500,000 visitors a year, drawn by its Wild West Show and 66 souvenirs made in China. Thankfully, the drive over the Sitgreaves expand=1] Pass is rich enough in experiences to make up for the tourist circus.

Even Seligman, Arizona, which calls itself the birthplace of the 66 revival, is more reminiscent of a souvenir shop than a serious repository of Route 66 history. Those unforgettable moments when Juan Delgadillo (who died in 2004) and his brother Angel, who is going on 90, held travelers spellbound in their Snow Cap Drive-In eatery and legendary barbershop with their tales of the rise and fall of Route 66 will soon be a thing of the past. Many of the hotels and diners, having used up their nostalgia bonuses, have had to be completely renovated. There’s nobody to take up the cause, and the present keepers of Historic Route 66 are slowly dying out.

Ever fewer of the institutions from the days before the advent of mass tourism survive. Exceptions are the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, Arizona, and Roy's Cafe in the no-man’s-land of Amboy, California. And if John and Kerry Pritchard hadn’t by pure chance stopped off in Hackberry in 1998, the General Store might well no longer be in existence. Bob Waldmire hadn’t been able to agree with the authorities on the use of this public land, and moved back to Chicago after the Pritchards agreed to keep the General Store as a Route 66 museum.

“We actually never planned to buy the store,” says John Pritchard, the businessman from Washington. “We just wanted to help Bob repair the roof.” The Pritchards then changed the whole store back to the way it was in the 1940s and 1950s, restored the old gas pumps and decorated the place with items found along Route 66 that they’d been collecting for over 35 years.

A uniquely American road

But the General Store is no sterile museum: Route 66 comes alive for visitors who wander through checking out the old books, jukebox, photographs, cast-iron heating stove, memorabilia and T-shirts mixed in among traditional food store items and traveler necessities like cola, crackers and chewing gum.

The gas pump in front of a mom and pop store is as much a part of American life as wheat beer and veal sausage are to a German’s. “We were always hanging around the gas station,” Pritchard says of his relation to this arch-American institution. “That’s where the coolest cars and the prettiest girls were. We practically lived there. And now I’m back, so the circle closes.”

Whether some road other than Route 66 could have achieved this level of fame, the answer is clear. “No, on Route 66 anybody going from Chicago to Los Angeles sees everything that characterizes the United States of America,” Pritchard says. “He sees the big-city lights of Chicago and St. Louis, the huge expanse of the Midwest, Texas, cowboys and Indians, deserts, the California coasts. All on one road. Where else do you get that?”

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