What's so special about Route 66?

Has any other road in United the States been immortalized in pop culture more than Route 66? Bobby Troup's "Route 66" is one of the most recognizable songs around. "Route 66" was a television show in the 1960s, and the highway provided the setting for cartoon automobiles in the popular Pixar movie "Cars." John Steinbeck called Route 66 the "Mother Road" in his novel "The Grapes of Wrath."

Route 66 is iconic -- a symbol of a changing America. Known as "America's Highway" during its heyday, Route 66 was driven by millions of drivers between Illinois and California. However, by the 1970s, the Route 66 of popular culture sadly became obsolete.

But wait -- let's throw it into reverse for a minute and talk about Route 66's roots. 

Back in the 1920s, entrepreneurial businessmen Cyrus Avery and John Woodruff imagined a "superhighway" linking Chicago to Los Angeles. It would help bring industry from the East to the West. Route 66 received official designation in 1926, after the government enacted a plan for national highways. Planners intended Route 66 to be more than just a quick way to get from east to west -- they wanted to connect the main streets of rural and urban communities. Route 66 would give many small towns their first access to a major road. Route 66 was the symbol of opportunity to hundreds of thousands of people seeking escape from the despair of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.

The same plan for national highways that birthed Route 66 also helped bury it. After World War II, the highway system needed an overhaul. In disrepair, Route 66 could no longer handle its own traffic. Highway planners began building more direct routes between cities. As they did, they diverted, bypassed or otherwise realigned Route 66. Route 66 lost its official United States Highway designation in 1985.

Are you ready to take a ride down Route 66? Let's explore what the road was like back in its prime -- the places it traveled through and the oddities you'd find along the way.

Route 66 From End to End

Route 66 began in Chicago, Ill., and ended in Los Angeles, California. Its original length was about 2,400 miles (3,862 kilometers). However, it's impossible to know the exact mileage due to all the different permutations of the road over the years [source: National Historic Route 66 Federation]. The highway snaked through eight states -- Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and finally California.

Since the highway was decommissioned, Route 66 no longer exists on modern maps. In some places, in fact, the physical road is unpaved and virtually impassable. However, you can still follow some of the original road in your car. In many states, Route 66 parallels the interstate highway. In some areas, you'll see signs calling it "Historic Route 66."

Today, the National Scenic Byways Program denotes Historic Route 66 as going through four states -- Illinois, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona. At around 1,410 miles (2,269 kilometers) in length, it takes about five or six days to drive Historic Route 66 from one end to the other.

Maybe you're wondering why anyone cares about an old, out-of-date road. Why are there so many organizations and museums dedicated to keeping the spirit of Route 66 alive? There are many reasons. Route 66 represents a true piece of Americana. Because this road wound through so many tiny towns, hundreds of odd little trading posts, motels and attractions popped up along the way. Although Route 66 faded into obsolescence, many of these pit stops remain -- frozen in time like ghost towns.

Route 66 holds a special place in American history. It illustrated the evolution of the American road from unpaved dirt to superhighway. It provided an economic and social link between the West and the Midwest, offering an artery for millions of people to relocate and change their lives. Route 66 assisted in transforming the West from wild frontier to modern community.

Route 66 also showcases some of the most beautiful scenery in America. The longest drivable section of Route 66 is in Arizona, where you can marvel at the beauty of the Grand Canyon or Sedona's red rocks. In New Mexico, you can visit archaeological sites featuring relics from early settlers and Native Americans.

You can drive most of the original Route 66 today, from Illinois all the way to California, but you must plan your route carefully. Don't count on regularly placed "Route 66" signs to show you the way. Route 66 enthusiasts recommend purchasing special maps if you're going to make the journey today. These custom maps show the areas where you can still safely drive your car or motorcycle. They also point out lots of cool sights along the way. On the next page, we'll talk about all the weird, wild and wonderful stuff you might encounter as you drive Route 66.

Getting Your Kicks on Route 66

Probably no other road in the world hosts as many interesting and strange sights as Route 66. People say it's part of the charm of the historic highway. If you're planning a road trip down Route 66, here are some one-of-a-kind attractions you shouldn't miss.

Hackberry General Store (Arizona) -- Located at mile marker 80 on Historic Route 66, this general store is jam-packed with any kind of Route 66 memorabilia you can imagine. There are vintage gas pumps and automobiles out front, although it's no longer a filling station. Inside you can shop for souvenirs or pick up some Route 66-branded root beer.

Twin Arrows (Arizona) -- An old trading post east of Flagstaff, Ariz., the Twin Arrows are just like they sound: Two giant yellow and red arrows -- actually old telephone poles -- stick out of the roadside asphalt.

Meteor Crater (Arizona) -- Between Winslow and Flagstaff, Ariz., lies a gigantic crater left by a meteor impact more than 50,000 years ago. Remarkably well preserved, the crater is 2.4 miles (3.8 kilometers) in circumference and 550 feet (167 meters) deep.

The Cozy Dog Drive-in (Illinois) -- This historic eatery in Springfield, Ill., is the home to the original hot dog on a stick. Established in 1949, the drive-in continues serving customers today.

Giganticus Headicus (Arizona) -- Right on Route 66 in Walapai, Ariz., for no discernable reason, stands a 14-foot (4.2-meter) tiki head.

Blue Swallow Motel (New Mexico) -- Known as "The Friendliest Hotel on Route 66," W.A. Huggins built this motel in Tucumcari, N.M., in 1939. Still featuring the stucco exterior and detached garages of the era, the Blue Swallow continues to operate today.

Cadillac Ranch (Texas) -- Driving down Route 66 in Amarillo, Texas, you'll see a strange sight -- 10 old Cadillacs, nose-down, sticking out of the ground. Texas millionaire Stanley Marsh commissioned the installation in 1974 to honor America's love for the open road. Today the cars are rusted and covered in graffiti, but still a popular attraction.

Wigwam Motel (California) -- Built in San Bernardino, Calif., in 1949, the Wigwam Motel's 30-foot (9.1-meter) teepees attract tourists from all over the world. Each teepee is about 25 feet (7.6 meters) in diameter with two windows. This motel is a great example of the fanciful tourist attractions once designed to host Route 66 travelers.

Winslow (Arizona) -- Immortalized in the Eagles song "Take It Easy," Winslow features a statue in honor of the famous ditty. The statue stands on the corner -- a man holding a guitar, bringing to life the line, "Well, I'm a standing on a corner / in Winslow, Arizona / and such a fine sight to see."

Petrified Forest National Park (Arizona) -- Designated as a National Landmark in 1906, the Petrified Forest is 52,000 acres (210 square kilometers) of desert. You can look for dinosaur fossils, visit archaeological sites and check out the remains of petrified trees. The Painted Desert surrounds the park with color.

Stewart's Petrified Wood (Arizona) - And speaking of petrified wood, this attraction in Holbrook, Ariz., is an odd little souvenir store. The outside area of the shop features several giant dinosaur statues with mannequins in their mouths.

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Sources

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