Get your kicks on Route 66…
The ultimate American highway that became a legend is all but gone now, swept aside by the interstate system. My earliest memories of travelling cross-country are inextricably connected with it. As a child, I travelled with my family along a good portion of it, the first time in 1952, when I was six. My father, an Air Force officer, was transferred from his duties at Fort Slocum NY to a posting in Korea, and together with my mother, sister and I we made the long journey out to California where we would rent an apartment to wait for my father’s return in one-and-a-half years time. It was on that drive that I first was encountered the magic and wonders of the road – the desert entered my consciousness and native Americans became a lot more than “the bad guys” in some B-grade Wetsern at a Saturday morning kiddie matinee. It was a journey that never really ended. The beginning of countless motels, diners, restaurants and tourist traps, and the seemingly endless hunt for vacancy signs late into the night… peering towards a dark and invisible horizon beyond the next car’s taillights.
Route 66 has a special place in the hearts and memories of Americans across the country. It was driven by millions of people and made famous in John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, where he called it “The Mother Road.” During the Great Depression of the 1930s, thousands of poverty-stricken people migrated to California to escape the despair of the Dust Bowl (drought-stricken regions). Route 66 became the road of opportunity.
After the Great War, Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation of the 1950s made road trips a necessary rite of passage for thousands of young Americans. Route 66 became a historic road, a slice of American history, yet you won’t find it on any modern maps because the road was decommissioned in 1975.
Route 66 was the catalyst for the culture of fast food joints by the road, filling stations, and motels with a very particular architectural style, like the 1940s Streamline Moderne style (late Art Deco) of the Coral Court Motel in St. Louis, Missouri. Author Michael Wallis described Coral Court as “the proverbial ‘no-tell motel’ with a definite touch of class.”
One of the last operating roadhouses on Route 66 is in Gardner, Illinois (below). Guests eat in the basement and the food comes down on a dumbwaiter weighted down by a World War One artillery shell. Stalactites still hang from the ceiling above the bar. The owners, Bob and Peggy, are both in their 80s, and I wonder if they were there when I passed through in the early 1960s. It’s rumored that Al Capone and his brother Ralph were frequent visitors here.
Years after my early first experiences of “the grand boulevard”, I still look back with wonder, remembering the places and people, the smells of the various eateries, the crowds, the motel rooms, and I wonder what’s become of some of those places that lay sprawled along the edges of the highway.
A couple of times since moving to Australia, I’ve had a chance to revisit parts of the country through which the old highway ran. Most of it is gone, of course, but here and there one finds the over-grown two-lane blacktop and a rusty sign, or one suddenly comes across the remains of a once brightly lit truck stop that was surrounded by big rigs and full of hungry truckers. So many of these places have vanished completely, or fall to ruins in a sea of weeds – the images of one’s youth slowly decaying in some post-modernist landscape that lies just beyond the possibility of poignancy – a metaphor of sorts for the American Dream, come crashing to earth amidst the husks of diners, ghost, broken neons and peeling signs.
Here are some of those places and the suggestion of the memories that still make me, me.
Santa Rosa, New Mexico, was once home to the famous Club Cafe and its sourdough biscuits and gravy. Wow, I still remember the biscuits. I bought a postcard there – a picture of a boston bull in soapy water, called “Saturday Night Bath”. I also remember the picture of the fatman. Like many of the old road businesses that suffered when Route 66 was bypassed by the interstate. Alas, the Club Cafe (below) is no more.
The long stretches of straight highway made it difficult to keep awake and many miles were spent sleeping in the backseat of my parents Oldsmobile, or watching for billboards like the one below. “Here it is” was the final sign in a series of signs that began advertising The jackrabbit Trading Post hundreds of miles to the east. Black Rabbit 450 miles… Black Rabbit 300 miles… Black Rabbit Only 100 miles… etc etc . Located near Joseph City Arizona, and known officially as the Jackrabbit Trading Post, though the first time we passed by we didn’t stop. After seeing the signs for several hundred miles I was appalled when my Dad drove straight past. “Tourist trap,” he grunted. And that was that, until two years later on our way to Texas, when I made my father pull over. Turned out to be a snake farm with snakes you couldn’t see and gee-gaws you didn’t want.
In 1938, founder Roy Crowl opened Roy’s, a gas and service station in Amboy, California. At the time, Route 66 was “The Mother Road” and “Main Street of America” – the primary east-west highway artery crossing the nation from Chicago through the southwest to Los Angeles.
In the 1940s, Crowl teamed up with his son-in-law, Herman “Buster” Burris, and expanded the business as Roy’s Motel and Cafe, to include a cafe, an auto repair garage, and an auto court of small cabins for overnight rental. Buster Burris himself almost singlehandedly created the town’s infrastructure, some of which remains semi-functioning today. Burris even brought power to Amboy and Roy’s all the way from Barstow, erecting his own poles and wires alongside Route 66.]
By the 1950s, when I first saw Roy’s, it was a going concern, employing 10 percent of the town’s population (according to the owner).
Some very significant and lasting aesthetic changes came to Roy’s Motel and Cafe in 1959: with the February 1 erection of the infamous towering neon. “Roy’s “boomerang logo” sign was visible for miles approaching Amboy.
Oklahomans built serious gas stations along Route 66, possibly because they pumped so much oil, possibly because it was so hot in the summer. Big canopies over the pumping area were the rule.
This is one of Cities Service service stations I remember from my childhood, clearly Spanish in its design. it boasted two storefronts–enough room for a cafe and a gas station office. Tiny square rest rooms with over-scaled hipped roofs were added in adjacent buildings. And Cities Service provided living quarters in the rear for the agent, who operated the station.
West of Rolla, Missouri 66 plunged into the Ozarks and into a vernacular architecture that was unique to the region, but shows up in the Rock Cafe (above). Ozark proprietors built stone cottages and log cabins using the local materials–oak logs cut from the forests and warm, rusty, Ozark sandstone cut from the hills. Slabstone or “giraffe-stone” construction was developed in the Teens and the Twenties in Thayer, Missouri near the Arkansas border, and carried north to Rolla. “Rock men” set flat slabs of sandstone on a concrete foundation and laid up stone as a veneer over a wood frame or a concrete wall. In Ozark lingo, they “rocked” the building.
In June 1906 President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act to preserve and protect places of scientific importance. Before the end of the year Congress set aside the Petrified Forest as a national monument. Route 66 went straight through the Petrified Forest, but for the truly curious, it was possible to turn right and travel south through the monument, including “the Painted Desert”, and then return to the highway through the southern end of Holbrook and the Brunswick Motel/Arizona Rancho Motor Lodge.
For more than a hundred years the pueblo/adobe image was successful in promoting tourism in Holbrook. The Brunswick Hotel served a series of businesses, and reflected Holbrook’s history as a rail center, a cow town, a highway center, and a tourist stop. Located a block from the railroad station, it served train travelers who stopped to visit the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest. The cattle barons of the Aztec Land and Cattle Company who drove their herds through town maintained an office in the hotel. In the 1930s Lloyd Taylor purchased the Brunswick and remodeled it into a motor lodge, adding a 12-unit motel wing on the west side of the hotel. In keeping with the pueblo/adobe tradition, Lloyd built the wing in stucco painted white and used vigas to support the roof of the motel and its verandah. In the 1980s, Lloyd’s eldest son, Tom, sold petrified rocks to folks returning to Holbrook from the Petrified Forest.
For those that can’t get enough of “the old times_, you can purchase a vast range of original and replica items including petrol bowsers, pump globes, enamel signs, oil bottles and tops, oil bottle racks, decals, restoration items and literature, at the following site: http://www.roadsiderelics.com.au/