It’s the journey, not the destination

Route 66

When my husband and I were planning our recent road trip, we realized that our drive home from St. Louis could naturally follow the same trajectory as old Route 66. Even though our trip west wouldn’t begin in Chicago (the traditional starting point) and our final destination wasn’t Santa Monica (Route 66’s “end of the trail”), we were excited to have the opportunity to see many of the famed byways and unique roadside attractions we had heard so much about.

Chain of Rocks Bridge in St. Louis, MO. Where our journey west began.
Chain of Rocks Bridge in St. Louis, MO. Where our journey west began.

Like many of the original highways constructed in the early 1920s, Route 66 was designed to connect urban and rural communities and break the monopoly of the railroads. Nicknamed “America’s Main Street” and the “Mother Road,” it linked hundreds of small towns along a winding 2,400-mile ribbon of asphalt. Although the highway was used during the Dust Bowl and the Depression by those who traveled west seeking better lives, it wasn’t until the late 1940s and early 1950s that Route 66 fully became a symbol of freedom and the wide open road. With the economic boom of the post-war area, more Americans had money to buy cars and the leisure time to travel, and a road trip on Route 66 was almost a rite of passage for many.

That began to change in 1956, as the Interstate Highway System started to develop super highways that were straight-lined and designed to move people from one place to another as quickly as possible. Because the modern highways bypassed hundreds of the small towns along the path of Route 66, many couldn’t survive. Just like the cracked and crumbling asphalt, the towns and the business that depended on travelers began to decline. In 1985, Route 66 was officially decommissioned by the federal government.

Missouri Hick Bar-B-Q in Cuba, Mo. Very different from the Cuba we visited in January.
Missouri Hick Bar-B-Q in Cuba, Mo. Very different from the Cuba we visited in January.

As we made our way west, we ran into a lot of fellow travelers who were also tracing the historic route. Some were dedicated Route 66 explorers and others, like us, made stops here and there at towns and attractions that sparked an interest. We were surprised to discover many Route 66 aficionados were visiting from other countries, including a group from Sweden traveling on rented motorcycles.  Just about all of us were baby boomers.

World’s largest rocking chair in Fanning, Mo.
World’s largest rocking chair in Fanning, Mo.

Many of the shopkeepers and restaurant owners we talked to along the way shared that business wasn’t what it used to be. Several pointed to the recent recession as the beginning of the downward trend and I’m sure that had a big influence. But, I also wonder if the lure of America’s Main Street just doesn’t tug at the imagination of Gen Xers and Millennials as it does for Baby Boomers*. Yes, there are various Route 66 associations and preservation groups, but most members are over 50. Back in 1999, our former Boomer-in-Chief, Bill Clinton, signed a National Route 66 Preservation Bill. I’m not sure a similar bill could pass today.

Oklahoma Route 66 Museum in Clinton, OK.
Oklahoma Route 66 Museum in Clinton, OK.

A majority of the original road is gone and many of the roadside attractions are no longer open. Some of the small towns are now boarded up ghost towns. But, there still is a lot to see and do. If the lore of Route 66 has ever pulled at you, or if you want to find some escape from our modern generic world (even in bits and pieces), I encourage you to make your travel plans soon. Route 66 awaits you and I’m not sure how long many of the places can hang on.

The Cadillac Ranch outside of Amarillo, TX.
The Cadillac Ranch outside of Amarillo, TX.
Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, AZ. Yes, we stayed here and, yes, it was awesome.
Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, AZ. Yes, we stayed here and, yes, it was awesome.
Standing on the corner in Winslow, AZ. We were a fine sight to see.
Standing on the corner in Winslow, AZ. We were a fine sight to see.

* There may be hope for Generation Z as many of them would have see Pixar’s 2006 animated film Cars. In it, the once-booming Radiator Springs, situated along Route 66, is now nearly a ghost town because it was bypassed by Interstate 40. Perhaps the movie’s success has generated a resurgence of public interest in Route 66.

Hit the road, Jack!

Jack Rabbit

Although our recent road trip (see this post and that post) included visits to several spectacular national parks and some family time spent with mid-west relatives, we also enjoyed stopping at interesting and often amusing roadside attractions along the way.

The era of America’s roadside attractions exploded in the 1930s, with the expansion of the highway system. Often marketed to the newly mobile public with flashy billboards and unique architecture, they were designed to attract attention and encourage travelers to stop and spend some money. Early entrepreneurs came up with crazy ideas like Mexican restaurants topped with huge sombreros, motel rooms shaped like tepees, and countless “world’s largest” just about anything you can imagine.

Unfortunately, the 1956 Federal Highway Act and subsequent development of the interstate superhighways doomed many of these attractions. Some were completely demolished, leaving no trace. Others were closed years ago and only their run-down, boarded-up shells can be seen. A lucky few, though, have somehow managed to survive and can be visited and enjoyed today.

Wall Drug

Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota
Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota

We were told about this (apparently) world-famous drug store by a hotel owner in eastern Wyoming. He not only gave us great pointers about the best routes for us to take on our journey across South Dakota, he said that a stop at Wall Drug was pretty much mandatory.

We began to spot billboards advertising Wall Drug (“120 Miles to Wall Drug,” “Free Ice Water,” “5¢ Coffee,” “Entering Wall Drug Country”) as soon as we hit I-90 and headed east across the prairie. Even if we hadn’t heard about the place, I think the billboards would have lured us in.

Wall Board

Opened in 1931, when Wall, South Dakota was a 231-person town, Wall Drug is now less of a drug store and more of a shopping mall of kitsch. It has been featured on travel shows and in international magazines and purports to take in over $10 million and attract over two million visitors annually.

Corn Palace

Cornelius, the Corn Palace Mascot
Cornelius, the Corn Palace Mascot

Soon after leaving Wall, we began to see billboards for another small-town attraction: the Corn Palace located in Mitchell, South Dakota. Since we both vaguely remembered hearing about the attraction (and, since who could pass up seeing a palace made of corn?), we decided to stop and check it out.

The Corn Palace was originally built in 1892 as a way to showcase South Dakota’s farming community and lure settlers. It was rebuilt in 1905 when the city of Mitchell attempted to be designated as the state capitol. In the 1920s, the Palace was rebuilt once again, this time to lure tourists, not farmers, to the area.

One of the murals made out of corn
One of the murals made out of corn

Although we arrived too late to go inside, we enjoyed wandering around the exterior and admiring the beautiful murals made of corn. The murals, designed by local artists, are reconstructed each year. This year’s theme is the 125th anniversary of South Dakota.

After our visit we did a quick Google search to find out why the Corn Palace sounded so familiar to us.  Following 9/11, when grants were being distributed by the Department of Homeland Security to beef up security at various sites deemed to be at risk, some fiscally responsible politicians felt that protecting the Corn Palace deserved a portion of the funds. In 2004, the Corn Palace gained unwanted notoriety from Jon Stewart on the Daily Show in the ensuing controversy. In 2012, the Corn Palace was featured on the Stephen Colbert Show (“A Shucking Disaster: Nightmare at the Mitchell Corn Palace”).

These are just two of the roadside attractions we enjoyed on our 5,161 mile road trip. We visited many more as our trip took us west out of St. Louis, through Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and back to California. I hope you’ll follow along with us to see some of the attractions made famous by travelers past and present, as we made our way home along portions of old Route 66.

0 to 5161 in three weeks

Last night, my husband and I arrived back home after being on the road for three weeks.  We took off from Southern California on April 24 with a rough itinerary that included a couple of hard dates but also a lot of flexibility. We had family and calendared events waiting for us in Omaha and later in St. Louis, but, other than that, we were on our own.

A quiet walk among the the red rocks in Capitol Reef National Park
A quiet walk among the the red rocks in Capitol Reef National Park

The 5,161 miles we traveled took us through 14 states and to 11 national parks and monuments, several state parks, and quite a few museums. We had days when there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, days full of ice and snow, and just about every weather pattern in between. We experienced the majesty of nature in the red rocks of Utah and Arizona and the audacity of men whose dreams led them to carve the likenesses of four presidents and an Indian chief on the sides of mountains. We saw a giant depression in the earth where a meteorite landed 50,000 years ago and we enjoyed the kitsch of visiting a giant rocking chair and sleeping in a motel room shaped like a teepee along the route made famous in the 1920s and 1930s.

My husband, best friend, and traveling buddy (I’m fortunate to have all three wrapped in one person) indulged my photographic whims by happily stopping whenever I asked him to. Our tastes are similar enough so that we usually easily agreed on attractions to stop for as well as food and lodging choices, but we are flexible enough so that we could change plans to accommodate each other’s interests.

Today is the one-year anniversary of my retirement. Over the past twelve months we’ve taken two driving trips and two trips that have required getting on a plane. Planes allow us to get to far-off destinations, but there is nothing like a road trip to best explore this country and build a greater understanding of ourselves and others.

As I do on every one of our travels, I kept a journal of our day-to-day activities and adventures. I also jot down inspirations, insights, and possible blog topics as they occur to me. I will share some of these over the next several posts.