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Saturday, September 12, 2015 : Route 66

 

Today, our schedule fits in very few words : Route 66 !

 

So, shower, breakfast, skype with the family in France, and let's hit the road.

 

The weather is beautiful, not a single cloud. It's gorgeous !

 

Soon after leaving the hotel, we turn left on State Business Route 40, which is none other than Historic Route 66. We have been driving less than three minutes, and we are already there. Well, let's face it : here, there is no trace of the Legend. It is just a street crossing Flagstaff residential outskirts, period.

 

A few miles further, we take Interstate 40. It is far from visible, but we still are on the path of Historic Route 66. We will actually spend most of the day playing hide-and-seek with the Mother Road.

 

From Oklahoma City to Barstow, CA, I-40 more or less follows the path of Historic Route 66. Sometimes they go side by side, sometimes I-40 overlays US-66, rarely do they get more than a few miles apart. The end result is unchanged : for all practical purposes, Route 66 now only exists as a trace, or a memory. However, its legend endures in all possible forms, we are soon going to realize it.

 

When the Interstate Highway System was designed in the 1950s, it took no less than 5 highways to replace the Mother Road : I-55 from Chicago to St Louis, MO, I-44 from St Louis to Oklahoma City, I-40 from Oklahoma City to Barstow, CA (I-40 actually starts outside Wilmington, NC), I-15 from Barstow to Ontario, CA, and I-10 from Ontario to Santa Monica. None of these highways exactly overlays Route 66, but they all come rather close to its path.

 

It winds from Chicago to L.A. ... Get your kicks on Route 66 !

It winds from Chicago to L.A. ... Get your kicks on Route 66 !

 

Route 66 crossed 8 States, from East to West Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. It was roughly 2,451 miles long. Roughly because, as any other road, it was diverted, enhanced, shortened, altered, and so forth, more than once. For instance, in 1930, whole sections were shifted east in Illinois, while the route thru Santa Fe, NM, was abandoned in 1937, in favor of a shorter, direct link to Albuquerque. Identifying the exact alignment of the Mother Road boils down to accepting a liberal amount of historical variation.

 

After some hesitation, number 66 was assigned in 1926 to the road that was supposed to link Chicago and Los Angeles. What it now took was a full pavement or, so to say, cementing. Much of the early road was actually gravel. It was first paved end-to-end only in 1938, mostly with concrete plates. Since many arms factories were based in California, a lot of workers began to take Route 66 to join their new jobs.

 

The history of Route 66 is also linked to the 1930s internal migrations between the Midwest and California. Indeed, many farmers, most notably in Oklahoma, had lost everything under the combined effects of the Great Depression in 1929 and the Dust Bowl, a series of dust storms that occurred in the whole region. They are the main theme of The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck's novel, and several Woody Guthrie songs.

 

What is frequently overlooked, however, is that those migrations involved about 200,000 people, not millions, and that, not exactly welcome in California, where work was scarce and ill-paid, more than 90% of migrants were back in their home State less than a year after heading West to seek a fortune they never found. Tom Joad, Steinbeck's character, actually stumbles from disappointment to disappointment.

 

So where does the Legend come from ?

 

Route 66 was the first fully paved road to cross the West, thereby attracting a lot of traffic. It was used by desperate people fleeing bankruptcy, misery and hunger. On a more upbeat tone, as prosperity took off again after WWII, it became the road to holidays on the Pacific. It therefore brought together crowds of refugees, workers and tourists. To cut a long story short, it was the highly colorful representation of America or, more precisely, of Americans, from the 1930s to the 1970s. It was written about, filmed, sung, photographed, occasionally with anger, often with tenderness, always with graciousness.

 

And for me, a non-American, it brilliantly epitomizes this ever-moving country.

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Route 66, Williams, AZ

Route 66, Williams

 

Contrary to Interstates which bypass them, United States Numbered Highways, the equivalent of French routes nationales (although they are actually maintained by each State they cross, not by the Federal Government), run thru each and every town, big or small. Or, rather, ran thru because, since the beginning of the system in 1926, many cities ended up being bypassed anyway.

 

Route 66 original alignment thus crossed every town between Chicago and Los Angeles, including Williams, 33 mi. west of Flagstaff. On October 13, 1984, Williams was the last town to be bypassed by Interstate 40. Route 66 had just lost all practical purpose and was officially decertified soon after, on June 27, 1985, thereby actually ceasing to exist.

 

We leave Interstate 40 at exit 165 and we are again on Historic Route 66, entering the city at a slow speed. Williams main East-West thoroughfare is officially named East Route 66, from the crossing of N. Grand Canyon Blvd / S 2nd St to city limit. This crossing was actually the last one with a traffic light between Chicago and Los Angeles. Starting from October 13, 1984, the "standard" route between both cities ran on Interstate 40, outside town, with no mandatory stop. Common sense had won what the Legend had lost.

 

The picture shows the post closest to the crossing, with a United States Highway shield in the 1948 version. Its pristine condition makes me think it is carefully maintained.

 

The whole family, my brothers, my parents and I, passed at that exact same place, but the other way round, West to East, on our trip between Kingman and Flagstaff, in August 1980, 4 years before I-40 was opened. So we actually had to cross Williams on Route 66. Oddly enough, I have absolutely no memory of this.

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Grand Canyon Railway steam engine at Williams station

Grand Canyon Railway steam engine at Williams station

 

This crossing is pretty close to Grand Canyon Railway station. We park the Camaro in front of Williams - Grand Canyon Chamber of Commerce, which also serves as an information center and, after a few minutes' visit, we walk out to the railroad tracks.

 

539 steam locomotive is standing outside. This 2-8-2 Mikado engine, dating back from 1917, was purchased by Grand Canyon Railway in 2014. It is being upgraded to burn less polluting, low-emissions diesel fuel, and use less water. In a National Park, the least of things is to respect the environment.

 

Indeed, Williams is only about 60 mi. away from Grand Canyon.

 

Marie takes a few pictures while I go for a chat with two elderly gentlemen under a tent. They are radio hosts, running a program that connects CB users to their FM station, about, guess what, Route 66. We chat for a while. I then walk back to Marie and we take the road again.

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Route 66 after I-40 exit 139, west of Ash Fork, AZ

Route 66 after I-40 exit 139, west of Ash Fork

 

As does Interstate 40, we bypass Ash Fork without actually crossing it. We leave the highway at exit 139.

 

In a way, this exit has become a myth in its own right. The longest, and best preserved, section of Historic Route 66 in Arizona, and perhaps of the whole Route, starts here. From exit 139, the alignments of both roads drift apart up to Kingman, 105 mi. away. Route 66 takes a north route, more or less along the Transcontinental AT&SF (now BNSF) railroad tracks, while Interstate 40 takes a southern route, quite shorter, but across more hilly terrain.

 

At the very start of this section of Historic Route 66, there is a small parking lot. A few fans are standing there taking pictures, beginning with the route shields on the tarmac. Indeed, original concrete plates have been covered or replaced long ago. We stop as well.

 

The Road encourages friendliness. Of course, I take advantage of the opportunity to start a few conversations. I chat with a Swiss who rides the Road the other way on a Harley, taking all his time.

 

We then leave. On  the side of the road, Burma Shave signs, a long-disappeared shaving cream brand, follow each other in groups of 5 or 6, attracting people's attention with their deadpan humor. The history of the brand, actually sold from 1925 to 1966, more or  less overlaps with the legend of Route 66. However, signs look much more recent, and I assume that someone must be in charge of maintaining them.

 

From exit 139 to Seligman, 17 mi., there is neither a city nor a gas station.

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Mural on Aztec Motel, Seligman, AZ

Mural on Aztec Motel, Seligman

 

The first significant community is Seligman, with 456 souls at 2000 census. It is basically the only town between Ash Fork and Peach Springs, well over 60 miles. Service stations, garages, restaurants and motels lived off this strategic location until 1978, when Interstate 40 bypassed the town. Seligman suddenly lost all attraction, and could well have died.

 

Beginning in 1987, owing to the budding legend of Route 66, Seligman started to live again, thanks to tourism. At the time of our visit, though we are close to mid-September, tourists flock to the many gift shops, where it is sometimes necessary to tell the really genuine from the more questionable.

 

We park on an almost deserted motel parking lot and go for a walk to take pictures, do some shopping, and immerse ourselves in the legend of this mythical road. We begin with the murals on the motel walls, representing the Road, from Chicago to Santa Monica and vice versa.

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Angel and Vilma Delgadillo's gift shop, Seligman, AZ

Angel and Vilma Delgadillo's gift shop, Seligman

 

The rebirth of the town cannot be separated from Angel Delgadillo's efforts. Born in 1927 along Route 66, Angel Delgadillo started as a barber, later opening a gift shop in his parlor. When Seligman started to decline after 1978, he tirelessly advocated for an acknowledgement of the Route's historical interest. In 1987, with about 15 other dedicated fans, he started Historic Route 66 Association of Arizona. He was finally heard. Starting in November 1987, old Route 66 was rechristened and signed as Historic Route 66, from Seligman to Kingman.

 

Today, aged 88, Angel Delgadillo still lives in Seligman, and his gift shop is still in business. We parked almost across the street from it without knowing, and it can be seen in the picture above.

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Gift shop with dummies, Route 66, Seligman, AZ

Gift shop with dummies, Route 66, Seligman

 

In Seligman, both sides of Historic Route 66 are lined with gift shops. Less than 300 ft from Angel and Vilma Delgadillo's gift shop, Marie takes a picture of this outlet, more noticable by the dummies on the corrugated iron porch roof than for its content, quite similar to other gift shops'.

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Mural, Seligman, AZ

Mural, Seligman

 

Still walking down the street, we can see a few murals, including this one, which mixes an unorthodox Route 66 shield with the symbols of the United States, the Bald Eagle and the Star-Spangled Banner.

 

In fact, Route 66 is itself a symbol of the United States.

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Historic businesses, Seligman, AZ

Historic businesses, Seligman

 

All downtown Seligman, Seligman Commercial Historic District, made of buildings mostly dating back to early 20th century, has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005. We are standing in front of one of those listed buildings, with a livery shop, a barbershop from the time when they were still called tonsorial parlors, a saloon, a gun and ammo shop, and a Wells Fargo agency from the time when what is now exclusively a bank still ran stagecoaches.

 

We then take the car again and leave Seligman.

 

The area is almost deserted, tourists remained in Seligman. At times, there is nobody either in front of us or behind us.

 

To avoid steep mountainsides near Blake Ranch, Route 66, still following the Transcontinental Railroad track, largely bends northward.

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Derelict service station, Route 66, Peach Springs, AZ

Derelict service station, Route 66, Peach Springs

 

Compared with the buzzing activity in Seligman, the next town, Peach Springs, seems sound asleep. I can think of several likely explanations. First, this is early Saturday afternoon, and people are sheltered inside, waiting for the searing heat to slightly subside before wandering outside again. Then we are in the heart of Hualapai Indian Reservation, whose residents have never, or only marginally, lived off Route 66 frenzy. And finally, the area is scarcely populated, with less than 2,000 Hualapai at 2010 census on a 1,142 sq. mi. territory.

 

To mail our postcards, we need stamps. I park in front of the post office, but it is closed for the day. We take advantage of this stop to eat a few snacks.

 

The few traces of Route 66 in Peach Springs are absolutely not developed. Facing us on the other side of the road, the service station on the picture is totally derelict. Even The Ghost of Tom Joad went to seek fortune somewhere else, the highway being no longer alive enough for him.

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BNSF freight train, Peach Springs, AZ

BNSF freight train, Peach Springs

 

Eventually, the only activity we get to see in Peach Springs is an Indian lady picking her mail at the box, and this BNSF freight train crossing the town with its horns blaring.

 

After a few more pictures, we leave Peach Springs to our next stop.

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'57 Corvette in front of the general store, Hackberry, AZ

'57 Corvette in front of the general store, Hackberry

 

During the 23-mile drive between Peach Springs and Hackberry, we do not see a lot of people. The tiny hamlets of Truxton, Crozier and Valentine seem lifeless. It is certainly not the case at Hackberry General Store. A few cars are parked in the front, and there are some visitors. By the way, we had spotted this point of interest when we were preparing the trip.

 

Contrary to the other towns we have crossed, Hackberry is located below Route 66, near the station. The town first served a silver mine, which shipped its ore production by train. When the mine closed in 1919, Hackberry soon lost almost all its residents, and began its second life only after Route 66 was built in 1926. Service stations, restaurants and other businesses opened, not in the old city near the station but, as common sense dictates, higher up on the hill, on the roadside. In the 1970s, the section of I-40 between Kingman and Seligman was opened, Hackberry declined again, and the general store eventually closed in 1978.

 

Hackberry began its third life in 1992, when Bob Waldmire reopened the general store as an Historic Route 66 information desk and a gift shop. In 1998, he sold it to John and Kerry Pritchard, who still run it.

 

The general store is lined with old cars in questionable conditions, often more like wrecks. I can barely make out a totally rusty Ford Model A.

 

Under the front porch, however, there is a real gem, a genuine '57 Corvette, in pristine condition.

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Disused gas pumps, Hackberry general store, AZ

Disused gas pumps, Hackberry general store

 

We spend a few minutes in the general store, which, as the name shows, sells a bit of everything, with a predictable prevalence of Route 66 memorabilia : t-shirts, CDs, books, stickers, and all the usual collection of paraphernalia. There is also a bar, where you can drink and eat a few snacks.

 

During my trip to the restroom, I notice a huge radio set, which must date from between the two world wars. I swiftly come back with the camera. Near the bar, Marie takes a picture of a jukebox that seems to come straight from the 1950s.

 

Outside, the old gasoline pumps have of course been disused a long time ago. The box between the pumps is an old wiper blade dispenser.

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Old service station turned into an artist's workshop, Route 66, AZ

Old service station turned into an artist's workshop, Route 66

 

A few miles further, we stop in front of what, from a distance, looks like an old service station. We can see where the pumps and the office were. The main building has been turned into an artist's workshop. This is private property, we do not enter.

 

That was our last stop. We now drive straight to Kingman, 22 miles away.

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4-8-4 AT&SF steam engine, Kingman, AZ

4-8-4 AT&SF steam engine, Kingman

 

Kingman is a totally flat city with 28,000 residents, that introduces itself as "The Heart of Historic Route 66". It is not too far-fetched. The Road went on to Needles, CA, on the other side of Colorado. Its original path took it thru Oatman, an old mining town, crossing a mountain range on a pretty perilous alignment, at a time that had nonetheless seen its share of hazards. As early as the 1940s, the Road was diverted further south, on a new alignment that is now I-40's.

 

We are not going that far. After crossing most of the city, we stop at Arizona Route 66 Museum.

 

Across the street from the Museum, there is a small park where the locomotive of the picture is displayed. It is a 4-8-4 Northern, which used to belong to AT&SF, now BNSF, from 1928 to 1953. It made its last trip from Los Angeles to Barstow, CA, in 1955, pulling the last steam train to cross Cajon Pass, in San Bernardino Mountains, also used by Interstate 15 ... and Route 66, until 1979.

 

Although permanently displayed outside, this locomotive is in an outstanding condition. I climb and stand at the controls for a short while.

 

We then cross Historic Route 66 again and visit the Museum.

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The Grapes of Wrath, Arizona Route 66 Museum, Kingman, AZ

The Grapes of Wrath, Arizona Route 66 Museum

 

There are many Route 66 museums along its path. The one in Kingman, which opened in 2001, is located in a repurposed former power plant. It includes exhibitions, reconstitutions, murals, and ends with a movie. The visit is a one-way loop, winding on two floors, that allows you to see the whole museum.

 

It is no surprise that the history of the Road and its users takes the lion's share of the museum. 1930s refugees, who piled up their few possessions and went west to seek a delusive Eldorado, are represented in several reconstitutions, including the one on the picture, which I have captioned "The Grapes of Wrath" as an obvious reference to Steinbeck's novel and the history of Tom Joad and his family.

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1950s roadside diner reconstitution, Arizona Route 66 Museum, Kingman, AZ

1950s roadside diner reconstitution, Arizona Route 66 Museum

 

Businesses that used to thrive along the Road also have their place in this museum. We can see garages, service stations, motels, restaurants like this early-1950s roadside diner, with its artificial marble counter, beer pumps, egg dispenser, basic bar stools, juke-box and flashy color tiles. It feels like the real thing !

 

The day's special display is seriously dated, though : it's a long time since anybody has seen a 50¢ burger and fries dish !

 

To keep them off sometimes clumsy hands, most of these reconstitutions are protected by glasses, which makes taking pictures kind of tricky. I had a hard time selecting pictures with no reflections.

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Mural, Arizona Route 66 Museum, Kingman, AZ

Mural, Arizona Route 66 Museum

 

Along the path of the visit, there are several murals, representing differents aspects of Route 66. This one is typical of the 1950s. We can see a family on vacation, a roadside motel, a drive-in cinema, and even flying saucers, though the Road never passed near Roswell, NM.

 

We aso notice Route 66 was essentially a two-lane road. Starting in the 1960s, with traffic increasing massively, it looked obvious it would never accomodate it.

 

The visit ends with a 20-odd-minute long film, about the history of the Road in Arizona, from the transcontinental trail used by pioneers in the mid-19th century to the decertification in 1985.

 

What remains of Route 66, more than 30 years after it officially ceased to exist ?

 

Actually, not much. Interstates which replaced it won in traffic volume, efficiency and security what they lost in legend and lyricism. Pragmatism finally won over emotional.

 

However, during our day on the Road, with history in Williams, business in Seligman, dereliction in Peach Springs, nostalgia in Hackberry and the final synthesis at the museum in Kingman, we were able to retrieve a lot of traces. We gladly immersed ourselves in the history of this mythical road. People call it the Mother Road not only because it is the oldest one, but also simply because it is The Road, period, the one to which each of us can tie a trip, an anecdote, a story, a testimony.

 

We are all Route 66.

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Nighttime arrival in Sedona, AZ

Nighttime arrival in Sedona

 

The afternoon is nearing its end, we now have to take the road back. But now is no time to wander here and there. We take Interstate 40 back to Flagstaff by the straightest path.

 

Marie, kind of tired after a long day in the sun and heat, takes a nap while I do the driving. In the mountains near Blake Ranch, we are slightly slowed down by a giant storm, the kind only this country of all excesses, including meteorological, can produce.

 

Outside Flagstaff, we leave the Interstate and take route 89A to Sedona. After the storm, the sky has not entirely cleared, it is almost nighttime, and the picture above is therefore kind of dark.

 

Between Sedona and Oak Creek, we hesitate for about 20 minutes about our hotel. Indeed, since this morning, it is no longer a La Quinta, which we had no way to know. We end up finding the Sedona Oak Creek Inn anyway.

 

I have the immense pleasure of meeting a very dear friend, whom I had not seen for 25 years, who moved to Sedona a few months ago. We bear-hug each other, like we had not met in 48 hours. No need to mention his name, he will obviously recognize himself when reading this.

 

We have dinner with my friend in a restaurant across the street from the hotel. He has to leave early, he is expected in Phoenix early the next morning. Then, as each night, Marie takes the day's notes in her diary while I backup pictures and update the blog.

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