Designated in 1926, with paving completed in 1938, Route 66 coursed 2,448 miles across the Plains and Southwest. As Nat King Cole first sang, “It winds from Chicago to L.A., More than two-thousand miles all the way.”
The first event to draw attention to Route 66 took place in 1928. It was The Bunion Derby, a footrace from Los Angeles to New York City, in which 66 took the runners as far as Chicago. Andy Hartley Payne, an Oklahoma Cherokee, won this first trans-U.S. race, arriving in Madison Square Garden in 23 days. Payne’s family was friends with Will Rogers, who greeted runners throughout the route. With some boosterism from Warner Bros., Route 66 was dedicated to Will Rogers in 1952. Motorists were encouraged to take Route 66 to the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles in 1932. But most of all, 66 in the 1930s saw Dust Bowl migrants seeking farm work in Californ-ee. WWII then drew many people down Route 66 in hope of jobs in Southern California’s airplane and munitions industries.
After the war, Route 66 really got busy with road trip vacationers. Many of the highway’s outsized roadside attractions emerged then, as did the fast-food industry. McDonald’s was founded in San Bernardino, California as early as 1940, and Red’s Giant Hamburg in Springfield, Missouri, founded in 1947, is recognized as the first drive-through. Owner Red Chaney also may have invented the attention-getting waving/blowing thing-a-ma-jig. Wigwam Motel, Holbrook, Arizona.
Seven Wigwam Motels were built throughout the United States between 1933 and 1949. The two in Holbrook and one in Rialto/San Bernardino remainAs you can see, they are not wigwams, but then , tipis aren’t regionally accurate either–it’s camp!
The Interstate Highway System was initiated in 1956, introducing multiple-lane highways with high speed limits passing from state to state. By 1985, interstates webbed all along Route 66, rendering the old two-lane road obsolete in terms of getting from point A to point B.
But all the small towns and businesses that blossomed along “the Mother Road” wouldn’t let us forget the kicks we got on Route 66. So sections of the old highway remain navigable, designated as “Historic Route 66.” Today, the historic route also attracts visitors from abroad, particularly French-people and Germans, seeking a true-blue American experience. From Kingman, the Snail Family took a gorgeous, winding section of Historic Route 66 through the Black Mountains. The “Oatman Highway” runs through the former gold mining town of Oatman, named in honor of Olive Oatman, the pioneer girl whose enslavement by the Yavapai and adoption by the Mohave became legendary. (Accounts are full of dramatization and prejudice, but are nevertheless fascinating and telling of the time and place. Here‘s a good clarifier.)
The town of Oatman was active from the turn of the century till the 1930s. In 1939, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard chose the Oatman Hotel (est. 1902) to hole up away from the press after getting married in Kingman. Gable loved the area and often returned to play poker with the miners.
As the mine dried up and people moved away, they let their donkeys–who worked in the mine, transported water, etc.–loose, resulting in generations of wild burros which now roam through town as they please, receiving feed from shop owners and tourists.
I feel obliged to warn potential visitors that Oatman may feel depressingly down-at-the-heels, and will be uncomfortable to gun-control/ban supporters, as firearms and 2nd Amendment merchandise abound. This may result in a compulsion to contribute to the local economy and a repulsion from doing so. I kept wondering what the French bikers were making of it all. I’ve been mulling it over myself, and think it comes down to the question of being a good traveller; If you only want to be around people like yourself, your travel options will become fewer and fewer until you might as well stay at home. The Oatman area is truly beautiful, so you can at least take old Route 66 and drive right through town, minding the donkeys, of course.
Here’s to the Mother Road. Happy Mother’s Day!