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Route 66: Still Good for Kicks

Historic Route 66 serves up endless miles of Americana.


Brian Jewell
Published May 01, 2014

Tulsa to Texas

The Mother Road crossed from Joplin in southwest Missouri into the northeast corner of Oklahoma, where it began a nearly 400-mile run through the state to the Texas border. The first Oklahoma stop for groups following along is Tulsa, where a local man played an instrumental role in the development of the highway.

“It started as a concept of Cyrus Avery, who was from Tulsa,” said Todd Stallbaumer, consumer and trade marketing director at the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department. “When he was working on promoting the idea of this cross-country road, he made sure that a lot of it ran through his home state. So today we have the longest portion of the road still in existence.”

Groups can stop in Tulsa at the Cyrus Avery Centennial Plaza, which has a bronze statue of a classic car and a horse-drawn wagon representing the intersection of history in the area.

From there, Route 66 travelers will find a number of stops ranging from historic roadside attractions to sophisticated historic museums.

“The Oklahoma Route 66 Museum in Clinton does a great job with groups,” Stallbaumer said. “They just renovated within the past 12 to 18 months and re-created a lot of their exhibits. They tell the story of Route 66 by decade. You learn about the original route, which they used horses and plows to dig the base for. Then they go into the war era through the 1950s and talk about how the diner became such an important part of the experience.”

The state tourism department has identified some 90 historical attractions along the route. They range from the Blue Whale in Catusa, an oversized waterslide created as a wedding present, to the Rock Café in Straud.

“The developers from Pixar spent weeks at the Rock Café learning about Route 66 to create the animated movie ‘Cars,’” Stallbaumer said. “The owner, Dawn Welch, was actually the inspiration for Sally, the Porsche in the movie.”

Groups traveling the Mother Road in Oklahoma often stop at the Chandler Route 66 Interpretive Center, which is housed in a sandstone building created by the WPA in the 1930s, as well as the National Route 66 and Transportation Museum in Elk City. This museum features antique cars, historical documents and roadside attractions from each state along the historic highway.

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Albuquerque and Beyond

After leaving Oklahoma, Route 66 traveled across the Texas panhandle and then into New Mexico, where the story of the route itself gets interesting.

“We have two Route 66s that run through the state,” said Daniel Monaghan, video services manager for the New Mexico Tourism Department. “It first came in the east side of the state, up to Santa Fe, down through Albuquerque and then west. In 1937, they realigned it for various reasons and straightened it so that it skipped Santa Fe.

“One of the oddities of this is that in downtown Albuquerque is the only place where Route 66 and Route 66 cross. There’s an intersection there, at the corner of Central and Fourth.”

No matter which version of the road you follow, Albuquerque is New Mexico’s nexus of Route 66 activity. Among the most authentic experiences that groups can have in the area is a visit to Old Town, the historic town square. Adobe buildings house numerous galleries, shops and restaurants, and Native American artisans sell their crafts on the sidewalks in the area.

Groups can also find authentic artwork at some of the trading posts in Albuquerque and other points along the highway, many of which predate Route 66 and have been fixtures along the way for generations.

“The trading posts are really popular with travelers,” Monaghan said. “They have native Navajo weavings, saddles, silver and turquoise jewelry, and handmade things. A lot of it is uniquely New Mexican. There is history in all of these places. They’ve been around for more than a century, and they tell great stories of what a trading post really is.”

Other smaller towns in New Mexico give travelers distinctive Route 66 experiences as well. Nob Hill features a collection of Route 66 period Art Deco buildings and numerous restaurants and landmarks that served the original highway. The town also hosts the annual Route 66 Summerfest, a one-day car show and marketplace that takes place in July.

On the western end of the state, Gallup has a lot of neon signs and old motor hotels that were common during the heyday of the Mother Road. Tucumcari, near the state’s eastern border, is known for its abundance of period neon.

“Tucumcari has an abundance of Route 66 neon, including the very famous Blue Swallow Hotel,” Monaghan said. “They also have a large stainless-steel Route 66 sculpture. It’s a landmark that was set there after Route 66 was decommissioned to mark the town’s place in history.”

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