Secrets of Route 66 – Motorcycle Travel
It was a late April afternoon when we rode up on the “Ghost Stretch” of Spencer, Mo. There was quite a bit of winter snap left in the air; the sun hung at an angle where the trees cast long shadows. It felt more like autumn than spring.
A small row of buildings sitting alongside Route 66, Spencer couldn’t really be called a town. Ride over the 1926 one-lane steel truss bridge spanning Johnson Creek onto a very old piece of hand-laid concrete pavement, and an Edward Hopper pairing brought to life greets you.
Vintage Phillips 66 gas pumps stand in a rich reddish-orange hue, painted before the second World War, leading the mix. There are no attendants here to ask, “What’ll it be, buddy. Regular or Ethyl?” They locked up and went home 60 years ago.
It’s quiet here — just the ticking of the Harley-Davidson Twin Cam 103 motor as it cools — and the Spencer sign swinging lazily in the wind. The road is nearly a century old and has never been repaved, yet it is close to perfect. The men who built it mixed the cement using water from the nearby stream, hand-troweling every inch.
Route 66 is a 2451-mile-long historic site, with its treasures either decaying or being rescued along the entire length. In some indeterminable future, archaeologists will be at these places, on their hands and knees, brushing through the soil, bursting with joy when then uncover an old Coke bottle. For now, 66 attracts mostly tour buses and motorcyclists.
In a way, Route 66 is an unlikely road to attract so many motorcyclists. You won’t scrape pegs or wear off chicken strips riding The Mother Road. Speeds are low and the roads dead straight over most of its length. Route 66 isn’t about the usual things that get motorcyclists excited.
Instead, it a surprisingly immersive nostalgia trip that transports you back through time. You don’t rush, you cruise, and that’s why a big American V-twin bagger is the bike of choice for this journey to the Pacific Ocean.
Route 66 starts in Chicago, although its birthplace was in Springfield, Mo., where the idea of a Chicago to Los Angeles highway was proposed in 1926. The start of 66 provides few hints about what the next 2500-odd miles will be like, bustling with traffic and civilization as it is.
After a couple of hours in the saddle, you get a taste — there’s Dick’s On 66 in Joliet, a service station with old ’50s sleds parked outside (and on the roof). In Wilmington, there’s the Gemini Giant, one of 66’s famous Muffler Men. At this point on Route 66, you still very much feel like you’re in the modern world; there’s never an ATM, Starbucks, or gas station far away. The roads are good, and 66 is easy to follow.
But “easy” is not the true nature of Route 66. In fact, 66 isn’t really even one road; the route changed many times over its lifespan, as cars became the primary source of transportation and the country grew.
These changes are called “alignments.” Come out of a town after lunch, expecting to continue following 66, and you will often be greeted by road signs showing multiple options — a 1920s alignment, one from the mid-’40s to 1962, and still another from the ’60s to ’70s. Which way do you go?
Many of these alignments are no longer complete roads, and in some cases have regressed back to gravel or dirt. Choose wrongly, and you may be doing a U-turn in a muddy bog. It must be said, however, that the old alignments have a lot to offer in terms of the time-machine effect. The pre-war alignment roads are surprisingly narrow. Ever sit in a Ford Model T? They aren’t very wide. Apparently, Americans weren’t as wide, either, back in The Great Depression.
Part of the allure of the guided tours of Route 66 is you’re being led by people who know where they’re going. Guides know which alignments to take and the must-see sights. That said, every ride on Route 66, is a little bit different.
Often, important endangered structures are in the midst of comprehensive restoration to return them to their former glory. Many more buildings lie decaying on the side of the road, abandoned for 30 years or more, devolving into wreckage. You might stop at a ruin one year, take a photo, and return the next to find only a splintered pile of wood.
John’s Modern Cabins is one such ruin, soon to be gone forever. A ghost tourist court in Newburg, Mo., the cabins date back to 1931. There used to be a dance hall on the property, and on Halloween night, 1935, a young groom named Eugene Duncan shot his wife Billie to death here. T
he history of murder only adds to the haunted feel of the site; bypassed by a re-alignment in 1965 and abandoned in 1971, the cabins are structurally unsound.
Nature is reclaiming the site — trees grow up through the floorboards, penetrating the roofs of the cabins. Weeds are thick underfoot. None of the Route 66 tours stop here, as it’s not safe. The whole place is one bad storm or one good vandal away from complete destruction. But, there are few places on route 66 that transport you into the shadows of the past the way the ruins of John’s Modern Cabins do.
Farther along in Carthage, Mo., is the 66 Drive-In Theatre — an honest-to-God double-feature drive-in that opened in September 1949, and closed 36 years later.
The beautiful Art Deco and Streamline Moderne styling of the Theatre likely worked in its favor, and thankfully this treasure was renovated and reopened in 1998.
The 66 Drive-In Theatre is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. One look at the place and it is easy to imagine yourself sitting in a shiny Chevrolet convertible with your date, rolling in to see the latest insect fear film. It’s another one of those places on 66 that takes you back to a time that seems familiar, even if you were never there.
Once you get down into Oklahoma, the vibe changes. You start to sense the wide-open spaces that lie ahead. The residual distractions of modern life fade with each mile you get farther away from Chicago, but you don’t notice it until you’re in Oklahoma and Texas.
Riding the fringes of civilization, on a road the modern world left behind decades ago, you morph into someone else — a little more spare with your words, a bit more apt to linger. Even on a group tour, the dynamic changes to a noticeable degree. The ride just seems a bit more…purposeful.
The eating on Route 66 (outside of the Big Cities) is great if you like diners. You’ll spend two weeks eating eggs, bacon, burgers, fries and steak, and washing it down with cold Coca- Cola or a milkshake. Only vegetarians lose weight on a route 66 tour; order a salad and you’ll get a few sad iceberg shreddings with a lake of blue cheese cascaded on top.
Staying awake and alert after these meals is a challenge if you eat everything on your plate. Most tour groups make stops every 100 miles, and never do more than 300 miles each day. Again, it’s not about making time — it is about savoring the time.
In Miami, Okla., is the Vintage Iron Motorcycle Museum. Aside from a great collection of British and American motorcycles and artifacts, there are revolving exhibitions. When we visited, they had a bunch of Evel Knievel memorabilia, McLean, as are the ruins of Guyton Motor Co., a garage of notable repute owned by two brothers who retired and sadly abandoned it in 1975.
The Cadillac Ranch, a public art installation project that features Cadillacs buried nose first into a field at an angle corresponding to the Great Pyramid of Giza, is in Amarillo. It’s well worth a stop, visitors are encouraged to add their graffiti to the cars, and cans of spray paint are usually scat- tered on the ground.
There isn’t much to see west of Amarillo, and it’s best to get onto I-40 to burn some miles. On this ride, we needed to get to Tucumcari, N.M. by 9 p.m. to meet a hotel check-in dead- line.
Problem was, we were 127 miles away. Warned to ride conservatively in this area due to the strong possibility of speed traps, we nonetheless ignored the advice and had the Harleys including his Snake River Canyon Mission Control Super Van. There is a gift shop with a huge assortment of logo t-shirts, featuring obscure vintage motorcycle brands, so you can stock up on Greeves and Montesa clothing.
Be careful leaving Miami, however. We picked up a bit of pre-War alignment and were humming along at about 70 mph when we crested a brow and the road changed to all gravel. Slowing a fully loaded Harley-Davidson Electra Glide from 70 down to 20 mph on gravel is not a thrill I want to experience twice.
Texas has its fair share of Route 66 gems. The restored U-Drop Inn and Conoco Station in Shamrock are stunningly beautiful. The first Phillips 66 Station in Texas (1929) is in breathing hard. Speeding into a black hole, no discernible scenery on either side of the road, no other cars in front or behind us, we saw lights in the distance, high in the sky.
Wondering if the eerie lights were a distant police cruiser or (less worryingly) an alien spacecraft, we slowed. Shadows of huge animal heads lay cast on the highway, moving with the rhythm of the insane.
It was a massive cattle yard, working through the night. We sped by, feeling a bit guilty for the steaks we ate in Amarillo. The stench of the place was unholy, the animal fear vibe palpable. I vowed to convert to vegetarianism, at least until we hit the New Mexico border.
As luck would have it, the time zone changed in New Mexico, so we made it to Tucumcari on time. We were booked into the 1939, the Blue Swallow is a classic old time motel, that has been kept in top-notch condition, with a giant neon sign outside advertising “100% Refrigerated Air.”
Neon swallows are featured above the garage doors that some rooms include, a perfect place to lock up your bike without worry. Every little detail is period correct, nothing to break the spell — just make sure you arrive for check in no later than 9 p.m.
Five-hundred miles to the west lies Holbrook, Ariz., with Petrified Forest National Park nearby. The best things about Holbrook are the Wigwam Motel (“Have You Slept In A Wigwam Lately?”) — with its concrete teepees and vintage cars parked outside — and Joe & Aggie’s Cafe, which has an insanely delicious Fried Apple Burrito on the menu.
John Lassiter, the Chief Creative Officer of Pixar, hand-drew an illustration thanking Joe & Aggie’s for the inspiration for Cars, the hugely successful animated film, and the note is displayed in a case near the Cafe’s entrance.
One of 66’s best riding segments in Arizona is from King- man to Oatman. Kingman has a great museum featuring all sorts of Mother Road memorabilia, and Mr. D’z Route 66 Diner, and you finally get to ride a twisty road — Oatman Highway.
However, this bit of road can be terrifying to the uninitiated, as it is regularly repaired with tar snakes, tens of thousands of which are drizzled across the pavement. In the hot weather, the tar snakes get greasy and cause front end slides. The slides are easy enough to catch, but Oatman Highway is also narrow, with a jagged rock wall on one side and a sheer drop without any guardrail on the other.
Plus, you have the odd RV crossing the yellow line on tight corners. It is a bit frustrating, having ridden all this way on straight roads, to finally get some bends so close to the edge, and realize that to ride quickly would be suicidal.
The last bit of 66, from Needles, Calif. until the end, goes from Mojave deserted to Santa Monica multitudinous in just a few hours. It’s a bit jarring to be standing at Roy’s Cafe in Amboy at lunch, terrain vacant to the horizon, and by dinner- time you’re dodging SUVs. Coming into Los Angeles after 14 days on 66— t he average tour length — will absolutely harsh your mellow.
Still, it is an incredible feeling to ride a motorcycle onto the Santa Monica Pier, where 66 terminates, knowing you have ridden the whole thing. And that gleaming ocean is quite the payoff; you feel kinship with the millions who traveled this same road, chasing California Dreams.
John Steinbeck called U.S. Route 66 “The Mother Road, the road of flight.” You may be seeking to escape something different than the migrants who originally travelled west on this road, but when you do ride up to that pier in Santa Monica, you’ll feel just as free.
Jim McDermott is co-owner of The Lost Adventure tour company with a primarily overseas clientele. An Official EagleRider Agent, The Lost Adventure offers both guided and self-ride tours that range across the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
Story from Ultimate MotorCycling magazine; for subscription services, click here.