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(2011 - Spring Issue)

Writer: Allyson Bycraft

If you’re a kitsch aficionado, make this the year to explore Route 66—3,800 kilometres of cool.

The Mother Road, winding its way through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, was completed in 1938 and had its true heyday in the 1940s and early ’50s. An estimated 210,000 people used it in a mass migration to California, the land of opportunity. Towns along its route became cities and businesses boomed as everyone scrambled to provide visitors with amenities and attractions to keep them—and their dollars—in town longer.

Classic Diners and Motels

The result was a feast for the eyes and imagination. More than 3,800 kilometres of over-the-top design that still delights today. Route 66 set the standard; the “motel” was born on this road, and many of the classics are still in operation. Tucumcari, New Mexico, revels in its kitsch and it’s nice to see the whole town on board with it. The Blue Swallow Motel is a landmark, which has been open since 1939. Under new ownership since 2004, it’s been lovingly restored to its former cheesy glory, and its sign is a perfect example of classic Route 66 neon.

Kitschy-cool diners can be found all along the Route, but the Rock Café in Stroud, Oklahoma, has a special 66 connection. The café’s imposing stone facade is made from rock unearthed during the original paving of the road. The eatery has had its ups and downs, including being completely gutted by fire a few years ago, but still serves up southern favourites. The combo platter of corn fritters, fried pickles and fried green tomatoes is deep-fried heaven.

Two champions in keeping the kitsch alive along the Route are The Big Texan in Amarillo, Texas, and the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, Arizona. The Big Texan is a steakhouse and neighbouring motel. The motel’s long facade is done up to look like a garishly-coloured main street in an old western town, and staying there feels a bit like a sleepover at Cinderella’s Disneyland castle. The steakhouse features an enormous cowboy in the sky and a gigantic cow in the parking lot. This is the home of the free 72-ounce steak. If you can eat 72 ounces of their steak with all the fixings (huge baked potato, salad and breaded shrimp) in under an hour, you get the meal for free. Challengers sit at an elevated table in the middle of the large restaurant so everyone can enjoy the fun. If you can’t make it in person, you can watch the action on their website via a live webcam. The current record holder is a world hot dog-eating champion who got through the steak dinner in an amazing nine minutes.

Sleep in a wigwam! So the sign commands at the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook. Once all the rage, seven wigwam villages were constructed from the ’30s to the ’50s from Florida to California, with Holbrook’s opening in the late ’30s. Rooms are individual concrete wigwams placed in a circle around the property. A low-rise apartment building in the background and vintage cars parked out front complete the feeling of crazy incongruity. Inside, the wigwams are delightful. The 18-sided room features a sloping ceiling and kitsch-rustic furniture.

Repurposing for Modern Times

While it’s a delight to see the old motels and diners still in operation, former Route 66 businesses that have been repurposed for modern times have a lot to offer the modern traveller. Woody’s Wood-Fire Pizza in Joplin, Missouri, offers excellent pizza in a tiny space. You can’t help but get cosy with the other diners, most of whom are locals, who will tell you that the building spent most of its life as a liquor store catering to thirsty travellers along the Route. Kelly’s Brew Pub in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is a beautiful old converted garage. The airy indoor space and large patio feature the original giant garage doors labelled “Service” and “Lubrication” with the Ford logo tweaked to read “Food.”

Kitschy sights along the route are too numerous to list, but here are a few: a row of vintage Cadillacs half-buried and graffiti-covered in Texas; a 19-storey-high cross in Oklahoma; world’s biggest McDonald’s Restaurant in Oklahoma; Meramac Caverns in Missouri and the never-ending series of billboards advertising the attraction (Boat Tours! Panning for Gold! Ice cream!); and the amazing art deco Tower Building and U-Drop Inn in Shamrock, Texas.

Vanishing Heritage

The fun to be had along the Route is tinged with the bittersweet, however. Though Route 66 runs for long stretches contiguously with new highways (40 and 44), in some places, the new roads veered away from the original Route and, sadly, took the tourists with them. Some of those boomtowns from the ’50s are now almost ghost towns. Roy’s Motel and Cafe in Amboy, California, in the Mojave Desert was once a busy stop on the Route. Now, travellers stop for a quick look at the iconic sign, but there’s nothing else to see. Galena, Kansas, has a population of just 3,000 where once it was 10 times that. The main street is full of beautiful period architecture, the buildings now empty and fallen into neglect.

There is hope: the buildings of Galena were the inspiration for the fictional city of Radiator Springs in the 2006 animated feature film, Cars, and that has given the area a bit of a boost. A local group calling itself 4 Women on the Route has bought up some of the local property and is hoping to rejuvenate this little corner of history, as is the new owner of the village of Amboy. Times are tough, though, and preserving 3,800 kilometres of Americana seems a monumental task. Best to go now, while kitsch still rules, and show your support for the “Main Street of America.”

Travel Planner

For more information,visit or call:

Route 66 News: http://rwarn17588.wordpress.com

Route 66 Preservation Foundation: cart66pf.org

Blue Swallow Motel: blueswallowmotel.com

Rock Café, Stroud, OK: oklahomaroute66.com/preservation/rockcafe.html

The Big Texan: bigtexan.com

Wigwam Motel: galerie-kokopelli.com/wigwam

Woody’s Wood-Fire Pizza, Joplin, MO: 782wood.com

Kelly’s Brew Pub: kellysbrewpub.com

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