A Trip of a Lifetime
By Edward Johnson
I don't know exactly when the idea struck me of taking Route 66 all the way to California and back. I do know it was there in my mind long before I ever got an anitque vehicle and joined the McLean County Antique Auto Club or joined the Route 66 Association of Illinois. At some point it turned into the idea of a group trip to celebrate the car club's 50th anniversary in 2013. I started talking about it at the monthly meetings over two years in advance to give anyone interested in going along plenty of time to get themselves and their vehicle ready.
I put together a proposed itinerary of places to see and places to stay along the way and a group of interested members had our first meeting in February of 2012. The start-off date was settled on for September 15th, 2013. The plan was to travel no more than 200 miles a day if possible and stop anywhere and see anything that was of interest to us. Through several meetings there were some changes made to the plan as stops were added or dropped or evening stops were changed.
Before we knew it, September 15th, 2013 was here. We had picked Miller Park in Bloomington as our rally point for the start of the trip. None of us felt the need to make the trip to Chicago just to turn around and come back. I had encouraged anyone who was interested from the club to come out and give us a send off. We had a great turnout to see us off on our adventure and I was really surprised by the number of members who showed up on that Sunday morning to cheer us on. Several members had driven their antique vehicles and we made quite a caravan as we pulled out of the park.
Those heading out for California were: Mike and Judy Evans driving a modern Ford F150, Walt and Sharon Fogle driving a 1955 Chevy Belair, Curt and Diane Hawk driving a 1956 Chevy Nomad, Bill and Marilyn Tate driving a 1955 Chevy Belair, and my wife and I, Ed and Carol Johnson driving a 1965 Ford Fairlane.
We made it all the way to Atlanta, IL before making our first stop. After a quick stop for pictures in front of the Giant and at Memories across the street as well as some added air to the shocks and a donut we were back on our way. We paused in Lincoln for a picture by the giant Abe Lincoln on the wagon.
We stopped next at Soulsby's Shell Station in Mt. Olive where we met a group of over 25 motorcyclists from Austria who had flown to Chicago and rented bikes to make the trip to California. We paid a visit to Henry's Ra66it Ranch in Staunton and got some advice about the Chain of Rocks Bridge and getting around St Louis.
Our lunch stop for the day was the Ariston Cafe in Litchfield where we were treated to great food, great atmosphere, and an invitation to take a group photo behind the counter. We were also encouraged to stop across the street at the newly opened Litchfield Museum which we did and enjoyed.
After a stop and a walk on the Chain of Rocks Bridge the group decided that we would bypass St Louis by way of the Interstate rather than follow one of the alignments of the old route.
Sometime during the day Bill had noticed a drop in his brake fluid and late in the day Curt had a muffler go out. When we stopped for the night in St Clair, MO, the guys were able to find a garage that would be open the next morning. They were both back on the road a few hours later. The rest of us started out and they caught up to us later that day.
We stopped to take pictures in front of some of the many murals in Cuba, MO. This is a really neat little town that obviously has some very talented artists. At Fanning, MO is the World's Largest Rocking Chair and a gift shop filled with all kinds of Rt 66 items. We drove on through Hooker Cut where the road makes a deep cut through the rocks and crossed the bridge at Devil's Elbow.
In Lebanon, MO we made an unscheduled stop at the Shepard of the Hills walnut bowl shop so the ladies could do some shopping. They have lots of things besides bowls which are really only a small part of the store. Then it was on to a stop that was on the schedule, the Route 66 Museum. It is located in the Art Museum and is a very nice stop with some very neat displays.
Our evening stop was at the Best Western Rail Haven in Springfield, Mo. This motel has been here since before Route 66. There are antique cars in front of the motel, a gift shop in the lobby that includes a juke box and a phone booth, and each room has pictures on the wall of the motel as it was then and now.
Also right across the street was a Midas Muffler shop that I needed to visit the next morning as my car had developed an exhaust leak about mid day on the way there. Bill and Marilyn stayed with us so that we wouldn't be on the road by ourselves and the rest of the group headed out. We were back on the road later that morning and caught up with the others by lunch time.
There were several photo stops along the way at the Gay Parida in Paris Springs, MO which is a recreated Texaco station from long ago, the Avilla, MO post office which is a neat little triangle shaped building, and the Route 66 Drive-In outside Carthage, MO.
After lunch in Carthage we all headed towards the long drive through Kansas. There are only about 13 miles of Rt 66 in Kansas but they are definitely worth the drive. The highlight of this part of the trip was a stop at Cars on the Route an old gas station turned into a gift shop/resturaunt and home to the original tow truck that inspired Tow Mater from the movie Cars. This is where you also get to meet Melba the Mouth who can talk faster than your ears can listen and a gentleman who is double jointed and can turn his foot around backwards!
This night's stop was in Claremore, OK home of the Will Rogers Museum which we elected to stop at on the way back. We did stop at the Blue Whale which was a former roadside water park/swimming hole for some more pictures. The Museum of Pioneer History in Chandler, OK was another very interesting place with lots of local history and history of the construction of Rt 66. At Arcadia, OK we stopped to check out the Round Barn which has been completely restored including the second floor dance hall.
The Oklahoma Rt 66 Museum in Clinton, OK and the National Rt 66 Museum in Elk City, OK were both very nice stops. You might wonder what you could see in one Rt 66 museum that you wouldn't find in another but each one is different and each one tells a different story. The one thing they do all seem to have in common is dedicated volunteers who enjoy showing you their collections and displays.
That was also true of our next stop and while it really isn't a Rt 66 museum it was one of the highlights of our trip. It is the Roger Miller Museum in Erick, OK. This was a great stop and if you are ever anywhere close I highly recomend that you take the time to stop.
Mike and Judy have some good friends who live in Amarillo, TX and when they found out about our trip they insisted that we stop by and pay them a visit. Jim and Ann Anderson own a restaurant called Cowboy Gelato on Rt 66 in Amarillo. Jim and their son Cody are also 2/3rds of a band called Palo Duro. The plan was for us to spend the night in Amarillo then tour Palo Duro Canyon the next day. That would be followed by a night at Cowboy Gelato to hear the band and a second nights stay in Amarillo.
Except for the tremendous downpour that we had to drive through as we entred Amarillo it turned out great. Jim is a walking encyclopedia on the history of Texas, the Comanche Indians, and Palo Duro Canyon. We drove to and through the Canyon while he kept us entertained and informed. Later that evening the food and the band were the end of one of the best days of the trip. Now we all have some good friends in Amarillo.
Back on the road again the next day found us making photo stops at the Magnolia Gas Station in Vega, TX, the Mid-Point Cafe in Adrian, TX and the Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, NM. At the Mid-Point we got to meet the lady who was the inspiration for Flo from Cars. We were going to stop at the Blue Swallow for the night on the return trip but found out that they were in the process of closing for the season. Each room has its own garage, the walls of which are painted with scenes from the movies Cars and Easy Rider as well as other Rt 66 scenes.
In Gallup, NM we spent the night at the El Rancho Hotel and Motel. This is where all the movie stars stayed back in the days when they were making a lot of western movies
and movies set in the southwest. Each of the rooms is named for a star who stayed there. We had the James Cagney room. The lobby is two stories tall with a balcony all the way around that has walls covered with pictures of the stars and the movies they were making. That night we sat and played cards in front of a fireplace where John Wayne and other great actors had gathered after a day of filming. This is another place you should not miss if you are ever in the area.
Before leaving the next morning Bill had to replace a distributor that had been acting up. Mike and Judy stayed behind to drive with them and they caught up to us later on. Several more planned stops had to be passed as they were closed on that particular day. We drove the Painted Desert loop of the Petrified Forest and stopped at the Painted Desert Inn which is now open only as a museum and snack shop but very interesting just the same. You can see the rooms and learn about the original construction by the WPA as well as the reconstruction after years of neglect.
We were all back together again by the time we reached Winslow, AZ and the famous
street corner. Everyone got there picture taken "standin on the corner." Then it was off to our stop for the night the Canyon Motel and Railroad RV Park in Williams, AZ. Here you can stay in one of two cabooses or a pullman car. Instead we had little stone cottages each with its own theme. Ours was western, complete with a saddle above the bed. Walt and Sharon's had model trains and each of the other couples had different themes. When we got back to the rooms that night after dinner we heard elk bugling on the mountain side across the road.
We left Mike and Judy at Williams as Judy wasn't feeling well. They had been planning to split off once we were in California in order to make a trip to friends in Washington. We stayed in touch and they were back on the road soon, just headed in a different direction.
There was some concern about whether or not the Oatman Highway would be passable because there had been heavy rains in the mountains and the road had been washed out in places. When we stopped at the visitor center in Kingman, AZ we were assured that we would be able to make it through. So it was off to the switch backs and hairpin turns as we climbed our way to and through Sitgreaves Pass to the town of Oatman. Here the burrows that are descended from those left behind by miners from years ago roam the streets and boardwalks.
After a night in Needles, CA we started out across the Mojave Desert which because of all the recent rains was green and filled with wild flowers. This is usually only seen in the spring we were told by locals. There isn't much else to see crossing the Mojave except lots of scenery and lots of trains. We did stop for a break at Roy's Cafe in Amboy, CA and had a very welcome cold drink.
We pushed on past some more planned stops that were closed and decided to get as close to Santa Monica as we could. We stayed that night at the Wig Wam Motel in Rialto, CA. We each had our own little concrete TiPi. This is another one of those places you really need to stop. Very Rt 66! Walt and I were brave enough to take a dip in the pool before we all gathered poolside for a pizza party.
In the morning we headed off through the madness that is the Los Angeles area to make our way to Santa Monica and the end of Rt 66. Carol had been in touch with her brother Craig who was in the LA area on business and he met us at the Santa Monica Pier. After some pictures on the pier we had lunch at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Then more pictures on the pier and the beach and we decided it was time to try to head out ahead of the traffic. I must say that even with all the traffic and all the multiple lanes on the freeways most of the drivers we encountered were very courteous. Maybe it was because of the old cars we were driving.
As we made our way back east we tried to stop at as many of the places that we hadn't been able to stop at on the way west as we could. One of the first of these was the CA Route 66 Museum in Victorville. This was a very nice stop with very friendly people who really were glad to have you stop by. Each couple was given a CA Rt 66 pin.
Back in Barstow, CA we were able to visit the Route 66 Mother Road Museum and the Railroad Museum next door both of which were closed on our way out. Just before reaching Needles, CA on the way back Curt developed a feul pump problem but had it fixed and was nearly ready to go by the time Bill and Walt got back to him.
When we arrived in Flagstaff, AZ we found out it was parents weekend at the University and motel rooms were few and far between. We had to split up for the first time and stayed in 3 different motels. The next morning Carol and I had breakfast at the Galaxy Diner a really neat place with a '50s-'60s decor and good food. We were all back together again and since we had enjoyed our stop so much at Winslow, AZ, we decided to stop again.
Our stop that night was in Grants, NM and this was where the NM Mining Museum was located. Since it was closed on the way out, it was our first stop the next morning. This museum includes an underground tour through a mock up of a local uranium mine. Our guide for the tour was a former head of operations at that mine and a very entertaining and informative man.
We were traveling a little more on the interstates on the way back to avoid some of the rougher places along the old road and to make a little better time in those areas where there weren't any planned stops. We were on our way to the northern loop to Santa Fe, NM.
After spending the night in Santa Fe Curt and Diane decided to head on back and stop in Kansas City to see some friends. Now we were down to 3 couples but still having fun. We drove through Santa Fe on Rt 66 and managed to not get lost on all the turns and one way streets. At Museum Hill we toured the Native Heritage Museum which was very good. After several hours there we headed on down the road towards Tucumcari, NM. This is another town with lots of wonderful murals painted on the sides of buildings. We took pictures of several of them.
Going back through Amarillo we decided that we needed to stop by Cowboy Gelato and say hello to our new friends Jim and Annie. Since it was lunch time anyway we decided that we might as well enjoy some more of that good food and some gelato. On the way there we made another quick stop at the Mid Point Cafe and a short side trip to see the Cadillac Ranch. After another good meal and some great desert we said our goodbyes to the Andersons and headed on down "The Road."
As we passed through McLean, TX we were able to stop at the Devil's Rope and Old Rt 66 Museum. You can't imagine how many different types of barbed wire there are! Just like most of the Rt 66 museums we visited this one is manned by volunteers who really make you feel welcome and filled with lots of local history as well as history of the road.
We stopped for the night back in Erick, OK but unfortunately the little cafe where we had eaten on the way out when we took in the Roger Miller Museum was already closed for the day. Walt and I had really been looking forward to a piece of their homemade pie. All along the way both going and coming back we had found some great little mom & pop places to eat. We tried to give our business to them because they are helping to keep the road alive.
Going back through Arcadia, OK we stopped at Pops to fill our tanks and get a drink of some of the many different kinds of soda pop that they offer. I'm not sure if there were more kinds of pop or more kinds of barbed wire back at Devil's Rope but there were a bunch of both of them.
After spending the night in Catoosa, OK we headed for Claremore, OK and the Will Rogers Memorial. Bill and Marilyn had stopped here on the way out so they elected to make a stop at another attraction and then continue on towards home as they had received word of the death of a good friend and needed to get back. After spending some time taking in the many displays at the Memorial we decided to make a short side trip to the Will Rogers birthplace.
By now it was down to just two couples, Walt and Sharon and Carol and I. We were spending more time driving now and less time stopping, primarily because we had been able to make most of our planned stops on the way out. We were still stopping any time we saw something we wanted to check out and taking time to enjoy the ride. It just seemed that the miles were going by faster even though our speed was the same. It might have just been that we knew where we were going now.
We stopped again at the Rail Haven in Springfield, MO since we had really enjoyed it on the way out. We also knew there was a good resturaunt within walking distance and that's always a plus. Next morning we continued retracing our path across Missouri stopping at places like Lebanon, Rolla, and Fanning. Again most of our stops were shorter and some were just to take pictures.
On the way through Bourbon, MO we were able to stop at the Circle Inn Malt Shop which had been closed as we passsed on the way out. Unfortunately they were out of malt powder but the shakes still tasted pretty good and we enjoyed them while we checked out the dining room wall that is covered by a mural of the entire path of Rt 66.
We spent the night at the Diamond Inn Travelodge in Villa Ridge, MO. This is another place that has been on Rt 66 almost since the begining. We wanted to take in the Route 66 State Park in Eureka, MO and made it our first stop the next morning. The park has a very nice museum and gift store and a very friendly maintenance man who opened the doors and let us in even though it wasn't quite time to open.
Once again we elected to bypass St Louis on the interstate rather than drive through on one of the alignments of Rt 66. We did however decide to drive on IL Rt 4 for much of what was the very first path of Rt 66 between Staunton and Springfield. We detoured from that route to go back through Litchfield for lunch but then returned to it later on. This is a very enjoyable drive and one of the highlights is a 1.4 mile stretch of brick highway between Auburn and Chatham. We stopped on a bridge along the brick road to take pictures of the cars sitting on the bricks.
Our final stop was back at the begining, the pavilion at Miller Park. Once again there was a big gathering there but it wasn't for us this time. I did get a young gentleman who was there to take a picture of the four of us standing beside our cars before we headed home. It had been three weeks filled with new discoveries, friends both old and new, and a new appreciation of what it must have been like to travel across the country before we had the interstates and life moved at a little slower pace. As Walt reminded me so often it was "the trip of a lifetime."
Over the course of those three weeks we traveled a total of 4,388 miles. Our '65 Fairlane averaged 19.2 mpg and our gas price averaged out to $3.35/gal. with a high of just under $4.00 and a low of just under $3.00. Our motel bills ranged from a high of $112 to a low of $45 and averaged out to about $80 per night. Our meals averaged out to just over $50 per day. Car repair and maintenance which included an oil change was less than $200. With everything figured in we spent well under $200 per day and made memories that will last a lifetime.
Here's a slideshow of all the photos provided of their adventure:
We welcome your Route 66 news, stories, photos and events for publication in our newsletter or on our web site!