The Mother of All Roads: Historic Route 66

The Mother of All Roads: Historic Route 66
Some roads are famous. Others are legendary.
And then there’s Route 66.

Really, I see little point in writing this piece—you probably already love Route 66. It would be hard to overstate just how important the Mother Road is to American motorists, whether they hit the pavement on two wheels or four.

Designated in 1926, the Route 66 label brought together a collection of disparate state roads and to form one of the original federal highways. By 1938, Route 66 had become the first entirely paved U.S. highway and the good times came rolling in.

The road quickly became called the Main Street of America, and for good reason. Connecting Chicago to Los Angeles, this vital artery transported motorists, migrants, and vacationers through the nation.

An entire culture developed around traveling on Route 66, buoyed by its depictions in books, music, and movies. Booming businesses, stores, and eateries sprouted up along its nearly 2,500-mile length, some of which remain to this day.

Nothing lasts forever, though, and the establishment of the Interstate system in 1956 began siphoning the Mother Road’s children away from her. Dwindling traffic and deteriorating road surfaces eventually led to Route 66 being decommissioned and decertified.

An Asphalt Time Machine

But just because the kids flew from the nest, they didn’t forget their Mother Road. Revitalization efforts began pretty much as soon as the road got decommissioned and today, Route 66 is enjoying something of a renaissance.

The road is now maintained by state-level Route 66 associations that work hard to repair and renovate the classic roadside sights and attractions along the legendary route. Aided by a 1999 preservation bill, dozens—if not hundreds—of more or less historical restaurants, gas stations, hotels, motels, museums, and other establishments maintain the road’s legacy.

Now, time is not a gentle thing and some sections of the original Route 66 are no longer accessible. That said, thanks to ongoing dedicated preservation projects, you can still go have that good old American road trip.

Route 66 is a long, long road so I naturally can’t cover everything you can see, hear, and experience while traveling along it. And believe me, there’s a lot, from natural wonders to stunning works of modern architecture.

But let’s be honest with ourselves—Route 66’s main pull is nostalgia. Those who traveled on the road decades ago want to relive its heyday, while younger riders look for a way to make a brief trip back in time to when motorcycles were steel and motorcyclists were also steel.

And that’s just what riding Historic Route 66 provides. It’s a time capsule that takes you back to the glory days of American motoring.

But you knew all this already, didn’t you? So stop wasting your time reading this article and go get your kicks.

The Mother Road’s waiting.

Points of Interest

Ariston Cafe

Ariston Cafe in Litchfield, IL, is the oldest still-active restaurant along Route 66. Yet, it didn’t start its life on the Mother Road.

Pete Adam, a Greek immigrant, opened Ariston Cafe in 1924 in Carlinville, IL. In 1935, the cafe moved to its current location on Route 66 in Litchfield and it has been feeding travelers ever since.

Ariston Cafe is a must-stop along Historic Route 66, and not just for the delicious mix of Greek, Italian, and American fare. The restaurant’s interior looks much like it did back in the day, allowing you to dine like it’s 1955 (or even earlier).

Ribbon Road

The Ribbon Road in Miami, OK, is a unique and unusual section of Route 66. Its defining and most curious feature is that this one-lane road is only nine feet wide, which gave rise to its second nickname—the Sidewalk Road.

A persistent story claims that the road ended up narrow because its builders ran out of money. With the lack of funding, they supposedly built as much road as they could and called it good enough.

It’s an entertaining tale, but it’s probably not true. In reality, the Ribbon Road is the way it is because it was laid down between 1919 and 1921 when Route 66 was still just a vague idea.

Nobody at the time expected that it would ever become part of something as grand as Route 66, so a one-lane road was plenty for the area.

Cadillac Ranch

Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, TX, is one of the quirkiest attractions on Route 66—and also potentially the kitschiest (which is quite an accomplishment). This public art installation features 10 Cadillacs buried face-first in Texas sand.

The distinctive art piece was created in 1974 by artists Chip Lord, Hudson Marquez, and Doug Michels. Although Route 66’s glory days were already over at the time, the Cadillacs dating from the ‘40s to the ‘60s are intricately linked to the mother road.

Fun fact—the extensive graffiti covering the cars is actually legal and encouraged. In 2002, the cars were painted back to their original colors, yet new graffiti reportedly appeared on them in less than 24 hours.

Meteor Crater

Not every sight along Route 66 is a manmade structure from the mid-20th century. The Meteor Crater near Winslow, AZ, is the remnant of a much, much older natural cataclysm.

Some 50,000 years ago, a 160-foot-wide meteorite crashed into open, forest-dotted grasslands that would later transform into the Arizona desert. The impact force is estimated to have been 10 megatons—roughly 700 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped into Hiroshima.

The 700-foot-wide crater the meteor left behind has remained remarkably unchanged, thanks to its relatively young age and Arizona’s arid climate. Being located near Route 66, it’s a sight worth seeing during your trip.

Santa Monica Pier

The Santa Monica Pier in Santa Monica, CA, makes for a natural endpoint for your Route 66 trip. After all, this is where you’ll find the official Route 66 End sign.

Having ridden the entirety of the Mother Road, climb out of the saddle and stretch your legs with a walk on the beach. As you shuffle through the sand and surf, reflect on what a long and strange journey it has been.

Then again, nothing stops you from starting your trip on the pier, either! In that case, soak in the California sun before you head on to the chillier climes of Chicago.

Facts & Info

The Wagon Wheel Motel in Cuba, MO, is a must-stay during your Route 66 adventure. This is the oldest continuously operating motel on the Mother Road, having served travelers for 85 years. The lovingly restored establishment offers laundry facilities for washing your gear, food within walking distance, and covered parking for your bike.

Entering Cactus Inn in McLean, TX, makes you feel like you’ve stepped back in time to Route 66’s best days. Furnished in a 1950s style, the big rooms let you sleep in comfort even after scattering your gear all around. The steakhouse right by the property lets you fill your stomach after a long day’s ride.

The Lodge on Route 66 is rustic, offers a good breakfast, is conveniently located, lets you park right in front of the room, and has a coffee maker. What more do you want?  If you have a lot of gear, though, go for a two-person room even if you’re traveling alone, since the singles are admittedly a bit cramped.

Best Time to Travel

Due to its extensive length, it’s best that you head out on Route 66 either in spring or fall. These times guarantee reasonable temperatures and more or less mild weather in all the states you pass through. You can, of course, do the ride in summer, but be prepared to deal with high temps, especially in the route’s western sections.