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Road-trip fix on Route 66: Tales of travelling the Mother Road with my parents

If a 2,575-kilometre road trip sounds overwhelming, try tackling that distance on a road that doesn’t exist.

Last month my parents and I travelled a sizable portion of one of the first U.S. highways, Route 66, a road that embodies so much of that country’s history and is still one of the best ways to discover it. It took some diligence, though. The Main Street of America is truly off the map. And travelling with your parents as an adult, well, that takes perseverance, too.

Our route to 66 began 40 years ago, when my father came to Canada from London with little more than a sense of adventure. He and a friend embarked on a four-month loop around North America – driving down the U.S. East Coast, across Mexico and up the West Coast to Vancouver before making their way back to Toronto. Stories of his experience have become lore in my family, so as the anniversary of my father coming to Canada and my own milestone – turning 30 – approached, he thought it would be a good idea to hit the road again. The all-American road trip. I couldn’t say no.

Brand USA

Dubbed the Mother Road, Route 66 was a path to the West, and to prosperity, for the downtrodden during the Depression. Later it became synonymous with discovery, when cars became affordable and road travel possible for anyone. But now much of 66 is lost, maimed by a series of smooth and monotonous interstate highways. It’s a jumble of multiple alignments, dead ends, bypass routes – some of it gets devoured altogether by the interstate for long stretches. But with a detailed guidebook (our bible was Drew Knowles’s Route 66 Adventure Handbook) and a few pairs of eagle eyes to spot the historic markers, it is still possible to follow the route in its essence all the way from Chicago to Los Angeles.

Of course, a good road trip is as much about getting things wrong as getting things right – and we did plenty of both. There’s no one way to do old 66. We spent a few days in Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon and Sedona, Ariz., first; we didn’t hit Route 66 in earnest till Winslow, Ariz. We also decided to travel west to east – which meant reading our guidebook backward. The old neon motel signs led the way and we stopped when the road told us we should.

Sarah Lilleyman/The Globe and Mail

As we moved from one kitschy, “can’t-miss” attraction to another, we were genuinely surprised by how dramatically the landscape transformed at nearly every turn. Flat, arid desert gives way to towering red rocks and, eventually, the sweeping plains of Oklahoma, where most of the original 66 highway is preserved and easy to navigate. For long stretches, we drove what felt like an arm’s length away from freight trains.

And we all got to be in the driver’s seat. My mother insisted on seeing the meteor crater (in Meteor City, Ariz.) that bore a 170-metre-deep hole into the Earth more than 50,000 years ago. And I wasn’t about to leave Arizona without seeing the rainbow rocks of the Painted Desert.

Then we stumbled upon the Wigwam Motel, our first shining example of roadside kitsch, in Holbrook, Ariz. “Have you slept in a wigwam lately?” asks the sign, but this 1950s-era tourist stop doesn’t exactly give you that opportunity – the “wigwam” rooms are, in fact, shaped like tepees, but they’re made of concrete and steel.

We made detours through Petrified Forest National Park, named for its vast deposits of petrified wood – fallen trees turned into stone after millions of years. The fossils will take your breath away, but don’t take any of it with you – signs all over the park make that clear.

Sarah Lilleyman/The Globe and Mail

On the other side of the state line, the El Rancho Hotel in Gallup, N.M., is a throwback to the golden age of the Hollywood western. Built in 1937 to offer the “charm of yesterday … convenience of tomorrow,” the El Rancho was home to the stars filming in the area – and it doesn’t let you forget it. Walls are lined with photographs of Rosalind Russell and Humphrey Bogart, neighbouring rooms are named after Doris Day and Gregory Peck, and its restaurant menu features the Katharine Hepburn (a BLT) and the John Wayne (a burger with guacamole). Its cheese was its charm, and this was the first place on our journey that made us feel as if we’d been transported to another time.

Along with most other Route 66-ers, we made a point of stopping in Adrian, Tex., proclaimed to be the route’s halfway point, with its friendly Midpoint Café and a most practical tourist attraction. A road sign lets you know just how far you’ve come, and just how far you still have to go: Los Angeles is 1,139 miles (1,830 kilometres) to the west, Chicago is 1,139 miles to the east.

Sarah Lilleyman/The Globe and Mail

We nearly hurtled past the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Cadillac Ranch, an art installation just off the interstate in Amarillo, where 10 classic cars are buried nose-first in the ground, rusted out and covered in graffiti. You’re encouraged to pick up a can of spray paint and do your worst – turns out sending pictures of messages sprayed in bright yellow on the underside of a Cadillac generates much more enthusiasm from friends than a postcard.

Sarah Lilleyman/The Globe and Mail

We breezed through Oklahoma, but made a slight diversion to Guthrie, one of our favourite spots along the way. Its historic district has more than 2,000 buildings, and walking its streets lined with Victoriana is truly like stepping back in time. Mock gunfights are staged outside the Blue Belle Saloon and the Oklahoma Frontier Drugstore Museum (you read that right) has an apothecary garden next door.

Route 66 also took us from one Springfield (in Missouri) to another (in Illinois) in a single day. The former is a great home base for exploring the Cave State. We chose a jeep-guided tour of Fantastic Caverns, billed as “America’s only ride-through cave” (this was a road trip after all). The second Springfield is home of all things Honest Abe. Here you can tour the Lincoln home, but it was nowhere near as powerful as the Lincoln tomb, his final resting place deep beneath a 36-metre-high obelisk.

Tourism New Mexico

You don’t expect deep soul searching to happen about where to stop for steak in Texas, or which must-see attraction to skip, but driving the Mother Road with my parents offered a good chance to learn about one another as adults. The bickering was, in hindsight, an important part of the experience. Ten days in a small sedan can really shed light on your closest relationships. My dad was the doer, my mother liked to enjoy the ride – and stop as often as possible. I liked to do the research and control the radio. (Turns out ’90s on 9 isn’t everyone’s favourite station.)

Sometimes we had to take deep breaths and indulge each other, but we managed to find a balance in the end, even if one of us preferred to wait in the car with the engine running rather than take a picture of yet another Lincoln statue. But when our personalities aligned, it was magic: the joy my mother took in tagging that Cadillac with me; the laughter that lasted a full day after my father truly bungled his first selfie.

Not everything went according to plan. But we decided not to linger on what we missed along the way. What we managed to find was so much better.

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