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The Traveling Photographer: Driving Route 66, part 2

This summer my two friends and I did it. We drove Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica. It took us about two weeks, which isn’t much time since we made a detour to the south rim of the Grand Canyon and spent an entire day at the Petrified Forest National Park and Painted Desert.

Due to our limited time, we found it very important to pre-plan our days and set priorities, leaving room for some flexibility.

Preparation for the trip

While planning the trip I accumulated a small duffel bag filled with guidebooks and maps. The bag came with me to Chicago, and I am glad it did. We found that each guidebook and map offered something the others did not. Some of my pre-trip research is reviewed in my first article on Route 66, which was published in February.

Additional resources we relied on that are not listed in the first article include:

We saw several good Route 66 guidebooks along the way in the souvenir shops for those who wait until the last-minute to buy what they need.

Best part of the trip

Despite all our discussions on attractions to see and towns to explore, my travel companions and I agree that the favorite part of our trip was the people we met along the way. Amazing individuals working hard to create and maintain successful businesses, hoping to bring back tourist dollars to their hometowns. Many regions have been declining since automobile and truck drivers began using interstate highways in lieu of Route 66. We also enjoyed chatting with fellow travelers who crossed our paths, like the Brazilian couple who had driven up all the way from São Paulo, Brazil.

Having fun

Based on what I learned during the pre-planning process, I knew that throughout Route 66 we would see lots and lots of abandoned or deteriorating buildings and signs, exquisitely painted murals and restored gas stations. I have come to realize, however, that Route 66 is also the land of giants.

A giant spaceman, a giant Paul Bunyan, a giant blue whale, a giant rocking chair, a giant fork, a giant ketchup bottle and the list continues. It probably sounds juvenile, chasing after giants, but it was this lighthearted, youthful spirit that really made the journey special. We carried that spirit with us throughout the trip.

The spirit was evident near Amarillo, Texas where we spent part of our afternoon at the Cadillac Ranch. A public art installation in the Texas panhandle, the Ranch is a bunch of Cadillacs buried nose down into the ground on which people paint graffiti. We were there on an exceptionally hot Sunday. Despite the heat, scores of friends and families were having great fun working together to paint the cars. My girlfriend grabbed a can of spray paint and went to work. I, on the other hand, grabbed my camera and clicked away.

Asking questions

Further embracing our new-found Route 66 spirit, we tried very hard to talk to almost everyone we met. Asking lots of questions we learned personal histories of the places we visited, discussed with a Navajo musician his love of music, and marveled how a restaurant owner and his girlfriend saved a historic building from the wrecking ball. We heard stories about famous outlaws like Jesse James and the shoot-outs of Bonnie and Clyde. Locals reminisced about movie stars such as Clark Cable and Clint Eastwood. Shopkeepers provided recommendations on restaurants and attractions not listed in our books. Hotel managers gave us maps and brochures not out for public view.

We also discovered that each conversation can be full of surprises. For example, a woman at the Snow Cap Drive-In in Seligman, Arizona squirted me with mustard as we talked! (It was actually fake mustard — a joke.) It turns out making jokes is genetic. On the list of food items available at the shop her dad had listed “Dead Chicken.”

Route 66 — preserving history

Of course, everything wasn’t about joking and having light-hearted fun. Route 66 is home to several local museums and visitor centers that present historical information and show Americana artifacts.

What surprised us was how many visitors on the Route left their own “artifacts.” At the Hackberry General Store in Arizona (between Seligman and Kingman, Arizona) I was told that a tourist even left a police uniform from Sweden.

One stop in the Mohave Desert in California, the Baghdad Cafe, has become a mecca for film fans from all over the world, fans who have left voluminous mementos of their pilgrimages. The award-winning German movie “The Bagdad Cafe” was filmed at this location in the 1980s. Tourist buses stop for refreshments and to buy souvenirs. A family from Paris came to visit as we drank our coffee. The parents were so excited.

Think about the irony of it all — my friends and I drool at the thought of visiting Paris. Here a family from Paris comes to literally the middle of nowhere just to visit the Baghdad Cafe. Only on Route 66.

Paying attention to the clock

Another café, famous for a different reason, is the Midpoint Cafe in Adrian, Texas. Operating since 1928, the Midpoint Cafe is located at the Route 66 midpoint, right next to the midpoint line painted in the middle of the road. Although our arrival was at closing on a busy Sunday, the owner was nice enough to let us in to try a piece of the café’s famous pie. We learned our lesson and made a mental note: Always check closing times, and try to keep track of the clock. It would have been disappointing to miss out on something special because we got into a town too late.

Using a GPS

The clock isn’t the only thing to carefully watch while driving Route 66. The Route is very confusing to find at times, with lots of twists and turns. What made our trip easier to drive was the Route 66 GPS Turn By Turn software I purchased from River Pilot and downloaded to a Garmin Zumo™ 665 GPS unit.

I purchased the Garmin Zumo on eBay, thinking I would resell it after the trip. You can also rent a Zumo loaded with the software directly from River Pilot. We loved using this software. It took the worry out of our travels and alerted us to attractions along the way.  (There are probably similar applications for cell phones but I was concerned we would not have cell phone coverage in some areas — which certainly was the case. The Zumo always worked for us.)

The end of the trail

Despite the ease of travel with our fully loaded Zumo, we were exhausted from driving in heavy Los Angeles traffic. Route 66 cuts through the core of Los Angeles, including Pasadena, Hollywood and Beverly Hills. What a change from the quiet momentum of the Route 66 country road we had come to know. We finally found the “End of Trail” sign on the Santa Monica pier amid the hoards of tourists. Later we collapsed on some nice beach chairs and smiled at the ocean.

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