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Road Route 66 Still Makes a Nice Road Trip Diversion

Route 66 1

The classic song “Route 66” had long led me to believe the highway was overrated. Out of the cities listed in the tune, the only ones that seemed worth visiting were Chicago, St. Louis, and Los Angeles. How many people do you know get excited about making a stop in Gallup, New Mexico?

Of course, my cynical view of the road has changed in the wake of parenthood. The Pixar movie “Cars” singlehandedly recaptured the mythos behind the historic highway, which was officially decommissioned by the U.S. government in 1985. That the flick managed to plant the culture of Route 66 into the minds of kids whose parents may not have been alive when the road technically bit the dust is no small feat. It stirred up interest in my daughters, to the point where it feels like a parental duty to show them the real thing whilst driving back home from the Grand Canyon.

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The soul of the old road is very much alive in Northern Arizona. Large markers along I-40 indicate the off-ramps where the old route jumps off the interstate, so its remnants are easy to track. The highway itself is as sparse as the main drag most of the time, save for the wonderful resurrection of vintage Burma Shave signs that use humorous rhymes to gently remind you to not to speed. These signs, which were roadside staples from the mid 1920s to the early 1960s, are fun to read aloud as a family – it’s never too early to teach kids about the importance of safe driving. They also are an indicator of what happens when the road hits actual civilization.

There are two kinds of towns that you’ll find on Route 66. The bigger cities like Flagstaff acknowledge the road as a nicety. Then there are tiny cities like Seligman, Arizona (population: 456), whose very survival depends on the road’s Americana appeal. We step out of our car here, and step into 1958; a time where Elvis and Marilyn were king and queen and Eisenhower’s newfangled Interstate system hadn’t quite altered the concept of the road trip. A lot of the stuff on display is unapologetically cheesy and filled with all sorts of rah-rah AMERICA!!! jingoism. The best example of this: one store sells a black T-shirt festooned with an old Route 66 marker, a Harley, and a bald eagle. But honestly, these somewhat schlocky wares fit perfectly with the simpler “age of innocence” that surrounded Route 66’s heyday. Our visit makes for an excellent talking point with our children when we continue west for lunch in Kingman. It’s one thing to tell them about the way things once were. Small Route 66-bound cities like Seligman give them a visual.

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Before we land in Kingman, we hit a goofy roadside attraction called Giganticus Headicus; a tall, green Easter Island-type statue whose nonsensical presence next to the front of an old trailer park is part of its appeal. It is something that looks like it was create during the route’s prime, yet it was just built in 2004. There is a push by some groups for Route 66 to be officially revived one day; this large green dude makes it feel like such a revival is inevitable. And yes, the head does have nostrils. No, you will not be successful in preventing your child from sticking his or her finger or head up one of them.

Route 66’s fun tends to hit the brakes once we reach the California border, and that’s fine. By the time the Golden State is reached, we are all ready to get home as quickly as possible. Yet days after the trip, the girls continue to talk about the road as if they saw Lightning McQueen himself. Route 66 may officially be a ghost, but its spirit is still mighty.

Rich Manning is a freelance writer that has been covering Orange County’s food, wine, and lifestyle scene for ten years. He currently lives in Fountain Valley with his wife, two daughters, and two dogs.
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