In the recent interview with Rudy Maxa, I found myself answering a question that is probably the one most often asked, especially when I speak to individuals or groups unfamiliar with the storied double six. Is it still possible to drive this highway?
My answer is usually given in two parts. First, yes you can but a guide book is essential even though some states like Illinois and Missouri have gone to great lengths and considerable expense to ensure the road is well signed.
The second part is a question, which Route 66? It is not my intent to be flippant, I am just introducing the concept that this iconic highway is multifaceted.
As an example, in the interview I noted the two very distinct personalities of Route 66 in western Arizona. The pre 1952 alignment follows the course of the National Old Trails Highway, predecessor to Route 66, through the Black Mountains in a series of switchbacks and steep grades to the Colorado River.
The post 1952 alignment for all intents and purposes is now signed as I-40. There are exceptions but for most of the roads course between Kingman and the Colorado River, the modern four-lane highway incorporates segments of Route 66, or buries it.
This may be an extreme example but consider the various alignments in St. Louis and the immediate area. Just the various bridges used to carry Route 66 traffic across the Mississippi River are a diverse lot representing more than a century of highway engineering evolution.
In Illinois, especially south of Springfield, there are two distinctly different versions of Route 66. The latter alignment is now relegated to serving as a frontage road for the interstate highway in most locations.
The earlier alignment, however, is a portal into the past. All along the course of what is now state highway 4, are tangible links and vestiges from more than two hundred years of history.
For my money, however, it is Route 66 in New Mexico where you really discover that the legendary double six truly does have split personalities. The post 1937 alignment cuts a fairly straight line across the state and along the way brushes by, or cuts through, villages that are centuries old.
However, for most of its course it flows through towns that are relatively recent additions to the desert landscape as they date to the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Of course it also course through the modern/ancient metropolis of Albuquerque.
However, the pre 1937 alignment makes a big arc sweeping north into Santa Fe before dropping into Albuquerque. Nestled all along the old highway that in some places is laid over the ruts of the Santa Fe Trail and El Camino Real, are remnants from more than a thousand years of history.
At Pecos National Historic Park the ruins of an extensive pre Columbian city (Spanish explorers noted it was the largest city encountered north of Mexico) and a Spanish Colonial era mission are preserved. Little more than a spit and hop down the road are the unassuming remnants of the Pigeon Ranch that almost appear as if they are propped up by the highways guardrail.
This historic structure began as a hostelry on the Santa Fe Trail. During the Battle of Glorieta Pass in the American Civil War this building served as a field hospital.
With few exceptions the latter alignment mimics the interstate highway by cutting through the land rather than following its contours. The earlier alignment mimics its predecessors in that it flows with the land following the path of least resistance which was often the path chosen by earlier road builders.
Now, as to guide books, in my humble opinion there are two to recommend. One penned by Jerry McClanahan (EZ 66 Guide) published by the National Historic Route 66 Federation is without the most popular and easiest to use. We never travel the double six without a copy.
If your unfamiliar with America’s longest attraction, I can’t suggest strongly enough that you take a timely tip and motor west, or east, and discover a truly magical place. If you are familiar with the double six and its unique charms, perhaps its time to seek out some of the other manifestations of Route 66.