Route 66 signs on the road

As we look forward to a post-COVID world, people are longing to enjoy the thrills of travel again. Current speculation is that self-drive holidays will be amongst the first to recover. With that in mind, the recent revival of Route 66 could make it the perfect place to get your kicks.

Steinbeck’s Mother Road experienced a remarkable rise and fall between the prohibition years and the post-war era. To understand the revival of Route 66, we need first to understand where it all started, and what has happened along the way.

66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land…
66 is the mother road, the road of flight.

John Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath

In this article, I look at the turbulent history of Route 66 and its recent return to glory. I also recommend three must-see places for the first time traveller to visit. These, in my opinion, are the best stops on Route 66 to experience its revival first hand.

Travel my way, take the highway that’s the best.

From Chicago to Santa Monica, mile after mile of iconic gas stations, neon-lit motels and retro diners unfold before you. Two thousand four hundred forty-eight miles to be precise. Route 66 spans eight states and three time zones through cities, towns and desert. People come from all corners of the world to travel the Mother Road and channel their inner Thelma & Louise. Or maybe some, like me, prefer to channel Lightning McQueen from Pixar’s animated movie ‘Cars’.

The Conoco gas station in Shamrock Texas

The History of Route 66

In the mid-1920s, people throughout the mid-west were desperate to trade more widely across state lines. Automobiles were more accessible and presented opportunities to do business further afield than ever before. In 1926 a project began to piece together existing stretches of road in order to connect East with West. The result was a rugged, hotchpotch trail stretching from the Windy City to the West Coast.

Over the next 60 years, a series of political, economic and environmental events would transform Route 66. It would take on a life of its own, in ways that no one could have foreseen.

The Dirty Thirties

In 1929 the United States was hit by the Great Depression. Wall Street crashed, and unemployment hit 30%. Months later, a severe drought struck the Midwest that would last for ten years. Choking dust clouds swept across the plains, whipping up dirt from the parched and overworked land. This dark period became known as the ‘Dust Bowl’.

Farming communities in the midwest were devastated by the depression and the effects of the drought. The dirty thirties ravaged their livelihoods and left agricultural land unworkable. Route 66 became a lifeline for whole families fleeing their homes in overloaded jalopies, desperate to find work in California.

Europe Goes to War

By the late thirties, the economy and climate in the United States were, at last, starting to improve. Europe, however, was on the verge of war. When the U.S. joined the fight against Nazi Germany, Route 66 suddenly became an essential military supply line. Convoys of military vehicles, supplies and troops passed along the route, heading for the bases in the west. In places, the road had to be widened or completely re-routed to bypass towns and allow the military machinery to pass through.

Let the Good Times Roll

In the post-war years, America’s economy gradually started to improve. People had more disposable income and easier access to motor cars. A new sense of freedom and opportunity prevailed. The Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest and beaches of California were within reach, and people wanted to explore.

Route 66 flourished as a tourist trail, and the motels, diners and gas stations thrived. Mom-and-pop businesses that had catered for desperate families fleeing the dust bowl now had a brand new clientele.

The Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari.

The Beginning of the End

The glory years for the Mother Road would, unfortunately, be short-lived. President Eisenhower had seen the impressive Autobahns in Germany, and he wanted the United States to have the same. In 1955 congress green-lighted a program of interstate highway construction.

The interstates bypassed whole towns and cities, drawing traffic away from Route 66. Passing trade was their oxygen and whole communities suffocated as a result. Prosperous businesses closed almost overnight, leaving behind a string of ghost towns. By the mid-80s the interstate program was complete, and Route 66 literally erased from the map.

The Revival of Route 66

Since the mid-eighties, Route 66 has seen a spectacular renaissance. Neon signs shine on motels with open doors again. Diners serve hot dogs and fries and cherry pie with endless coffee refills. Classic cars decorate the route outside retro gas stations, museums and quirky gift shops.

An almost cult-like fascination surrounds the mother road, attracting tourists from around the world. The best stops on Route 66 today display all of the retro-chic appeal they did in the heydays.

Experience the Route 66 Revival

If you want to experience the revival of Route 66 first hand, then you don’t have to travel too far. All along its route, dedicated owners have restored run-down businesses to their former glory. Below are three of the best stops on Route 66 for the first time traveller (in my opinion). These individual gems symbolise the many labours of love which, collectively, have made Route 66 great again.

The Launching Pad – Home to the Gemini Giant

The revival of Route 66 - the Gemini Giant at the Launching Pad diner

About an hour west of Chicago is the town of Wilmington, Illinois. It’s an unremarkable town, except for the 30-foot tall statue of a spaceman that greets you. He is wearing a green spacesuit, with a silver helmet that gives him the look of a spaceman-cum-welder. The silver rocket in his hands carries the words “Launching Pad”. That is the name of the diner he has guarded for the last 55 years.

The Gemini Giant has been a symbol of Route 66 since 1965 when John and Bernice Korlic decided to rename their diner. They wanted a name that would reflect the excitement surrounding the space race between the USA and Russia. A few months later, John saw the fibreglass statue for sale at a Restaurant Association convention in neighbouring Missouri. Without hesitation, he knew that it would be the perfect adornment for the Launching Pad. Three thousand five hundred dollars and an awkward conversation with Bernice later, The Gemini Giant arrived in Wilmington.

The Korlics sold the diner in 2007. The new owners struggled, however, and in 2010 the Launching Pad closed its doors and started a sad decline.

The Giant Awakens

In 2017 the Launching Pad was given a brand new lease of life. Tully Garrett and Holly C. Barker had chanced upon the diner during a trip on Route 66. Despite years of neglect, they saw a unique opportunity and a way to bring new direction to their lives. Having purchased the restaurant they spent the next two years restoring the run-down shell into a smart diner. They incorporated a mini-museum and gift shop, and in 2019 the giant himself received a brand new coat of paint.

Inside the diner, assorted Route 66 memorabilia revives the spirit of the glory years. Retro signs and classic car prints adorn the walls, alongside framed newspaper articles from throughout the years. If you look closely, the old gas pump is, in fact, a newsstand. Shiny chrome bar stools and cosy booths make you want to stay and enjoy the ambience. Thankfully the coffee and food are superb, so that’s not hard to do.

Before you leave, don’t forget to take a picture beside the big man himself. I’d say the Launching Pad is one of the best stops you can make on Route 66. In my honest opinion, this is where the Mother Road really begins.

Gary’s Gay Parita

Gary's Gay Parita gas station on Route 66

About 25 miles west of Springfield, Missouri a wonderfully preserved stretch of The Mother Road passes through Paris Springs. The iconic Route 66 emblem decorates the road outside a restored Sinclair gas station.

Gary’s Gay Parita is a shining example of the renaissance that Route 66 has enjoyed. The 1930 gas station owned by Fred and Gay Mason stood on this spot until it burned down in 1955. When Gary Turner and his wife Lena purchased the site, they were looking for a project for their retirement. With a remarkable eye for detail, they lovingly rebuilt the business, with all of its original uniqueness and charm.

Legends of Route 66

Gary and Lena became legends on the Mother Road for their hospitality and good humour. They loved to share their knowledge, passing on tips of where to eat and the places to see. The service station at Paris Junction quickly earned a reputation as one of the best stops on Route 66.

I had the pleasure of meeting Gary twice, and his enthusiasm and wit were infectious. When he passed away in 2015, Gary’s daughter Barb was determined that her father’s legacy should live on. She upped sticks with her partner George, and today they are the legends of Paris Springs.

You’ll still find the original pumps and the signs advertising Opaline Motor Oil, Lee Tires and 15 cent gas. An old Plymouth Deluxe waits patiently for a fill-up, and the workshops hold all kinds of hidden treasures. Moreover, Barb and her partner George will welcome you with a warmth and generosity that must make Gary proud.

Gary’s Gay Parita is one of my favourite stops to experience the revival of Route 66. It oozes the original spirit and eclectic charm of the Mother Road. You’re sure of a warm welcome so try to visit – but be warned, you’ll stay longer than planned.

Seligman, Arizona – “Birthplace of Historic Route 66”

Seligman Arizona - home to the revival of Route 66

Since 1926 Route 66 has passed right through the town of Seligman, Arizona. Growing up in Seligman, Angel Delgadillo had witnessed the migration of the “Okies” fleeing the Dust Bowl in the dirty thirties. A few years later, he saw the processions of troops and military vehicles preparing for war. Angel graduated high school in 1950 and opened a barbershop in the town, taking take advantage of the passing traffic.

All went well until 1978 when Interstate 40 bypassed Seligman completely, diverting traffic two miles to the south. Overnight the town went from seeing 9,000 vehicles a day to virtually nothing. Restaurants, gas stations and motels had no way to survive. Like so many other towns on Route 66, Seligman was in danger of becoming a ghost town.

Guardian Angel

Devastated by what he saw, Angel and his wife Vilma set up the Historic Route 66 Association of Arizona. Based out of his barbershop, they worked tirelessly with other business owners to promote tourism and to save the Mother Road. Seeing what was happening in Arizona, similar groups quickly sprung up across all eight states.

Today, Seligman remains a vibrant town, filled with quirky, nostalgic throwbacks to the past. Classic cars and retro neon signs border the road. The gift shops and diners are buzzing, drawing visitors from around the world. Angel’s barbershop is still there. He regularly cycles into town, and even gives the occasional cut, I’ve been told. I had the pleasure of meeting Angel once, and he is a gentleman in the real sense. The last time I was in Seligman, Angel wasn’t around. The lady in the gift shop told me he’d been playing saxophone into the early hours at the local bar. He had just celebrated his 92nd birthday.

I always stop in Seligman when travelling Route 66 and, of course, I hope to see Angel again. Moreover, I want to pay tribute to the role he, and this town, have played in driving the revival of Route 66.

Radiator Springs is based on Seligman Arizona

Incidentally, if Seligman looks familiar to you there’s a good reason why. The town was the inspiration for Radiator Springs in the Cars movie!

For more information about Route 66 please don’t hesitate to contact me. If you have found this article interesting then please share it on social media using the buttons below.

If you are considering a trip on Road 66 then I can provide information and advice on group tours as well as a personal planning service. You can read more about why using a personal travel planner can be a good idea here. If this service may be of interest, then please contact me to discuss your requirements with no obligation.

The ultimate guide to travelling Route 66

My go-to guide whenever I’m travelling Route 66 is the EZ66 guide by Jerry McClanahan. Jerry has been mapping, photographing and documenting the Mother Road since 1981. His acclaimed guide with hand-drawn maps gives a wealth of knowledge including route tips, historical notes, hidden gems and detailed directions.

Published in association with the National Hostoric Route 66 federation, you can see theguide on Amazon UK or US using the links below:

See this book on Amazon UK:

See this book on Amazon USA:

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