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1350 MILES ALONG ROUTE 66 - PART 1
It seems to be the convention that Route 66 is travelled from east to west. I suppose this is because the road was the traditional route followed by economic migrants from the depressed mid-west in the 1920s and '30s to what they thought was the golden land of orange groves around Los Angeles. For various reasons, I opted to travel the route in reverse i.e. west to east. Nor did I have time to do the whole route from LA to Chicago and my trip will finish at Oklahoma City. At least, though, I will have covered the route travelled by the Oklahoma migrants whose troubles John Steinbeck described in The Grapes of Wrath.
DAY 1 ON ROUTE 66: LOS ANGELES TO NEEDLES, CALIFORNIA (280 miles)
So the first state through which I travelled was California, where Route 66 passes through every type landscape, from the beaches of Santa Monica, through the citrus growing inland valleys, over mountains and across the Mojave Desert, The guide book says that the old road survives intact almost all the way across the state and is marked for most of its 315 miles by signs declaring it Historic Route 66. This may be true, but it doesn’t make it easier to follow the old road through the LA metro area!
Near where Santa Monica Boulevard dead-ends at Ocean Boulevard, a brass plaque marks the official end of Route 66, the “Main Street of America,” also remembered as the “Will Rogers Highway,” one of many names the old road earned in its half century of existence.
Plaque marking the end (or start for me) of Route 66
Santa Monica Boulevard where Route 66 starts
Route 66 across Los Angeles follows Santa Monica Boulevard through Beverly Hills and West Hollywood. East from Hollywood, Route 66 merges into Sunset Boulevard to downtown L.A. 66 then follows Figueroa Street to the soaring Colorado Boulevard Bridge, an arching concrete bridge at the western edge of Pasadena which used to mark the entrance to Los Angeles from the east. Recently restored, the bridge spans Arroyo Seco along the south side of the Ventura Freeway.
East of Pasadena, the San Gabriel Valley used to be the westbound traveler’s first taste of Southern California and its orange groves. This seemed to last until the mid-1950s, when Route 66 gave way to high-speed freeways, and the orange groves were replaced by endless grids of tract houses.
From Pasadena, old Route 66 runs east along the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains although these are now all new roads. It goes past the landmark racetrack at Santa Anita and past the classic Foothill Drive-In at Azuza, the last remaining drive-in on Route 66 west of Oklahoma, whose sign was saved when the land was recently developed.
All that remains of the Foothill Drive-in Theatre in Asuza is the neon sign. Not my photo
I'm afraid, as it was dark when I arrived here so I've used a stock image.
At Rancho Cucamonga, 66 seems to become the I-15 which heads north over the mountains and the Cajon Pass. But before Victorville, old Route 66 survives as an “old roads” 36 miles trek across the Mojave Desert. It parallels the railroad tracks and the usually parched Mojave River, passing through odd little towns like Oro Grande, which is still home to a huge cement plant and lots of roadside junk shops before rejoining I-15. Sadly I had to miss out this loop because it was already dark when I hit this point.
East of Barstow all the way to the Arizona border, old Route 66 survives in a series of different stretches alongside the I-40 freeway. The first place of interest, Daggett, is a rusty old mining and railroad town six miles east of Barstow along the north side of the freeway. Again I had to miss out this stretch but the guide books say that if you want a taste of what traveling across the Mojave Desert was like in the old days, turn south off I-40 at Ludlow, 50 miles east of Barstow, and follow Route 66, on a 75-mile loop along the old road. This goes through Ludlow, where two gas stations, a coffee shop, and a motel represent civilization and Bagdad, a turn-of-the-20th-century gold mining town that’s now defunct.
From Amboy, it’s another 48 miles back to I-40 at Fenner. Another stretch of Route 66 runs east from Fenner on a roller coaster of undulating two-lane blacktop, parallel to the railroad track through the desert hamlet of Goffs. My stop was at Needles, a town which trades on its Route 66 heritage although I could find little of interest in the town so I moved on into Arizona.
DAY 2 ON ROUTE 66: NEEDLES, CA TO FLAGSTAFF, AZ
DAY 4 ON ROUTE 66: GALLUP TO SANTA FE
Setting off from Gallup, I soon came across this amazing old (but apparently still functioning) garage. Unlike many of the old garages along 66, at least this one is still working although for how much longer I couldn't be sure:
Along with the usual Route 66 range of funky old motels and rusty neon signs, my first stop after Gallup was the former mining boomtown of Grants. I took a quick look at its New Mexico Mining Museum.
Most of the exhibits trace the short history of local uranium mining, which began in 1950 when a local Navajo rancher discovered an odd yellow rock that turned out to be high-grade uranium ore. Mines here once produced half the ore mined in the United States, but production has now stopped. The museum has a convincing re-creation of a uranium mine, complete with an underground lunch room emblazoned with all manner of warning signs
A dozen miles east of Grants and 50 miles west of Albuquerque, one of the Southwest’s most intriguing sites, Acoma Pueblo, stands on the top of a 357-foot-high sandstone mesa. Long known as “Sky City,” Acoma is one of the very oldest communities in North America, continuously inhabited since ad 1150. The views out across the plains are unforgettable, especially the Enchanted Mesa on the horizon to the northeast.
Few people live on the mesa today, though the many adobe houses are used by Pueblo craftspeople, who live down below but come up to the mesa-top to sell their pottery to tourists. Its a diversion from Route 66 and I was undecided about making it but I’m very glad I did. The tour begins with a short bus ride to the mesa-top and end with a visit to San Esteban del Rey Mission, the largest Spanish colonial church in the state. Built in 1629, the church features a roof constructed of huge timbers that were carried from the top of Mt. Taylor on the backs of neophyte Indians—a distance of more than 30 miles.
An Acoma guide, who was excellent, spent 90 minutes taling us round the pueblo and talking with us to some of the people living there.
Another stretch of old Route 66 survives near here along the interstate, passing crumbling tourist courts and service stations across the Laguna and Acoma Indian Reservation.
My next stop was Albuquerque, New Mexico’s largest city which spreads north and south along the banks of the Rio Grande and east to the foothills of 10,000-foot Sandia Crest. For Route 66 enthusiasts, Albuquerque boasts a great stretch of the old Route along Central Avenue through the heart of the city—18 miles of diners, motels, and sparkling neon signs. The odd Aztec Motel, a very funky Pueblo-style 1930s motel kept alive as a live-in sculpture gallery and artists’ community, is an offbeat taste of the city’s Route 66 heritage.
One of the best parts of town is Old Town, the historic heart of Albuquerque. Located a block north of Central Avenue, at the west end of Route 66’s cruise through downtown, Old Town offers a taste of New Mexico’s Spanish colonial past, with a lovely old church, the 300-year-old San Felipe de Neri; as well as shops and restaurants set around a park.
I then made the northwards detour to the state capital, Santa Fe. The original Route 66 alignment ran north from Albuquerque along the I-25 corridor, then curved back south from Santa Fe, along what’s now US-84, to rejoin I-40 west of Santa Rosa. This was subsequently straightened out along I-40 for “political reasons”: apparently, there was a move to deprive Santa Fe of the Route 66 business. I must find out why.
The best sense of this old route across old New Mexico comes just north of Albuquerque, at Bernalillo. Route 66 here follows the much older El Camino Real, which linked the Spanish colonies 400 years ago. Silva’s Saloon, whose walls are coated in layers of newspaper clippings, old snapshots, and other mementos, is the place to see.
I been to Santa Fe a few times so I didn’t spend much time in the town - just enough, though, to have breakfast at the excellent - and very popular on a Sunday - Plaza Restaurant (“Since 1931”) in the colonial square and spend a hour in the Georgia O’Keefe museum.
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