The Mystique of Route 66 | Travel | Smithsonian
Anna Matuschek, who works in Stuttgart for the German magazine Motor Klassik, rides on Route 66 outside Oatman, Arizona. (Catherine Karnow)

The Mystique of Route 66

Foreign tourists and local preservationists are bringing stretches of the storied roadway back to life

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Since I discovered U.S. Route 66 as a teenage hitchhiker, I’ve traveled it by Greyhound bus and tractor-trailer, by RV and Corvette and, once, by bicycle. Recently, when I wanted to return for another look, I headed straight for my favorite section, in Arizona, stretching from Winslow west to Topock on the California border. The last 160 miles of that route constitute one of the longest surviving stretches of the original 2,400-mile highway.

I’m happy to report that Route 66’s obituary—written repeatedly since 1984, when the opening of I-40 enabled motorists to make the trip from Chicago to Los Angeles on five connecting interstates—was premature. What John Steinbeck called the Mother Road had been reborn, not quite with the character it once had, but with enough vitality to ensure its survival.

When I reached Seligman, I called Angel Delgadillo at his home. He set his tenor sax aside to pedal his bike the few blocks to his barbershop and settled into his hair-cutting chair, a cup of coffee in hand. “You know,” he said, “even the Greyhound abandoned us” after I-40 opened. “So I sit here today and say to myself, ‘It’s pretty unreal how we’ve brought 66 back to life.’ ” Seligman has 500 residents—and 13 souvenir shops selling Route 66 memorabilia.

“We’ve got a tour bus pulling up,” his daughter Myrna shouted from the adjacent gift store. Delgadillo, who is 84, bounded out of his chair, wearing a smile as wide as a crescent moon, and rushed to greet a group of German tourists, shaking hands and slapping backs. “Good morning, good morning! Welcome home.” Home? They gave him a quizzical look, not understanding that to Delgadillo, Route 66 is a quintessential home to all the world’s wanderers, even though he himself had never strayed far from it.

The tourists loaded up on postcards, Route 66 bumper stickers, road signs shaped like shields and black-and-white photographs of dusty Ford Model Ts chugging through Seligman in the 1930s, canvas water bags slung on their hoods to keep radiators from overheating. I asked one of the visitors, a 40-ish man named Helmut Wiegand, why in the world a foreigner would choose this road for a vacation over Las Vegas, New York City or Disney World. “We all know 66 from the old TV series about two lost young men traveling it in a Corvette,” he said. “For us, 66 is a connection with America. It’s your most famous street, symbolic of your freedom, your restlessness, your quest for new opportunity.”

As the travelers returned to their bus, Delgadillo shook hands with each of them. He was born in Seligman, the son of a railroad man who owned a pool hall and barbershop but had a hard time supporting his family of seven. “In ’39 Dad built a trailer for our Model T, loaded it up and shuttered the windows of our house,” he said. “We were ready to join the Okies and go to California.” But his three brothers had formed an orchestra, with 12-year-old Angel on the drums, and the boys got a job performing in a local club. For the next four decades, they played at high-school dances, American Legion halls and VFW lodges, and community events along Route 66. “The highway saved us,” said Delgadillo, who is now known locally as “the Angel of Route 66” for his preservation efforts.

The road west from Seligman cuts through the Hualapai Indian Reservation and desert plateaus covered with juniper and mesquite. Red-rock cliffs thrust skyward on the horizon. In the 1850s, U.S. Navy Lt. Edward Beale traveled this route, along centuries-old Indian trails, with 44 men and 25 camels imported from Tunisia. Beale and his men created the first federally funded wagon road across Arizona, from Fort Defiance to the mouth of the Mojave River in California. The first telegraph lines to penetrate the Southwest territories soon followed, as did settlers in covered wagons and then railroads. Finally, in 1926, black Model Ts came chugging along an intermittently paved road designated as Route 66. It wasn’t the first road across the West; the Lincoln Highway, known as the Father Road, was dedicated in 1913, running 3,389 miles from New York City’s Times Square to San Francisco’s Lincoln Park. But 66 became synonymous with wanderlust and discovery.

For Cyrus Avery, the new road was a dream come true. A visionary Tulsa businessman and civic leader, Avery had persuaded federal officials designing the nation’s first comprehensive highway system to move the proposed Chicago-Los Angeles route south of the Rocky Mountains so it traveled through his hometown. Oklahoma ended up with 432 miles of Route 66, more than any state except New Mexico; 24 miles of the road snaked along Tulsa County’s residential and commercial streets. The thoroughfare spurred the development of a city that had, Avery would later recall, “no electric lights and pigs running on the streets” in the early 1900s. A few years ago the city of Tulsa purchased two acres of blighted land near the Cyrus Avery Memorial Bridge spanning the Arkansas River and built a plaza and skywalk. But the centerpiece of the $10 million-plus project will be a Route 66 museum and interpretive center, still in the planning stages.

The last time I traveled the road, crossing the open range and Painted Desert of northern Arizona in 1995, Winslow was a dying town. Route 66, which had become 2nd and 3rd streets, was a shambles of closed shops and nasty-looking bars. The magnificent La Posada, last of the famous Fred Harvey hotels built between Chicago and Los Angeles for rail and Route 66 travelers, had been closed in 1957 and converted into offices for the Santa Fe Railway. The Posada’s splendid murals, depicting desert flowers and Southwestern landscapes, had been painted over. The soaring timbered ceiling had disappeared under tiles fitted with fluorescent lights. The lobby was turned into a dispatch center for trains and the ballroom partitioned into cubicle offices. The original museum-quality furnishings, designed or selected by the building’s creator, Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter, regarded by many to be the Southwest’s greatest architect, had been auctioned off or given away. In 1992, even the Santa Fe Railway gave up on the place, reportedly offering it to the city for $1. Winslow said no thanks.

Then in 1994, Daniel Lutzick, Tina Mion and her husband, Allan Affeldt—friends who had attended the University of California at Irvine together in the 1980s—showed up in Winslow. Residents viewed them with a mix of suspicion and hope. The three talked about taking over La Posada and restoring it. What the town didn’t yet realize was that Lutzick was a sculptor, Mion an accomplished portrait painter and Affeldt a successful preservationist.

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