"Sixty-six is the mother road, the road of flight,” wrote John Steinbeck in his 1939 novel Grapes of Wrath.
When Route 66 was first established in 1926 as one of the first official US highways, it was nearly 2,500 miles of road that connected Chicago to Los Angeles. Never before had a route captured America’s sense of freedom, adventure and opportunity quite like 66 did. Given several nicknames—including “The Main Street of America,” and “The Will Rogers Highway”—Route 66 reigned supreme for about a quarter of a century, from the mid-1930s, when it was a migration route, until the late 1950s, when it became a major highway for postwar vacationers.
With the road cutting through big cities and small towns alike, Route 66 helped small businesses thrive. Diners, motels, trading posts, gas stations, natural wonders and roadside attractions all became part of the uniquely American experience the road provided.
But the Federal Highway Act of 1956 proved to be the beginning of the end of Route 66’s heyday. In response to the growing car culture of America, the law allocated money for newer, faster, better roads—like Interstate 40. These roads allowed for the near-total circumvention of Route 66. As the Mother Road saw less traffic, the small businesses alongside it died out. On June 27, 1985, Route 66 was officially decommissioned, meaning the road was no longer part of the US highway system.
Today, though, Route 66 has seen a bit of revival, thanks to recognition of its history and cultural value. The National Parks Service offers grants for preservation of the road. Travelers who want to experience a taste of mid-century Americana are hitting the road again. Even foreign tourists are making the trip to get their kicks on Route 66. While certainly not the fastest or easiest way to drive from Chicago to Los Angles (or vice versa), it is the most scenic, and still ripe for discovery.
So, buckle up—summer is road trip season and there is no better road to take than the one that so captivated the American imagination. Alongside the diners and natural wonders, Route 66 is a haven for off-the-wall collections and eclectic museums. Here are seven of the most fascinating:
Museum of Osteology: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Despite its rather ordinary name, this facility on the outskirts of Oklahoma City is anything but. Jay Villemarette’s fascination with bones began as a kid, when he found a dog skull in his backyard. His collection grew, and soon he started a small skull-and-skeleton-sales business out of his house.
One thing that always proved difficult for Villamarette was getting the bones clean. He tried boiling, burning and bleaching, but all of these methods were potentially dangerous, expensive and didn’t work all that well. One day while out collecting, he noticed a specimen being eaten away by dermestid beetles, or skin beetles. Indiginous to North America, the beetles aid the natural decomposition process in the wild. Villamarette had found his solution to his bone-cleaning problem.
Today, Villamarette and his retail company, Skulls Unlimited, employ tanks of dermestid beetles to help clean the excess meat off specimens. One of these tanks, plus nearly 1,000 bone and skeleton specimens, are on display at the Museum of Osteology—“America’s only skeleton museum”—located next door to the processing plant of Skulls Unlimited.