The Mystique of Route 66

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

Anna Matuschek, who works in Stuttgart for the German magazine Motor Klassik, rides on Route 66 outside Oatman, Arizona. (Catherine Karnow)
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After three years of negotiation, the Santa Fe Railway sold them La Posada for the price of the land, $158,000 for 20 acres. The hotel was thrown in free. The trio moved in on April Fool’s Day 1997, shooing away some hobos, and set to work. Seven months later, La Posada reopened with five meticulously restored guest rooms. The new owners operated in the red for five years; sometimes they met payroll with Affeldt’s credit cards. They scrambled for grants and put everything they made back into the project.

Now the 53-room hotel is booked to capacity virtually every night. Its Turquoise Room is regarded as one of the Southwest’s top restaurants. The grounds are landscaped with towering cottonwoods and hollyhocks. With a paid staff of 50, La Posada is the largest locally owned employer. Winslow has awakened from a 50-year slumber with a revived downtown, new shops, sidewalks and streets.

“Architecture is what brought us here,” Affeldt told me. “But what Route 66 gave us was a built-in audience—the people going up and down the road for whatever reason: architecture, history, nostalgia. Having 66 on our doorstep made all the difference.”

As is often the case when it comes to a piece of history, people didn’t realize the value of what they had until it was gone, or nearly so. Today they seem to be remembering with a vengeance. The quarterly magazine Route 66 has 70,000 subscribers in 15 countries. Michael Wallis’ book, Route 66: The Mother Road, published in 1990 and updated in 2001, has sold about a million copies. Tulsa has held a marathon on its section of Route 66 for the past six years, attracting 12,000 runners and walkers last November. A Montana-based nonprofit, Adventure Cycling, which produces detailed maps for long-distance cyclists, has begun a Route 66 project. “People have contacted us for years, from all over the world, asking, ‘Why don’t you have a [map for] 66 ?’ Now, we’re going to,” says Ginny Sullivan, special projects manager for the group. And the National Park Service is providing grants under its Route 66 Preservation Program to rehabilitate significant elements along the original road—funky service stations and motels that once advertised “Cheap Clean Sleep, Thermostat Heating” and neon signs that beckoned travelers toward 99-cent chicken-fried steak dinners and $2 rooms.

A fiery sunset blazed across the desert sky, and wind-tossed tumbleweed danced down the long stretch of 66 that leads to Truxton, Arizona (pop. 134). Ahead, a tree-high sign—rewired, repainted and artfully restored with a federal grant—flashed a red-neon welcome for the seven-room, 1950s Frontier Motel and café.

I first met its owner, Mildred Barker, and her husband, Ray, 33 years ago. Some years later I sat at their counter, eating homemade apple pie a la mode, with Ray’s 88-year-old stepfather, who recalled busting broncos in the Cherokee Nation before Oklahoma even became a state in 1907. That day Mildred had stepped out of the kitchen, a blue-plate special in each hand, recognized me and asked, “You still in that RV?” No, I said, I’d found something slower and cheaper. Outside, my bicycle, with four bulging saddle bags hanging over its wheels, rested against the battered Frontier sign. “My word!” she said. “I’m buying your meal today.”

When last I found Mildred, now 86 and full of memories, she complained that the pie under the new management that had leased the café wasn’t up to the standards she had set. She had decided to stay on in Truxton, she told me, because her husband, who died in 1990, had worked so hard to save the road. “You know,” she said, “I lived my entire life on 66—Oklahoma, New Mexico, now here. This wasn’t just a road. It was my history, my life.”

The next morning, I left early, pushing westward, dipping into Crozier Canyon, with its craggy, boulder-strewn hillsides, passing the long-closed Indian School that stands near the abandoned one-room “non-Indian” school in Valentine. The way was littered with relics: remains of a motel named Chief’s, a derelict Union 76 gas station, a Ford Model A rusting in sagebrush, buried to its hubcaps in sand.

In one old railroad town, I pulled off the empty highway for a cold Route 66 root beer in the Hackberry General Store. The owner’s 1957 red Corvette convertible was parked out front. As I headed for the soda fountain, making my way past shelves of Route 66 memorabilia, I half expected to see Martin Milner and George Maharis, the actors who wandered the country in a ’Vette as Tod Stiles and Buz Murdock in the CBS-TV series “Route 66” for four years starting in 1960, the year after my maiden voyage down the road.

John Pritchard, who owns the store with his wife, Kerry, began collecting Route 66 artifacts during the 1960s and ’70s, when he drove the road several times a year on the way from his Pacific Northwest home to his mother’s house in Mississippi. “People just wanted to get rid of stuff in those days,” he said. “I’d ask someone how much for this road shield or that sign or the old gas pump. He’d say, ‘If you’ll haul it away in your truck, you can have it for nothing.’” Before long, Pritchard housed a trove of Route 66 treasures in two warehouses.


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