“Uncle, where is Route 66? Can we go see it?”
I started to think. Route 66, Route 66… that sounds familiar. There must have been a movie or a TV show about it way back before I was born. From the back corners of my brain’s database I recalled a vague phrase about getting your kicks on Route 66. Yet I had to have an answer for my niece Dorota, who was visiting from Poland (she was our tour guide at the Polska Polka Party and in Krakow).
“I don’t know Dorota. I’m not sure where it is. I think it goes through northern Arizona. Perhaps on the drive to the Grand Canyon we’ll find it.”
“I work with a man at the bakery who is obsessed with Route 66,” she said. “He reads about it all the time. He collects things about Route 66 that he displays in the office. I want to go there and bring him something from Route 66.”
Not to be outdone in the knowledge of Americana by a Polish bakery manager, I knew I had some research to do.
Route 66 is known as the Main Street of America. It runs from Chicago to Los Angeles. Established in 1926, it served as the main highway for the people who migrated west to California, especially those fleeing the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. It was also a main vacation route for millions. Route 66 was popularized by a hit song and a TV show in the 1960s.
The highway ran through many small towns across the west. The travelers along the route provided economic vitality to these small towns. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the towns were bypassed by the new Interstate Highway System. Nobody had any reason to drive the route through the towns when the interstate was so much faster. As a result, the towns of Route 66 faded away or were stuck in a time warp.
As I analyzed the map, I saw that Route 66 goes through the small town of Williams, Arizona. Great! We’re going to stay overnight in Williams. We’ll have a look around and see what we can obtain for the European Route 66 fanatic.
The last bypass.
When we got to Williams, we checked into our motel on the edge of town. The motel was a little run down. The TV in the lobby was tuned to the old western movie channel. There were giant piles of snow still in the parking lot from the late winter snowstorm that hit a few days ago. The desk clerk was asleep at the counter. She was an old woman who looked like she had been there since the 1940s. It was that kind of town.
I rang the bell on the desk a few more times than was necessary.
“Can you check us in and give us a restaurant recommendation? We’re starved.” I asked.
“No need to get uppity!” she said. “I’m right here and I can hear you. The best place to go is the diner down the street on the right hand side. You can’t miss it.”
“Thanks. Can you also tell us where Route 66 is?” I asked.
“You’re on it,” she said, and promptly put her head back down on the counter and instantly fell asleep.
We drove down Main Street. There were a few stores still in business, a gas station, and several decrepit motels serving the Grand Canyon tourists. There was even the World Famous Sultana Bar! I’d never heard of it, but then I am not very knowledgeable about cocktails.
It certainly is world famous...
It looked like any number of old west towns on a Friday night. There was nothing to see and nothing to do. Nobody was kicking anything.
And then on right was the diner, just like the old woman said. Cruisers! It was lit up in bright red neon and it had a 1956 Chevy sticking out of the roof of the restaurant like Godzilla had thrown it there once upon a time. The décor was fantastic. There were old gas pumps, advertising signs, posters, and car parts. It was 1950s Americana, only it was too perfect, like a movie set designer had scoured the country for just the right things to set the mood. I expected Fonzie to pop his head around the corner at any time and say “heyyyyyyyyyyyy!”
Any kicks to be had in here?
It would have been cool if the waiter matched the décor. Instead he wore board shorts, skater shoes and his arms were covered with tattoos. Apparently he didn’t get the memo about the ’50s diner theme.
The food was mediocre, the service was slow, and they didn’t even play ’50s rock and roll over the sound system. Lady Gaga in a ’50s diner doesn’t cut it. However, they had the mother of all Route 66 souvenir shops in the adjoining store.
“Hey Dorota! They have everything you could possibly want to buy for your co-worker that has Route 66 on it.”
Shirts, hats, mugs, shot glasses, cards, posters, signs, ashtrays, you name it, they had it. The store was packed full of Route 66 memorabilia. Unfortunately, everything was made in China and was probably manufactured in the past few months. I imagined a factory town somewhere in the Chinese interior with many large factories churning out all of this stuff. I think the Chinese workers have no idea what Route 66 is, nor do they care.
After scouring the store she eventually bought a Route 66 placemat for the Polish bakery manager to add to his collection. The placemat showed the route across the American West. Williams, Arizona was not on it.
I learned that there are not many kicks left to be had on old Route 66. It’s all gone now. The only thing left are faux 50s diners and tacky gift shops. But at least we found out where Elvis has been hiding all these years.
Elvis and two of his fans.