Characters of Route 66 – Memorable encounters on our USA road trip

Click here to jump to practical information and tips on Route 66 at the bottom of this article of read the travel story first:

“The Mississippi Delta is shining like a national guitar. I am following the river, down the highway through the cradle of the Civil War.” Paul Simon’s traveling companion on his USA road trip was the nine-year-old son of his first marriage; mine is my sixty-one-year-old father. We are taking a good two weeks to drive the Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles. At the state line between Illinois and Missouri we cross the mighty Mississippi River – and we are reminded of the stories of Mark Twain and the blues and jazz of New Orleans further downstream. We will not be heading south however, like the river, but west – ever more west, chasing the sun to the rim of the  North American continent.

Route 66 is also known as ‘The Mother Road’ or ‘The Main Street of America’, and it transports drivers through almost a century of modern American history. The route was established in 1926 and was one of the first highways in the country. It is a two-lane road running for 2448 miles (3940 km) through eight states, and for decades it was the main traffic artery for east-to-west travel; in particular during the years of the Great Depression it was the gateway for many who wanted to escape the dustbowl of the American Midwest to a better and sunnier life on the west coast. The heavy use of the road was a blessing for the local economy of the towns and dwellings that it passed, and many businesses were established. Motels flourished, diners and gas stations thrived. But when President Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act in 1956 the fate of Route 66 was sealed: multiple-lane modern interstate roads were constructed between America’s major cities and Route 66 fell into disuse. The decline of the road meant the demise of the local businesses that relied on the automobile travellers who now chose to drive the better-quality and faster interstate instead. Some businesses went from hundreds of customers per day to zero overnight. What the road is famous for today is the fact that it is a living testament to those days of the past. It is lined with abandoned or restored motels, drive-in cinemas, breakfast diners and car repair shops that are truly a relic of the past. This historic wealth is what had drawn us to driving the Route, besides of course the glorious idea of making a classic cross-American road trip, driving across the continent from east to west.

A sample of the many classic signs we have seen along the route

One of the last stops before we leave llinois behind to bridge the Mississippi River into Missouri is Henry’s Rabbit Ranch near Staunton. The Rabbit Ranch is owned by a man named Rich Henry and it houses two types of rabbits: nine of the real, living fluffy type (and a multitude of that dead and buried at the edge of a shed, each with its own tiny gravestone), and a bunch of Volkswagen Rabbits (known as Golf in Europe) buried with their hoods into the sand, emulating the famous Cadillac Ranch in Texas.

Rabbit graves at Henry's Rabbit Ranch in Staunton, Illinois
Rabbit graves at Henry’s Rabbit Ranch in Staunton, Illinois

Henry is glad to welcome us and tells us how he got into rabbits: “It started with my daughter. She had a pair of rabbits, but was not prepared for the result of what rabbits typically do. The situation got really out of hand, and there were too many rabbits in her small apartment. I offered to take up some of them and this is what started my rabbit ranch. Every rabbit I have taken in ever since is a rescue. I get them from animal shelters and every one of them has its own name and personality. Big Red, who is not with us anymore, used to sit right here on this counter all day. He would wear these tiny hats that I made for him.” The rabbits have their own sheltered homes both outside and inside the visitor centre. The line-up of gravestones is overshadowed by a huge rabbit statue that sits in the yard.

“Please don’t talk religion on politics on Route 66”, a sign behind Henry reads. The history of the United States is infused with religion and politics, and the topics are as relevant and acute today as they ever were, but that is not what the Route is about. It is infinitely better to talk rabbits, and that is exactly what we do here at this unexpected stop along our way west.

Route 66 just breathes the atmosphere of the 1950s – you will find relics all along the route

Upon crossing the Mississippi we arrive in Missouri. The endless corn fields of Illinois make place for craggy rocks and broadleaf forests. This part of Route 66 follows the Trail of Tears, the route of the forced relocation of Native American nations from their ancestral homelands to uninhabited lands in current-day Oklahoma. Around the year 1830 this trail was the backdrop of suffering and death for the 16.000 Cherokees who were forced to walk the 2200 miles (3500 km) west under the Indian Removal Act. Four thousand of them never arrived as they perished along the trail.

In our guidebook we had read about a Trail of Tears Memorial established by a man named Larry Baggett who lived near the town of Jerome. One day he had built a wall in his yard. The following nights he heard an inexplicable knocking on his door. When he’d open the door no one was there, but the knocking continued for days. When Larry told a befriended old Cherokee about the mysterious knocking his friend said, “It is because of the wall you built. It is blocking the Trail of Tears – now the spirits of the Native Americans who perished are assembling at your door because they cannot continue their journey on the trail.” Larry asked, “Should I break down the wall?” and the Cherokee replied, “No. Just build some steps so they can climb across.” That’s what Larry did and the nightly knocking ceased. Larry then proceeded to establish more and more folk art on his property to honour the victims of the Trail of Tears. He built a stone arch at the roadside, erected several statues depicting Native Americans and other figures, dug a wishing well, created a rock garden and spent the next 50 years of his life landscaping the place which he had called the Trail of Tears Memorial. Sadly, our guidebook mentioned that Larry had died in 2003, and the Memorial had since been abandoned and fallen into disrepair. Still wanting to take a look, we park the car at the edge of the forest and walk up to the property’s entrance where the arch is still there but where the years of neglect and ruin are obvious and ‘no trespassing’ signs warn us to stay out. Just beyond the arch however, we see a woman busy cutting stones, yielding a large powered tool.

DSC_0522When she sees us she turns off the tool and approaches us warily. It is hard to tell her age – she has a youthful appearance but carries a lifetime of experiences in her eyes and some lines trace her face. She is wearing sturdy boots, jeans and a flannel shirt and has her hair tied back. She looks strong – both physically and mentally as she informs us that the property is currently under construction and cannot be visited. She warms up when we tell her that we had read about Larry’s memorial and wanted to pay a visit to this special place. “My name is Marie. Larry was a good friend of mine and I am renovating his property in his honour. Most of it has been ruined as you can see, and some of it has been vandalized by druggies. Like this statue of Larry which someone had decapitated.” We could see that she had restored the concrete statue of her friend sitting and waving to passers-by at the entrance of the driveway by giving him his head back.

DSC_0521
Larry’s self-portrait statue restored by Marie

Larry was a very spiritual man. He studied Native American culture but he was also into numerology and astrology. Everything he built here has intrinsic meaning and everything has a story.” She continues to explain the reasons behind the various sculptures and constructions on the site, and invites us to walk up to the property to explore further. “I don’t usually grant people access, but you guys give me a good vibe. Feel free to take a look around.”

Boy and buffalo - Statue by Larry Baggett
This statue created by Larry depicts an old folk take of a white Buffalo that was expelled from its herd because of its deviant colour and then befriended a young Native American man who was also an outsider because of his clubfoot.

We are amazed by this woman’s dedication to the restoration of this special place. “Are you doing all of this work by yourself?” we ask her before we head back to our car. “Mostly, yes. I was in the military for many years. Stationed in Germany too. Now I’m retired and I decided to purchase this property because Larry was my good friend. It is my passion and my mission to restore everything and I know that Larry would be proud. I sense his presence here every day. I will also be building healing gardens and open a café with organic food grown right here. I will bring this place back to life.” The discrepancy between the robust level-headedness of this woman and her commitment to honouring Larry’s expressions of spirituality is remarkable but her dedication is inspirational. What a special friend she is, and what a special friend Larry must have been to inspire her to invest all her time and money and energy into the restoration of this place so that its soul can shine again for the years to come and for the many travellers who will be passing by.

While she continues her and Larry’s journey, we continue ours. We drive through Kansas and exchange the Midwest for the Southwest. We spend our days rolling through fields and towns of insignificant size. We stop to take photos at deserted gas stations and car repair shops and stroll through a number of small museums dedicated to Route 66 that are guarded by grannies who spend hours of their days volunteering and waiting for scarce visitors. Each of them is delighted to see us come in and always eager for a chat, and sad to see us leave (“God loves you and I love you too!”)

Small town America, ghost town Main Streets and sweet puppy dog that wants to catch a ride with us

In Stroud, Oklahoma, we decide to take lunch in the Rock Café, opened in 1939 and a famous landmark on the Route. Not much remains of Stroud with its quiet Main Street – during the heyday of the Route it was busting with activity but today the Rock Café is the only remaining business.

We sit down to enjoy a meal of fries and a sandwich paired with a huge cup of soft drink brought to us by the affable staff. At the table next to ours an all-American family – father, mother and son in his early twenties, bright eyes, bright smiles – bow their heads in prayer before commencing their meal, and we begin to chat. We talk about the trip that they have made to Europe and about our impression of the US. One of the things that we enjoy the most during our travels through the US is the friendliness of its people: always welcoming to us and open for conversation. Encounters like these give our trip so much more profundity. We finish our lunch and our new acquaintances leave shortly before we do. When we walk up to the counter to pay for our meal the waitress tells us, “Your check has been taken care of.” We look at each other in amazement. This family whom we had just met and to whom we were complete strangers must have just paid for our meal! We hurry outside in an effort to find them and thank them, but we do not see them. “They must have driven off already… what a pity.” Just when we are about to get in our car we see the family walking up to theirs. We shake hands and the father clarifies “I know Americans can be jerks sometimes, so I just wanted to do something nice.” This gesture of kindness puts a smile on our faces for the rest of the day.

We cross the Texas panhandle into New Mexico. The landscape changes; it becomes more barren and arid and its vast size reduces us to just a tiny detail in the boundless canvas of this land. We drive for hours without meeting other vehicles and we can see for miles rolling through a landscape unobstructed by trees or structures. The city of Sante Fe gives us a first taste of the Wild West. Its streets are lined with adobe buildings and are walked by people wearing cowboy hats.

Wild West vibes in Santa Fe and Gallup in New Mexico

We take the Turquoise Trail down to Albuquerque and when we pass the small town of Golden a colourful roadside attraction draws our interest. We pull over to inspect a large construction: a wooden fence decorated with dozens of colourful bottles dangling from nylon cords; branches and tree trunks; rusty car parts and horseshoes; the American flag and a large colourful painting. A man steps onto the road and gestures to us. “Come in and have a look! Please!”

Dsc_0968

He is wearing jeans and a leather waistcoat. His face is abundantly lined with grey hair and a beard and indicates a rough life. “Why don’t you come in and have a look at all my projects. My name is Leroy Gonzales, I am the major of Golden. This is my dog, and this is my cat.” I look for a bouncing canine and feline, but Leroy points at two mounts of dirt on the ground of his front yard. They are decorated with stones that represent the pets’ teeth, ears and claws and the earthen dog has a large chain around its neck. My dad and I glance at each other with a tinge of unease, but Leroy has no time for hesitations and guides us to a shed right behind the motionless dog. A sign reads ‘Gold Mine’. “Look inside. You see? It has an infinite shaft!” We bend our backs to look inside the small structure made of corrugated iron. It is lit inside by a burning light bulb. A construction of mirrors creates the illusion of a mine shaft traveling deep into the core of the earth. This man may be unconventional, but he is highly creative and imaginative and has an incredible eye for detail.

Leroy Gonzales' front yard
The cat and dog in Leroy’s front yard, with in the background the gold mine, the fountain, and the cantina.

“I was a labourer. I worked like a slave. They sent me on two tours to Vietnam. I don’t think I will be going to heaven. Look, this is my tattooed tree and this is my mining cantina and my fountain. And here is a tipi which I have recently finished. And here is a psychiatrist sofa.” Leroy divides his time between working as a caretaker of the local church and the construction of these fruits of his imagination and is delighted to show visitors around on his property. He won’t stop talking about the unparalleled philosophies behind each of his objects. My father asks him, “Are you happy here?” He finally pauses to think. “That is an important question. Happiness is our base. Without it we just keep floating all over the world looking for it. Without your base you ain’t got shit. Excuse my language.” It may be easy to regard this man as the village idiot, but after we complete our tour we agree that he is the rightful major of Golden (although self-proclaimed) and that he is a beautiful character – one of the many that have coloured our trip.

Dsc_0963

It takes us five more days to continue our journey westward through the deserts of Arizona and California until we reach the official end of Route 66 at the Santa Monica Pier near Los Angeles. It is a strange and somewhat saddening sensation to see the road end at the edge of the continent, the Pacific Ocean stretching endlessly before us.

We have spent two weeks on the road, driving off into the sunset day after day. Now there is no more road left to guide us while chasing the sun on its daily journey to the west – the journey ends here. Along the Route we have seen so many epitomes of our imagination of the ‘real America’ and of the America as it once was at the height of Route 66’s popularity from the 1920s to the 1950s. But we have learned that the essence of Route 66 is not about the number of miles or kilometers driven. It is ot about the old-timer cars or gas stations. It is also not about the classic diners and the motels and the neon signs. It is about the people you meet along the way.

The Mother Road in its many different shapes and with its many different characters


Create your own adventure!

How can I visit the places mentioned in this story?

Henry’s Rabbit Ranch
1107 Historic Old Route 66
Staunton, IL 62088-4361
(618) 635-5655
Website | Facebook page

Larry Baggett’s Trail of Tears Memorial and Herbal Garden
State Hwy D
Jerome, MO 65529
(Take Exit 172 from the I-44 and turn right onto Highway D)
Facebook page

Leroy Gonzales’ gold mine and other interesting sights
1724 Turquoise Trail
Golden, NM

When is the best time to drive Route 66 and how long should I take?
Route 66 can be driven throughout the year, but spring and autumn are the best seaons for this road trip as some roads may be blocked due to snow and ice in winter, and the western states in particular can become unbearably hot during summer. Two weeks will give you plenty of time to drive the route at ease. We never hurried or rushed and made many stops every day at points of interest. Take at least 3 weeks if you plan to stop at every museum and sight along the way (especially the big cities you’ll pass like St Louis, Springfield, Tulsa, Santa Fe will have plenty of attractions that can keep you occupied for at least a day each).

Where do I sleep? There are plenty of motels along the route. Near the big cities you will find chain motels like Motel 6, and Super 8 that offer competitive pricing for often very neat and restored modern rooms. Part of the fun of driving the Route however is to overnight at the classic Route 66 Motels that still radiate the original atmosphere of the ’50s. Some of these original motels that we enjoyed were Cactus Inn in McLean, Texas; the Thunderbird Motel in Las Vegas, New Mexico; Southwest Motel in Grants, New Mexico; New Corral Motel in Victorville, California. We made this trip in October and did not book in advance anywhere; we just drove until it got dark and then started looking for a place to sleep. If you are driving in the high season (notably July / August) you may wish to book ahead especially if you want to stay in popular places like the WigWam Motel in San Bernardino and in Holbrook and the Blue Swallow in Tucumcari. As you proceed westward cities and towns become more scarce and the distance between sleeping options increases – you may have to drive for some hours to reach the next town with a motel.

Where do I eat?
These are some really great classic Route 66 diners and cafes where we enjoyed our breakfasts, lunches and dinners along the way:

  • Ted Drewes Frozen Custard in St Louis, Missouri – Established in 1929 this business has been serving delicious ice creams to happy customers ever since.
  • Rock Cafe in Stroud, Oklahoma – the classical American menu and devoted staff with generous smiles in a cozy setting from the previous century.
  • Pops in Arcadia, Oklahoma – Make your choice from 700 different types of soda pops.
  • Midpoint Cafe in Adrian, Texas – This cafe sits exactly at the midway point between Chicago and Los Angeles and so it marks a big achievement: you are halfway there! Classic 50’s interior and similar menu with very sweet waiting staff.
    2017-09-30 2017-10-23 Amerika Route 66 1394
  • First Street Cafe in Grants, New Mexico – Most delicious warm cinnamon roll ever!
  • Wagon Wheel Restaurant in Needles, California – Wild-west inspired saloon style setting where we both enjoyed a really excellent meal. It has an adjacent Route 66 gift shop.
  • Bagdad Cafe in Newberry Springs, California – Featured in the namesake film and serving the classical fare. Its interior is a great collection of clippings, flags and business cards from around the world.
  • The Donut Man in Glendora, California – Load up on some grease at this small joint popular with locals since 1972.

Which guidebooks should I use?
We used two guidebooks that we both found very helpful and that complemented each other: the EZ66 Guide for Travellers by Jerry McClanahan provides step-by-step directions that will guide you on the road, including diversions and descriptions of alternative alignments and highlights top sights along the way. On his website Jerry continuously updates information that is useful for the traveller so have a look before you leave for the most up-to-date information and warnings. You can visit Jerry in his hometown of Chandler along the Route, be sure to check out his gallery because he makes beautiful paintings of Route 66 and is a very pleasant character to talk to plus he can sign your guidebook for you with his autograph 🙂

Jerry McClanahan
Jerry McClanahan at his home in Chandler

The Route 66 Road Trip book by Candacy Taylor (Moon Guides) was great in providing more background information on the history and sights and was a great help in planning our itinerary. We also used a navigation system in our car which was helpful to get us back on track whenever we would take a wrong turn and which also provided information on motels and gas stations in the proximity.

Do you have any further questions about getting your kicks on Route 66? Ask them in the comments below and we’ll try to help as best as we can!

Also check out this nice video made by fellow traveler Peter Berto, who drove the Route on his Harley and who recorded some of the many faces you’ll see on your way from Chicago to LA.

Click here to watch the video on Peter’s Route 66 Facebook page

One thought on “Characters of Route 66 – Memorable encounters on our USA road trip

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s