Earlier this year, my wife and I decided to take advantage of an apparent lull in the plague by hitting the road. Specifically, “the mother road.”
Route 66 begins in Chicago, just a few blocks away from our home, and ends somewhere in California. (Where, exactly? Figure it out. Have you confused my blog with Wikipedia?) Our plan was to drive it through Arizona, then diverge into fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada.
I should note that one does not actually drive Route 66. It doesn’t exist anymore, except as various non-contiguous historic snippets of varying length. Most of them are business loops through small, forgotten towns that desperately suckle from the teat of having once been a vibrant part of the route.
We’ve driven portions of the route before, I knew there was no shortage of roadside kitsch to explore, so I thought a travel book would be helpful in this regard. (Alas, online resources like Atlas Obscura were unimpressive.) However, I was surprised to find that my local Barnes & Noble had exactly zero books on the subject. What the hell? It’s literally a Chicago landmark.
So, I turned to the Amazon, making heaving use of their “Look Inside” feature to preview the contents of each book that caught my eye. Thank heavens I did, as it revealed how boring and filler-packed each book was. I began to fear that I would never find the mother lode about the Mother Road. (Forgive me.)
Then I came across Secret Route 66 by Jim Ross and Shelly Graham. The book’s subtitle, “A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure,” was right up my alley. Look Inside revealed the location of road tar footprints improbably left by a very heavy bird crossing the road. I couldn’t click “Buy Now” fast enough.
I’m glad that I did. The book added a lot of flavor to our road trip. If you’re going to buy into the nostalgia of taking such a drive, you should embrace all the quirky and cheesy things that come with it, and this book will help you do so.
My initial concern about the book was its age. Published in 2017, I feared that the ravages of Trumpism and COVID-19 would render much of the information obsolete. Some information the book includes was probably out of date before the book rolled off the printing presses. However, many of the roadside attractions have weathered other storms and are still in operation (although barely so, in some cases). Furthermore, like the aforementioned chicken footprints, many of the features that Ross and Graham have included are not dependent upon visitors to keep them afloat. (The authors do love pointing out old bridges, for some reason.) As with any book, use the web to sanity-check any information that would throw your plans out of whack if it’s no longer correct.
If you get the book, I recommend paying attention to the small towns that the authors highlight. We pulled off to visit several of them, and they were almost all worthwhile, charming stops. One that we intended to visit is Galena, Kansas. But I accidentally programmed the navigation system for Galena, Missouri instead. We discovered that Galena, MO is a town of less than 500 people with a surprisingly large “downtown” for its size. However, we felt like we were in a Twilight Zone episode. Every business (even City Hall) was locked up tight in the middle of the afternoon. We didn’t see a single person, but there were at least a dozen cars parked on the streets. Was there a mandatory town meeting in progress? Were they watching us? It was an eerie and interesting visit!
The book does have one glaring flaw: a complete lack of any discernible organization. For example, the first item in the book is from the middle of the route. Did it not occur to the authors or publishers that a linear progression, East or West, would make perfect sense? Its random presentation of locations makes the book very difficult to use as a planner, and worse, worthless as a reference during the drive itself. Even a simple map of the route, with locations indicated, would make the book much more useful. Truly, what were they thinking?
To work around the problems of aged info and perplexing organization, I recommend creating a Guide in the Apple Maps app. Moreover, while you’re at it, take a look at the curated Route 66 guides that are available in Maps, they’re perfect for the mainstream attractions.