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Cruising The Mother Road: A Cross-Country Adventure On Route 66

For many, Route 66 conjures thoughts of classic Americana and represents the ultimate road trip. For us, the trip retraced the steps of our parents.

By Josh Shanks
By Viviana Shanks

In life, some journeys must be taken. And a cross-country road trip on the iconic Route 66 is one of those. So last summer, we responded to its siren song and drove our Volkswagen Beetle from New York to Los Angeles and back. 

Viviana: In Europe, we often heard stories about the famous Route 66, a road that crisscrossed the country starting in Chicago and ending at the Santa Monica pier. It had always been a personal dream of mine and one that I was so happy to learn I shared with my now-husband, Josh. 

Josh: I was born in southern California, not too far away from Santa Monica. Growing up, my Dad was big into classic cars, and he would regale me with stories of marrying my mom at the age of 19 and driving from Kokomo, Indiana, to Long Beach, California, to start a new life. Throughout my childhood, I would always ask my parents about their cross-country road trip, and the entire thing sounded so mythical that, even as a teenager, I put the trip on my bucket list.

Josh: I was born in southern California, not too far away from Santa Monica. Growing up, my Dad was big into classic cars, and he would regale me with stories of marrying my mom at the age of 19 and driving from Kokomo, Indiana, to Long Beach, California, to start a new life. Throughout my childhood, I would always ask my parents about their cross-country road trip, and the entire thing sounded so mythical that, even as a teenager, I put the trip on my bucket list.

Officially starting in Chicago and meandering 2,448 miles to Santa Monica, Route 66 was the preferred route to cross the country for a half-century. While the majority of this once mighty “Mother Road” has been replaced by Interstate I-40, thousands of miles of the old Route 66 still exist and are very much drivable. 

Preparing For The Trip

Josh: To prepare ourselves for this trip, we did plenty of research on the best routes, attractions, and stops along the way. Much like the world of watchmaking, we uncovered a Route 66 community on Facebook, which existed as a resource for Route 66 preservationists and fans. 

In addition to the Route 66 specialized books, we found a fantastic late-1990s documentary on Amazon Prime called Cruisin’ Route 66 With Michael Wallis. In this 12 episode documentary series, Route 66 historian Michael Wallis tells the fascinating story of the historic highway and profiles the characters and pit stops that should be on travelers’ must-visit lists. Wallis’ insights and knowledge were a huge help in preparing us for this incredible journey. 

Viviana: What good would a road trip be without maps? As Route 66 has been largely supplanted by interstates and byways, for many, the road as many knew it exists only as a memory. However, faithful historians like Jim Ross and Jerry McClanahan have meticulously created maps that serve as a great guide when one gets lost on the Mother Road. 

Josh: Finally, if all else fails and you’re a techie like us, download the Route 66 Navigation app, which tracks all past alignments of Route 66 and works offline when you find yourself without cell service (which happens a lot on 66).

New Engine And Picking The Right Watches

Viviana: This past August, we were all ready to take the road trip of our dreams in our Volkswagen Beetle Convertible Turbo, named Burt. We were all packed, and of course, we remembered to bring our favorite adventure watches with us. I took our Tudor Black Bay Bucherer edition and the Panerai Luminor Base Logo

Josh: Knowing that we would be taking this trip without any particular destination in mind, other than Santa Monica, I also chose to take just two watches. I opted for the Oris Aquis ‘Staghorn Restoration Limited Edition and the Rolex Explorer. These two watches are close to my heart and were perfectly suited for whatever adventure lay ahead.

Viviana: We had no plans, no hotel reservations, and no real date to arrive in sunny California. And coming from us, two people who usually like to be fully prepared, this was a big step out of our comfort zone. 

Josh: The first leg of our trip was from New York City to Indiana. During “this “warm-up” drive, our check engine light came on. It had been a recurring problem since we purchased the car, but we always chalked it up to being a possible sensor failure. However, after taking the car to the lovely people at Tom Wood Volkswagen in Indianapolis, it turned out that our engine had gone full Tony Stark, meaning the engine was full of metal shavings. 

With a blown engine, our trip had to be postponed a few weeks, but thanks to a new engine, Burt started this trip of a lifetime with a brand new heart. 

The Route

Josh: From Indiana, we headed straight to Chicago to officially get our kicks on Route 66. The official starting point of Route 66 is a small sign at the corner of South Michigan Avenue and E. Jackson Boulevard in the heart of Chicago. Our first official stop on the route was Lou Mitchell’s, an American comfort food staple. After devouring a few stacks of pancakes and coffee, we made our way south through Joliet and onwards to Bloomington, Illinois. 

Viviana: There are literally hundreds of stops along the way to California, and it would take more than a few articles to highlight everything that we saw along the way. But within this article, we’ll attempt to showcase a few of our absolute favorites.

Josh: Some Route 66 purists believe that you should spend weeks, if not months, along the route to properly absorb everything the Mother Road has to offer. But being that we only had a few weeks, we ditched this convention and took a slightly faster route to California. We tried our best to stay on Route 66 and her various alignments but occasionally found ourselves on I-40. 

Throughout Illinois, we found ourselves driving, not directly on Route 66 but beside it because large portions of the old US 66 were borderline undrivable, and most were now walking paths and picnic areas. It was a heartbreaking moment, finding out that such an iconic piece of American history was just left to die, but this was only the beginning. 

Americana At Its Finest

Viviana: From abandoned gas stations to iconic and cheesy roadside motels and attractions, you’ll never be bored along Route 66. When we crossed the Mississippi River just after St. Louis, we started entering a more “Americana” styled landscape of the US. From big cities, we were now passing by small towns and started to see more and more abandoned heritage along the road. The shortest part of Route 66 is in Kansas, where the road is only 11.27 miles. But this small path led us through to the beautiful and quite friendly state of Oklahoma. 

Josh: Oklahoma was also the site of one of our favorite stops along the route: The Sandhills Curiosity Shop in Erick, Oklahoma. 

Its owner, Harley Russell, is a Route 66 icon unto himself and for a good reason. For decades, Russell has been entertaining weary travelers with his guitar and quirky personality. You can’t miss his little shop nestled alongside rows of abandoned commercial and retail buildings. Yet somehow, Russell has survived (and thrived) against all odds. When arriving in Erick, we found Russell asleep on a rocking chair, but after depositing a $20 bill in his tip jar, he came to life! You can see what I mean in this video.

As we learned in the Cruisin’ Route 66 With Michael Wallis, many of the people we would end up encountering along our journey actually served as inspiration for the Pixar film Cars. All along the highway, from Missouri to Arizona, were mementos and even full-scale tributes to Lightning McQueen, Doc Hudson, and Tow Mater.

Viviana: As soon as we crossed the state line into Texas, the landscape changed dramatically. It’s like we landed on Mars, suddenly we were surrounded by beautiful red stones and endless valleys. We felt like we were on the set of an Indiana Jones movie. The terrain became straighter and rougher. 

Josh: In Texas, we had to stop at the famous Big Texan, where you can eat 72oz (2kg) steak. They’ll even give it to you for free, provided you finish the steak, its accompaniments, and the gristle in under an hour while seated on a stage. Unfortunately, no one took the challenge the day we visited, but it was the biggest and busiest restaurant we had seen along the road. Amazingly, unlike what you would expect from a tourist trap like this, the steak was one of the best I’ve ever tasted. We enjoyed it so much that we even made sure to stop there on our return journey from this year’s National Parks road trip. 

Headed West

Viviana: Eventually, in New Mexico, we went back in time while staying at the “Blue Swallow” motel in Tucumcari. The motel is an experience itself, with rooms that stayed true to their original style when the Mother Road was in its golden age. You can even park your car in a small garage located next to your room. 

Josh: Until arriving in Arizona, the road was ours, with only the occasional human spotted here and there. But from Arizona onward, in towns like Oatman, Seligman, and Kingsman, we faced hordes of tourists all wanting selfies on the Mother Road. Consequently, we found more and more tourist traps than in the previous states. We certainly didn’t mind that, because finally, the road was getting the attention it deserved. We made stops at the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest to retrace the steps of my parents. We even recreated the pictures they took along the way as an homage to their trip. 

Viviana: Being space geeks ourselves, we had to pass by the famous meteor crater located just outside of Winslow, Arizona. Famously, the crater is the place where Apollo astronauts trained before going to the moon. The crater is spectacular and bigger than we imagined. We couldn’t help but imagine Neil Armstrong, training for the space flight of his life with, of course, a Speedy on the wrist! 

Back on the road, we were finally entering the desert portion of the trip. We crossed the Mojave, where the temperatures soared to 110 degrees (44 celsius). We saw another fun curiosity, Amboy, a ghost town that was for sale on eBay in 2003. It got an offer of $995,900, but since it was only half of what they were expecting, the seller refused it. However, it was later sold to a fast-food chain magnate for $425,000 in the hopes of saving the town. The town is mostly known for Roy's Cafe, a motel, which boasts a retro neon sign that was recently repainted. The motel is still very much abandoned, with decomposing furniture inside the little houses.

Josh: After driving through Amboy, we passed through other semi-ghost towns like Bagdad, Siberia, and Klondike. Then, we officially arrived in California! As we made our way towards Los Angeles, we encountered the traditional SoCal traffic, but we still happily made our way to the Santa Monica Pier in time for lunch. We proudly drove Burt onto the Pier to pick up our Route 66 Completion Certificate at the 66 to Cali store. Finally, after answering some difficult questions about the Mother Road, it was ours! It felt like a fitting memento for such a crazy adventure, and we couldn’t have been more proud to have experienced the road that connects America. 

Road Trip Facts

In total, from New York to Los Angeles and back, we drove around 6,732 miles and through 19 states. From a timing perspective, our Volkswagen’s onboard trip computer calculated the total “in-car” time at 125 hours. We passed through 4 time zones and traveled back in time by discovering a treasure trove of lost wonders along the way. 

Switching drivers every 3-4 hours allowed us to see plenty of stops on the Main Street of America. And the Mother Road shared a load of surprises with us. From abandoned bridges to gas stations, casinos, lost roads, and more than enough American comfort food, there wasn’t a dull moment!

But What About The Watches?

Josh: We'll be honest: We sort of lost track of time. Route 66 provided the perfect backdrop for more than enough wrist shots, but we found ourselves checking our phones and watches less and less during the trip. And while that is most certainly a good thing for a quality road trip with your wife, it's definitely a not-so-good thing for watch journalists to do.

Viviana: Rest assured, the Oris Aquis withstood the chlorinated pool of our Palm Springs hotel. The Rolex Explorer did its job while we traipsed around the Petrified Forest. The Panerai Luminor made perfect company for the Midway Point of Route 66 in Adrian, Texas. And the Tudor Black Bay Bucherer? That got more than enough looks at the Blue Hole in Santa Rosa, New Mexico.

For More Information

Thanks to the internet and social media, Route 66 has begun to reclaim some of its long lost luster. And each of the eight states along the route has its own Route 66 Association, which helps to preserve the route’s sights and educate the world about this iconic road. 

We would recommend you check out: the National Historic Route 66 Federation, the National Park Service Route 66 guide, 66 to Cali, and the informative Historic Route 66 Facebook group.

Take it from a couple that made it all the way and back: The route is long, but worth it. Whether you're on a strict schedule or just visiting a town or attraction along part of the historic highway, you'll never be disappointed driving on Route 66.

“Well if you ever plan to motor west, just take my way, that's the highway that's the best! Get your kicks on Route 66! Well it winds from Chicago to L.A, more than 2000 miles all the way. Get your kicks on Route 66….” - Chuck Berry

(Photography by Watchonista)

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