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Historical Kicks on Route 66

Before Route 66 was a cultural icon, it was…a highway. A highway created by an act of Congress in 1925, and thereafter patched together Frankenstein-like from an already existing network of formerly unpaved roads and main streets in eight states. It started in downtown Chicago and traveled through the Midwest and Southwest, ending in Los Angeles, and wasn’t fully paved until 1938.

In that time, however, Route 66 was well on its way to becoming more than just a soulless highway. At first, it was a passage west for millions who were simply looking for work, or for the good life on the golden California coast.

But with the end of WWII, this road of roads would morph into an American icon. As post-war Americans fell in love with their cars, they took to driving them everywhere, including Route 66. With the influx of tourists came industries catering to them: places to sleep, eat, fuel up, and be entertained. And like the loudest carnival barker, the louder Route 66 attraction, the more likely it was to draw in families. The highway became known for its eye candy of unique roadside architecture and tourist traps, all competing for tourist dollars.

The same post-WWII lifestyle that fueled the car vacation would also generate the interstate highway system, which was the beginning of the end for Route 66. As Americans realized they could get to major destinations faster (and safer) on the burgeoning interstate highway system, they started to bypass Route 66. In doing so, vast stretches of it, and the towns it once brought life to, lay abandoned and wasting away, especially in the Arizona desert. The federal government decommissioned Route 66 in 1985.

It wasn’t the end of the road for Route 66, however. With a resurgence of interest in American roadside culture and the work of various preservation societies, many of the old stretches of 66, once left for dead, are now enjoying a rebirth of sorts. Sign have been posted along them declaring them “Historic Route 66.” Still, much of the original “Mother Road,” as John Steinbeck described it in The Grapes of Wrath, remains desolate and deserted today.

The glory days of Route 66 have long since passed, but there are still adventures to be had on this legendary byway. These days, they’re just a little bit weirder, especially on the abandoned fragments of it. We sent Weird Arizona photo correspondent Troy Paiva down this famed road to see if he could still find a kick or two there.

Still Getting Kicks on Old Route 66

Is there another highway name that conjures more feelings and emotions in Americans, or even elsewhere world than Route 66? “The Mother Road” has been depicted in countless classic books and movies. Even the song “Route 66” has been covered over 200 times by artists from Rosemary Clooney to the Cramps. Its legendary status in pop-culture is well justified: America’s soul is laid out in a line, straight across the southwest for everyone to see.

The Arizona stretch contains the most still-functioning miles of Route 66. These old Miracle Mile towns are steeped in the history of twentieth-century western expansion. But these are not “wild west” towns. They are road towns. Instead of old mines, saloons and whorehouses, they are made up of car culture relics: gas stations, motels and cafes. These towns all sported multiple drive-in theaters, almost all of which are gone without a trace. The long closed Tonto Drive-In on the western fringe of Winslow is still standing, but squatters populate the snack bar. As I slipped through the fence to take pictures, shady characters drifted from the cinder-block building and over the back fence, their sleeping bags and piles of dirty clothes left behind in the dusty corners. I’m sure they slipped back in right after I left.

Some sections of 66 now serve as nothing more than frontage roads for Interstate 40. One night at Chambers in eastern Arizona, I was shooting an abandoned Chevron Station. It was a thirties building with fifties gas pumps, all decrepit and worn out. It was a cold winter night and the storm clouds were speeding by almost as fast as the highballing semis on Interstate 40, just a few feet away. While I was shooting I began to hear dogs barking, getting closer. Then a dark shadow of man appeared out of the shadows. It was an American Indian guy in his 20s, a rifle casually cradled in his arms. He was clearly drawn out of his warm house by my colored strobe-flashes. A man of few words, once he understood I wasn’t a vandal he left me alone.

Kingman is home to one of the west’s countless WWII training airfields. Much of this airport is still just like it was in the ‘40s. The Kingman airport is legendary as one of the main aircraft reclamation facilities after the war. Tens of thousands of bombers and fighters were shredded and recycled there. Even today there is still aircraft reclamation done at Kingman, but on a smaller scale. On the south side of the airport is a huge section of 50-year-old concrete hardstand used to store ‘70s airliners before they can be chopped up and melted down. Sneaking over the fence to take pictures at night can be a real thrill; you have to be careful to avoid the authorities as well as the grazing cows under the planes’ wings.

Any urban explorer looking for abandoned culture could do a lot worse than to spend a week slowly cruising Route 66 though Arizona. There truly is something for everyone. –Troy Paiva

Weird Arizona


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