Fiberglass fräuleinEl Paso, TX

Uniroyal Gal sketch by Chandler O'Leary

As I’ve already written before, one of my ongoing road trip checklists includes the various Muffler Men scattered around the country. But one thing I hadn’t yet been able to add to the list is the Muffler Man’s sister, the Uniroyal Gal. Another early-1960s creation of the International Fiberglass Company in California, rumor has it that her likeness was inspired by Jacqueline Kennedy.

The Uniroyal Gal was also a national phenomenon, albeit a much rarer one. So that meant that finding one was a sort of quest. And I finally nabbed my first one in El Paso, of all places. This gal was waaaay off the beaten path and really hard to find, but her pristine condition made her well worth the journey. And best of all, I could really see the resemblance to Jackie—I could almost imagine a pillbox hat atop that fiberglass Bouvier bouffant…

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The proof is in the pavementRural Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, Arizona and California

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

This post is part of an ongoing series called 66 Fridays, which explores the wonders of old Route 66. Click on the preceding “66 Fridays” link to view all posts in the series, or visit the initial overview post here.

It’s easy to take for granted the fact that the American West is crisscrossed with highways nowadays, but those highways didn’t get there by chance. If you look closely at the routes those highways take, you can give yourself an excellent crash course in history, both human and natural. Overland exploration, trade routes, desert basins, animal migration, continental drift…all these things and more are hinted at by the map sketched out by the U.S. highway system.

Let me explain what I mean. If you happened to grow up in the Midwest, chances are your mental map would be dictated by a grid that follows the cardinal directions. In the Great Plains, particularly, where the landscape is mostly flat, dividing property lines and town borders into a standard grid makes the most sense. Much of the United States west of the Appalachians is arranged this way, in fact, in a basic grid called the Range and Township system. The system overlays a simple framework of one-square-mile sections over the entire western two-thirds of the country, dividing the landscape into rangeland for farming and six-mile by six-mile townships. Interestingly enough, we have Thomas Jefferson to thank for this system, which he devised in 1785 as a way to manage the vast swaths of land that, after the Revolution (and some years later the Louisiana Purchase), now belonged to the U.S. His reasoning, I think, was both practical and lofty: as a farmer himself, he was looking for a workable alternative to the inherited system of Metes and Bounds, England’s age-old framework for managing farmland and water access. While that system worked for the colonies, each roughly comparable in size and topography to what they knew in the Old World, the old framework wasn’t scalable to the size of the new West—particularly when tracts of land were being sold off sight-unseen to settlers and prospectors. But beyond the practical logic, I think Jefferson had more philosophical motives behind his plan. This is the guy who designed Monticello, after all, a monument to neoclassical thinking and an homage to ancient Greece and Rome. The Range and Township system applied a sense of order—however illusory—to the uncharted wilds of the West. It brought rational thought and a sense of opportunity to an area associated with chaos and the fear of the unknown.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

If you’ve ever visited the Great Plains, you can still see Thomas Jefferson’s plan in evidence, from the straight-as-an-arrow farm roads in rural areas, to the faithful system of thoroughfares in cities like Tulsa or Dallas, where the roads always travel from A to B in a straight line, with traffic lights appearing like clockwork at precise one-mile increments, and tenth-of-a-mile residential blocks in between.

But here’s the problem: Thomas Jefferson never laid eyes on the West he gridded out like a piece of paper. He never saw nature’s rebuttal to rationality in the Rockies or the Colorado Plateau. It’s all well and good to have a sensible grid in a flat place, without major physical features to interrupt the plan. But in many parts of the West, Jefferson’s tidy squares becomes utterly useless. You can’t easily farm a quadrangle of land that’s bisected by a canyon, and you can’t run a road up and over a mountain. Travel in a straight line is impossible in many, many places. As everyone from Chief Joseph to Lewis and Clark to highway engineers could tell you, there are some places in the West where only one route overland is possible—or none at all.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

So if you look at a modern highway map of the western half of the United States, the limitations geography places on rationality are obvious. You can see precisely where the Corps of Discovery found their way to the Pacific Northwest, or where the stagecoaches hauled goods to Santa Fe, or how the Mormon pioneers tumbled out of the mountains to the Great Salt Lake, or the supply route linking the California Missions to Mexico. It’s all there, because centuries later we’re still traveling the exact same routes that humans always have, dodging mountains and following water to whatever their destinations were. The Conestoga wagons followed the game trails and trade routes of the various Indigenous peoples. The railroad followed the pioneers’ wagon tracks. The first pavement slabs paralleled the railroad grade, and modern Interstate freeways zoom right over many of those original roadbeds and trailways. Even the technology of conveyance was based on the older methods of travel—just look at the wheel base on a modern car, whose width matches that of railroad cars, themselves directly descended from the lineage of horse-drawn wagon measurements.

As you can probably guess by my long-winded introduction here, this stuff ties square in with Route 66 and the path it cuts to the Pacific.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

There are many places along Route 66 where you can see this progression of transportation history unfold before your very eyes. In flat places like central Illinois or eastern Oklahoma, there was no reason to reuse the same roadbed over and over again—they had all the land in the world at their disposal, and nothing to impede their path. So they simply built the new road alongside the old—over and over again.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The result is a network of parallel lines, each wider than the last, each laid down at a different point in recent history. In these places, the land acts like a palimpsest, marked over and over again with new traceries of roadbeds, while the old ones, though crumbling in disrepair, still remain visible.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Since Route 66 was decommissioned as an official national highway, there are places where it’s difficult to discern the original route. The old roadbed might be there, but the Mother Road can get lost amid a modern tangle of frontage roads, diversions, and replaced pavement.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Part of the joy of traveling Route 66 is learning to recognize the old road. In some places, the path is lit up like a beacon with painted pavement and restored waymarking…

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

…in others, tracing the original marks on the palimpsest becomes something of a quest.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

And then there are the places where the original pavement itself becomes the attraction along the way—like this gorgeous stretch of brick roadway in Illinois, paid for in the 1930s by a brick magnate and lovingly maintained as a curious relic of the past.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

My favorite of all was the long section of 66 that traverses central Oklahoma: the combination of good craftsmanship and a remote locale has preserved the original roadbed impeccably. It sounds nerdy to say it out loud, but I dare any 66 enthusiast not to feel a thrill when seeing that curbed Portland cement.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

By the end of our journey, we’d gotten really good at spotting the difference between old and new along the way. And whenever we lost the thread of the route (easily done, since there are so many alignments, many of which have been replaced or buried under modern roads), it became easier and easier to spot the hints that would lead us back to the Mother Road.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

What led me to travel Route 66 was a love of history and Americana, and a desire to travel a well-worn and well-loved path. I had no idea that it would be so much more—and something much closer to the feeling of solving a mystery. Beyond the fun of diners and neon, there’s a richer, subtler 66 to be discovered, if you’re willing to look a little deeper. All the clues are there—some of them stamped right into the pavement underfoot.

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Crescent City crestNew Orleans, LA

New Orleans sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Speaking of Crescent City icons, in my humble opinion there is no finer example of utilitarian design anywhere. It’s been a long time since the era when “municipal” could be synonymous with “beautiful,” but the fact that these little meter box covers are still so famous and beloved today gives me hope. With any luck, other cities might just get on board, and inject a little beauty into even the most minute details.

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A street corner named desireNew Orleans, LA

New Orleans sketch by Chandler O'Leary

People like to categorize cities by things like food, or architecture, or climate, or whatever. Me? I like to categorize places by their signature style of lettering. So if I want midcentury neon Googie script, I might look along Route 66. For a good all-purpose wild-west Clarendon, look no further than Wall Drug. But if I want beautiful inlaid tile street signs, I’m heading straight for New Orleans. It’s not just the tile, either—the lettering itself is so unique it’s become an icon of the Crescent City.

Good thing, too—no offense to the designers of Highway Gothic and other wayfinding typefaces, but the French Quarter deserves something a little fancier than your standard green street sign.

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Ranch to tableWilliams, AZ

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

This post is part of an ongoing series called 66 Fridays, which explores the wonders of old Route 66. Click on the preceding “66 Fridays” link to view all posts in the series, or visit the initial overview post here.

When it comes to road food along Route 66, sometimes a hot dog just doesn’t cut the mustard. When you’re traversing the Wild West, sometimes you just want a darn steak already. If a slab o’ steer is your cuppa tea, there’s no better place than Rod’s Steakhouse in Williams, Arizona.

We stayed three nights in a motel kitty-corner from Rod’s, so I ended up spending a lot of time staring at that neon sign—no complaints here, it’s a real beauty. What you couldn’t see from the motel was that the steer sign was just the tip of the fluorescent iceberg:

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

A whole block of gorgeous neon! They had me at hello.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

So on our last night in Williams, we sat down for a steak dinner. Between the neon signs and the juxtaposition of cowboy decor and scores of Italian and French tourists, I was already in heaven. But you should have seen the rapture when I saw what was waiting at the table:

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Die-cut menus and vintage custom china pattern? Swoon.

I mean, yeah. The steak was great, too—actually, my rib eye was downright perfect. But no matter how unforgettable the meal, it’s the visual details I’ll always remember.

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Griddle-r on the roofLindstrom, MN

Lindstrom sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Well, I guess if you sell hot dogs, it’s pretty hard to compete with the frankfurter meccas of Chicago and New York, where they have mastered every wiener gimmick known to man. Still, if you set up shop in a small town like Lindstrom, Minnesota, you don’t exactly have to work too hard to stand out.

I’m glad these folks don’t seem to have gotten that memo, because this place just charmed the heck out of me. I mean, go big or go home, right?

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Why a papaya?New York, NY

New York papaya sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Chicago may be America’s hot dog capital, but leave it to New York to own the hot dog in the most unique way imaginable. Manhattan certainly holds its own when it comes to high concentration per capita of dawg dives, but what really interests me is New York’s history of washing their franks down with papaya juice. Yes, papayas and hot dogs are a thing—at least in Manhattan.

Well, the last time I was in town, I was determined to follow through on something I’d wanted to do for years: have a papaya showdown. So I dragged the Tailor and my two best native New Yorker friends with me for brunch dawgs in the dead of winter. (I have very patient friends.) We could have made a whole day of it, as there are many sausage-and-juice purveyors in the city, but I was mostly interested in comparing the two biggest and oldest rivals. (Besides, I wasn’t sure I could actually consume two hot dogs in succession, let alone a whole city’s worth.)

The first stop was Gray’s Papaya—this is the place most people think of when they think papayas (do people think papayas?). Open 24 hours a day at its original location at 72nd and Broadway, its cameo appearances in several films has made it something of a household name. The franks have a solidly dirty-water quality to them—order the “Recession Special” and add a swig of papaya juice to round out the experience. I have to say, though, that the kitsch factor here was surprisingly low. The crepe-paper fruit hanging from the ceiling was a nice touch, but that’s about where the fun stuff ended. Gray’s has been in that location for over forty years, but everything there was a low-rent version of slick and modern.

New York papaya sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Papaya King, on the other hand, delivered on every front. The kitsch, the colors, the history, the design, even the food. Papaya juice, it turns out, is entirely too sweet for my taste, but the dogs were downright good. And best of all, Papaya King is the original, the real deal, the very first hot doggery to come up with the fruit-n-franks idea. The King has held court on the corner of E. 86th Street and Third Avenue since 1932, and the absolutely gorgeous neon pays homage to the original decor.

Papaya King has already won one hot dog war, when Nathan’s Famous opened a franchise next door in 1976, then capitulated when it lost the resulting price war. So as far as I’m concerned, it’s no surprise it came out on top this day, too. I am still no closer to understanding why someone would want papaya juice with their hotdog, but I’ll raise a bright yellow paper cup of the stuff to the King.

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Dog daysChicagoland and Springfield, IL

Chicago sketch by Chandler O'Leary

This post is part of an ongoing series called 66 Fridays, which explores the wonders of old Route 66. Click on the preceding “66 Fridays” link to view all posts in the series, or visit the initial overview post here.

Okay, I’m starting this post with a few sketches that are not on Route 66, but that provide a good bit of context—which is to say, if you’re hankering for a roadside red hot on your travels, there’s no better place to go than Chicago.

There’s some debate as to the origin of the humble hot dog. There is the German frankfurter, of course, but what has become the ultimate American street food seems to have murkier beginnings. Various cities with German-immigrant roots lay claim to the invention, including New York (where sausages were served on rolls at Coney Island in the 1870s) and St. Louis. But thanks to the persistent legend that the modern dawg, as we know it, was first served at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, Chicago has taken the story and run all the way to the bank with it.

Chicago sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Today, Chicago is the weenie capital of the world. Chicagoland Mom & Pop hot dog stands outnumber the city’s combined tally of McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s franchises. And many of them, like the fabulous (and slightly creepy) Superdawg Drive-In above, have been mainstays for half a century or more.

Chicago sketch by Chandler O'Leary

And just like the infamous Hot Wiener Sandwich of Rhode Island, a true Chicago Dog wouldn’t be caught dead in ketchup.

I started with these non-66 hot dog stands so you could see how high Chicago sets the bar for its tube-steak signage. If these wiener masterpieces could be found across town from the Mother Road, imagine how high my expectations were for Route 66’s offerings.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Well, I’m here to tell you, I didn’t come away disappointed.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

And if you’re heading west on Route 66, you’re in for an added bonus. Just when you think you’ve left the Dog Days behind, you’ll reach the state capital of Springfield and meet the Cozy Dog Drive-In. The Cozy Dog was founded by one Ed Waldmire, Jr. (remember the name Waldmire—there’s more 66 lore there to share another day), who, at a USO during World War II, invented the “crusty cur,” a cornbread-battered hot dog on a stick that would become a staple of State Fair cuisine. The recipe was an enormous hit with the troops, so in 1946 Waldmire rechristened his creation the Cozy Dog, and the rest, as they say, is history.

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(Dairy) king of the roadCommerce, OK

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

This post is part of an ongoing series called 66 Fridays, which explores the wonders of old Route 66. Click on the preceding “66 Fridays” link to view all posts in the series, or visit the initial overview post here.

If you happen to drive Route 66 in the summer, like we did, you might just find yourself pulling into Commerce, OK at the hottest part of an absolutely scorching day. If that’s the case, this former filling station will appear on the horizon first like a desert mirage, and then like a beacon of hope.

Apparently the unique draw of the Dairy King is the legendary Route 66 cookie (yes, a cookie shaped like US Highway shields!), but I have to confess: sometimes all you want on a hundred-degree day is a little something frosty.

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