Cutting-edge comfortKingman, 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.

In its heyday, Route 66 was a symbol of American prosperity, modernity, technology and personal freedom—not just because of the rise of the middle class in that era, but also thanks to all the new technologies that allowed more and more people to live in relative comfort. In the post-war 1920s people started buying big-ticket items on credit; after World War II, good jobs were abundant and people had even more disposable income. In both eras, many families owned their own automobiles for the first time: suddenly people had both the means and the tools to take vacations in far-off places, and Route 66 showed them the way.

And the Mother Road was lined from toe to tip with modern notions and attractions. Neon tubes, a recent invention, lined every urban commercial strip along the way. Budget-minded travelers could stay in newfangled motor hotels, and even park their cars in garages attached to their rooms. But perhaps the most important invention, the key to the Mother Road’s success, was the advent of air conditioning.

Like most vacationers do today, Route 66 road trippers tended to take their vacations in the summer. And 66 cuts its path through a part of the country with some seriously warm climates. August in the Ozarks is hot and sticky, but summer in the Sun Belt can be downright dangerous. Air conditioning became widely available in the late 1920s, just as the first alignments of 66 were being laid out. The technology wasn’t just convenient for hotels or restaurants looking for a perk to advertise; it was downright revolutionary, in that it allowed the entire American Southwest to be opened up for large-scale development.

Of course, the Southwest is littered with examples of the downsides of said development, but now that I’ve traveled Route 66 at the very zenith of a scorcher of a summer, the logic of advertising “air cooled” rooms is plain as day. I can now attest to the gratitude one feels when stepping into an icy-cool room after a day spent in 115-degree heat. And neon signs like this one, advertising such a technological miracle, shimmer like desert mirages promising an oasis just ahead.

Comments (0) Pin it!

Tucumcari toniteTucumcari, NM

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.

Most of the must-see treasures of Route 66 are individual landmarks or legends: Meramec Caverns, the Oatman burros, the Gemini Giant. But one of the most important stops along the way is an entire town. Welcome to Tucumcari: Googie oasis of yore, midcentury Cibola of 2000 motel rooms.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Today’s Tucumcari is somewhere halfway between worlds, simultaneously a time machine and a crumbling architectural ruin. To me it felt the way it would to visit Pompeii, only to find the city still inhabited. This is the place where, much like the stretch of 66 through Albuquerque, you can find rusted neon masterpieces everywhere you look—

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

—except here, the neon is equally likely to mark a still-operating motel as a defunct one.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Yet while the town’s pulse still keeps a beat, that mythical number of motel rooms has diminished somewhat.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

I’m sure the motels aren’t the only ones—for every business still standing, I had to wonder how many had disappeared.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Still, Tucumcari seems to take pride in its place along Route 66. Take the famous Tee Pee Curios (no, I didn’t misspell my sketch; the building uses both spellings at once!), which remains one of the most documented attractions of the Mother Road.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Sadly, I didn’t get inside, as we rolled in to town too late the night before, and we had to leave before it opened for the day. Still, it was good to see the place in such fine fettle, new coat of paint and all.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

But that’s okay: the real gem of Tucumcari, and perhaps the crown jewel of all of Route 66, was where I got to devote my time. The Blue Swallow is the perfect symbol of Tucumcari: still alive, still authentic, still beautiful.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The night we spent at the Blue Swallow was the one we’d been looking forward to the most on that trip, because we just needed proof that there were still places like this left on the planet. As soon as we crossed the threshold to our room, we knew the place was in good hands.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

It was like stepping into 1939. The place was meticulously authentic (not to mention spotlessly clean and bright). Whatever wasn’t actually original to the room (and almost all of it was) was carefully restored to the correct period—right down to the 1939 Bell rotary-dial phones. Heck, even the price of the room was a total throwback.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

For me, at least, the Blue Swallow was incredibly comfortable. Maybe it’s because I live in an old house with old furnishings and old fixtures, but I just felt right at home. Anyway, this is the sort of thing I want on a road trip like this. I would have been incredibly sad if we’d opened that door to find the plaster replaced with drywall or a huge flat-screen TV taking up one wall. As it was, I nearly cried from relief to find things just as they were from the beginning.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Places like the Blue Swallow and towns like Tucumcari are an endangered species. American culture, in general, prefers the new and novel to the historic—the freeway to the meandering path. That’s why it’s such a miracle that there’s any Route 66 left to enjoy at all. For every vintage motel that manages to keep thriving with each passing year, another closes its doors. And that’s why it’s going to take all of us to keep these places alive.

Still, whatever the future might hold, I’m glad to see there’s still a beating heart in Tucumcari tonite.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Comments (1) Pin it!

Big brothersAtlanta, Springfield and Wilmington, IL

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.

International Fiberglass’s midcentury giants are scattered around the country, and the Muffer Man diaspora certainly includes Route 66, as well. But the fiberglass beefcakes along Illinois’s diagonal streth of Route 66 an extra-special breed. These men are called simply the “Brothers,” and most of them have unusual variants of the standard Muffler Man “physique.”

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

First up is this rather bizarre guy, currently located in Atlanta, IL. It seems a little random that he’s holding a hot dog rather than the standard muffler (though in my experience, Muffler Men almost never hold actual mufflers these days), but his origin story makes everything clear. You see, this guy, named “Tall Paul,” originally stood outside Bunyon’s* hot dog stand in the Chicago suburb of Cicero. When he was originally commissioned in 1966, the owner of Bunyon’s had him outfitted with a custom fiberglass frank instead of a muffler. After Bunyon’s closed its doors in 2002, Tall Paul was sent “downstream” along Route 66 to the town of Atlanta, where he’s housed on long-term loan. While he looks handsome here in Atlanta, I still wish I could see him in situ in Cicero, amidst his Chicago-dog brethren.

* Bunyon’s, as in Paul Bunyan, except it was purposefully misspelled to avoid any possible trademark infringement.

Muffler Men sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Next are the fraternal fiberglass twins of the capital city of Springfield. The guy on the left, who admittedly is not right on Route 66 (but not far off of it), is a former Carpet Viking in new garb. And on the right, just a block or two off of the Mother Road, is the Lauterbach Tire Man, now newly re-capitated after a 2006 tornado quite literally blew his head off.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

And then there’s the mutant masterpiece of Illinois 66, a particularly odd and endangered specimen known as the Gemini Giant.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

This guy stands sentry outside the now-defunct Launcing Pad Drive-in in the town of Wilmington. When he was commissioned in 1965, the owners of the Launching Pad capitalized on the Space Race fad of the era, and customized their guy with an astronaut helmet and handheld rocket. Even his name, devised by a local schoolgirl, referenced the Gemini space program. The result is not only one of the most unusual muffler men, but also one of the most recognized Route 66 landmarks.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The empty Launching Pad property and the Gemini Giant are both currently for sale—they went up for auction just this April, but failed to meet the reserve price. Despite an uncertain future, the town of Wilmington appears to be committed to preserving the Gemini Giant. I certainly hope so—if any of the Brothers were to disappear from Route 66, they’d leave some awfully big shoes to fill.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Comments (0) Pin it!

Slapshot statueSan Jose, CA

Muffler Man sketch by Chandler O'Leary

San Jose’s Muffler Man might not be the most unusual fiberglass specimen out there, but he’ll always have a place in my heart for combining my favorite type of roadside attraction with my favorite sport. Heck, the Muffler Man’s standard pose is perfect form for holding a hockey stick: top hand pointing down, bottom hand pointing up. If that’s not a sign this guy is just my type, I don’t know what is. Now if only I could find a Paul Bunyan goalie somewhere…

Comments (0) Pin it!

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…

Comments (0) Pin it!

Lumberjacks of 66Flagstaff, AZ and Albuquerque, NM

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.

Since Route 66 passes through the Great Plains and the Desert Southwest, and not at all through the North Woods, it’s not a highway that brings thoughts of Paul Bunyan to mind. Yet there are a handful of Pauls along the Mother Road, if you know where to look.

The most well-known can be found in Flagstaff (where logging actually does happen): a trio (including a set of identical-twin Muffler Men) of big brothers in matching outfits. The guy on the left of the above sketch is hand-hewn out of wood, fittingly, but to me the most interesting specimen is the one on the right half of that spread. That Muffler Man happens to be, rumor has it, the very first one ever rolled off the assembly line. Today the aforementioned wooden statue stands in his place on Route 66, and the Muffler Man now stands near his twin on the Northern Arizona University campus.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The other Paul Bunyan is an oddity, indeed. He stands high above Central Avenue (the more modern alignment of 66) in Albuquerque, keeping watch beside what is now a Vietnamese Cafe. Sadly, this Paul has recently been rendered limbless…but it’s not like he needed to do a lot of logging in Albuquerque anyway.

Save

Save

Save

Comments (0) Pin it!

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.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Comments (1) Pin it!

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.

Comments (0) Pin it!

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.

Comments (1) Pin it!
« Older Posts Newer Posts »