Route 66 Is More Than Just a Road; It’s a Ride Through History
Mark Richardson spent a week driving the length of Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles in three Nissan vehicles. This is Day 1, from Chicago, IL, to Cuba, MO.
Officially, there’s more than one Route 66. There’s the original road from 1926, mostly just a dirt track now where it still exists. There’s the replacement Route 66 from 1938, when the road was finally paved all the way, often by laying down a concrete highway alongside. And then there’s the Route 66 from the 1950s, where it was widened and straightened.
In Illinois, the different designations sometimes run as three separate roads beside the interstate, which powered through in the 1960s to connect Chicago with St. Louis and beyond. On the east side of I-55 might be the old road from the ’30s that now links smaller communities, with a walking or cycling trail beside it that used to be the road from the ’20s. On the west side could be the Frontage Road, built for trucks in the ’50s that now just connects farms to each other, and to the Interstate.
I left Chicago this morning in a Nissan Kicks SUV, among a group of Nissans to drive the length of Route 66 on as much of the old road as possible. It’s more than 3,000 kilometres from the gritty Windy City, south through the heartland to St. Louis, then west across the prairie and desert; it ends at the Pacific Ocean off the Santa Monica pier in California.
The Joliet Area Historical Museum in Illinois is one of the first Route 66-themed museums to be found on the route.
If you know the 1940s song, you know the route: “Now you go through St. Louis, Joplin, Missouri, and Oklahoma City looks mighty pretty. You'll see Amarillo, Gallup, New Mexico, Flagstaff, Arizona. Don't forget Winona, Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino…”
“It’s not the most historic or scenic highway, but from its inception, it’s always had the best press and publicity,” says Jim Hinckley, author of The Route 66 Encyclopedia. John Steinbeck set it into history as the hopeful road through the dustbowl to the Golden West in The Grapes of Wrath. When Bobby Troup sang to Get your kicks on Route 66, it became a mainstay. The namesake 1960s TV show cemented it in America’s mindset, and the 2006 movie Cars reminded the world of its Mom and Pop allure.
Mark Richardson in Chicago at the historic start of Route 66.
“With Route 66, it’s tangible, it’s moving history,” says Hinckley. “This road is magical. It’s a gateway. It’s a portal to America’s history.”
Officially, it no longer exists as a federal highway – it was decertified in 1985 – but some communities, like Gardner, Illinois, make the most of the connection. Signs run through town that guide the way along the old route, either beside the road or painted right on the asphalt.
At Odell, another 20 minutes farther south, there’s a Standard Oil gas station, restored to just as it was in 1932. It’s a popular stop among many historic sites for nostalgic travellers. All along the original route, diners and motels display Route 66 signs than suggest their service and values are just as they used to be, back in America’s Good Old Days.
This 1932 Standard Oil gas station has been restored to its original condition and is included on the National Register of Historic Places.
We’ll follow this road together and see just how much holds true. It’ll take a week of driving in those Nissans, but we’ll find out if there really is a magic to Route 66.
Next: Day 2: Cuba, MO, to Tulsa, OK.
2020 Nissan Kicks
Behind the wheel:
Easy to drive, Nissan’s smallest SUV doesn’t waste any space but doesn’t feel small, either. There’s plenty of room in the two front seats for full-size passengers, and the rear seats fold flat for extra practicality in carrying cargo. It’s stylish, with optional two-tone paint to help it stand out on the road, and it’s fully connected, with all the driver’s safety assistance you expect.
A pair of Bose speakers embedded in the driver’s headrest – available in the SR edition – add that extra layer of sound that seems to come from inside your head.
Under the hood:
1.6-litre i4 / XTronic CVT
122 hp / 114 lbs.-ft.
7.7 City, 6.6 Hwy. (L/100 km)
$18,298 - $23,398, plus $1,815 Freight and PDI