The 30-foot-tall, 438-pound Gemini Giant statue in Wilmington, Illinois.
Bonnie and Clyde’s garage hideout in Joplin, Missouri.
Eight rusty Cadillacs, half-buried, nose down, in a cow pasture near Amarillo, Texas.
Zozobra, the 50-foot marionette in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
A memorial to the dog Toto from the film “Wizard of Oz” in Santa Monica.
What do all these things have in common?
You can find every one somewhere along the 2,448 miles of Route 66, the Chicago-to-Santa Monica historic highway that has spawned hopes and dreams in the American psyche for more than nine decades.
And who among us hasn’t fantasized about driving the length of the Mother Road, stopping to see all of its whacky, well-known and wonderful sites, cities and attractions?
Route 66 has long been the symbol of freedom and the open road, so much so that it’s been memorialized in books, song and television.
But actually traveling America’s first highway these days is a bit of a challenge. That’s because the original road appears and disappears as it crosses America.
And unless you have an infinite amount of time, you’ll have to make some choices about what to see.
Thank goodness for Amy Bizzarri, a freelance writer based in Chicago, who has done the work for us.
Her newly published “The Best Hits on Route 66: 100 Essential Stops on the Mother Road” is a 281-page, softcover collection of “the 100 iconic stops that you cannot miss.”
The book contains a photo of nearly every one, a summary of their importance, directions for finding them and a useful index. Bizzarri also has mapped out eight themed itineraries – Route 66 for those with special interests like Native American history, Hollywood lore, natural wonders, the supernatural and more.
When researching Route 66 for a road trip, Bizzarri found that “all of the other guides featured thousands of stops. It was difficult for me to sift through all of them, so I decided to make my own book. My book pares down (the choices) for people who have only two to three weeks to travel the route.”
Yes, Bizzarri did drive the entire route — with her two children — and did check out every one of the stops listed in the book – and a few more.
“I actually did the Illinois stops first over a few weekends because I live in Chicago,” she explained. “When we set off on the main trip, we went directly to St. Louis. If you stop at all 100 stops, I would say that it would take three weeks minimum.”
Today Route 66 is a tourist attraction but its origin was purely practical.
A couple of Midwest businessmen championed the idea of a Chicago-to-Los Angeles highway in 1925. After several proposed routes and some political wrangling, the final US 66 (because it’s an easy number to remember) did follow, mostly, the original plan.
US 66 became a symbol, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, as a way out of the misery and poverty of the Dust Bowl. During that decade, 2.5 million Americans migrated westward, even though the road was not completely paved until 1938. Many of these migrants settled in California where some eventually found a better life.
“Route 66 wasn’t built to be a tourist destination,” Bizzarri said. “It was built for traveling west. It supported the economies of small towns through which it passed. They became prosperous because of the highway.”
And they remained so until the interstate highway system bypassed them.
Route 66 was officially decommissioned in 1984 when the last section of the interstate system was complete. It is now Historic Route 66, and because interest and nostalgia have grown, there is a bi-partisan bill working its way through Congress to designate the Mother Road a National Historic Trail.
“I’m hoping more families will discover Route 66,” Bizzarri said. “It’s truly unique … an iconic road that will provide road trips to remember.”
If you’re lucky enough to drive the Mother Road from end to end, join the Route 66 Selfie Challenge. Take a selfie at each of the 100 stops featured in the book and tag your posts #Route66Top100 and #SelfieChallenge.
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E’Louise Ondash is a veteran, award-winning journalist who was an investigative reporter, feature writer and columnist for the Times Advocate and the North County Times. She has written travel features for The Coast News since 2003.