Route 66
Travelling the Main Street of America


From Rolla all the way to Lebanon, watch for the giant "Walnut Bowl" billboards. They do wear down your resistance, and I almost jeopardised my schedule by going to see these wonderful exemplars of the wood-turner's craft. How many of you will get through Lebanon without acquiring a walnut keepsake?

The last sections of Route 66 in Missouri duck and dive through Carthage and Joplin. It's a bit tricky, but you sure see the other side of America. You pass from dusty dereliction to leafy suburbia in a few turns of a Corvette's wheel. The beautiful, the ugly and the bizarre distract the eye in equal measure along this tortuous path.

So, past the "66 Speedway" and on into Kansas. You're only going to be in Kansas for an hour or so, so make the most of its "thirteen miles of smiles". Galena is like a ghost town in parts, but you can't miss its wonderfully shambolic Museum in an old railroad station building right on the corner of Main Street. It's one of those Aladdin's Cave sorts of places; if you go in with a partner you're forever calling out to one another, "Hey! Come over here. Look what I've found!" Magic.

Dotted around within sight of old 66 in Kansas you'll see piles of mine tailings, known locally as "chat". Mining did such damage to the land around Galena that the area just north of Front Street is called "Hell's Half Acre". This was the site of bloody clashes between the striking United Mine Workers and mine owners in the mid-1930s.

Just after Riverton, you'll want to pause to take photographs of your car crossing Brush Creek on the last remaining "Marsh Rainbow Arch" bridge. There used to be three of these elegant 1920s concrete structures on Kansas's fabulous thirteen 66 miles, and only a vigorous campaign by local enthusiasts saved the last one when it was earmarked for demolition in the early '90s. You hardly notice the existence of the bland modern replacement bridges across Spring River and Willow Creek. How much more satisfying your journey becomes when the crossing of a river is highlighted by a dramatic flourish of steel and stone, concrete and timber. Luckily, there are still a lot of inspiring spans to serve you along the rest of old 66.

Last stop in Kansas is Baxter Springs where on October 6, 1863, a company of Union soldiers was massacred in cold blood by notorious Confederate, William Clarke Quantrill. If you're a student of the Civil War, signs will direct you to the National Cemetery a couple of miles off 66 along US166. The next chat piles are your signal that our brief sojourn in Kansas is almost over and it's on over the Oklahoma state line towards Miami.

As you'll find all along 66, the most unpromising little zilch towns all conceal treasures for the observant Mother Roadie. Miami, Oklahoma, for example, starts off as a fairly dull drive-through, and suddenly there you are in front of an art-déco gem of the first order - the 1919 Coleman Theatre. Route 66 in the eastern part of Oklahoma is still a road that's going places. Although it's been bypassed by the seamlessly efficient Will Rogers Turnpike, it remains the road of choice for local travellers. You'll find that it's called Free Road in places, as a counterblast to the Turnpike's $3 toll. Each of the villages you pass through between Miami and Tulsa has its claim to fame. One of them, Foyil, is the home town of Andy Payne who won the amazing "Bunion Derby" of 1928. This was a coast-to-coast foot race dreamt up by Cy Avery, the Tulsa County Highways Commissioner who was the prime-mover in the creation of Sixty-Six. He was always on the lookout for ways of popularising his new road, and together with promoter C.C. "Cash and Carry" Pyle, he put on the First International Continental Foot Race with a prize of $25,000. For the 2400 miles from Los Angeles to Chicago, it followed 66, the remaining 800 miles to New York taking other routes. Andy Payne's most serious rival until well after Chicago was Englishman Peter Gavuzzi but he retired with an infected tooth leaving Andy to win by eight hours, entering Madison Square, New York, on the eighty-sixth day of the race. That's a marathon and a half every day for three months!