Route 66: A Journey Back in Time… The 10,000 Mile Bike Trek

While historic Route 66 travels through six states and numerous climate zones, I always think of it as being in the desert, a prejudice I developed from reading my grandfather's Arizona Highways as a child.

While historic Route 66 travels through eight states and numerous climate zones, I always think of it as being in the desert, a prejudice I developed from reading my Grandfather’s “Arizona Highways” as a child. This photo I took a couple of years ago near Oatman, Arizona would have been the same 60 years ago.

 

Nostalgia: Pleasure and sadness that is caused by remembering something from the past and wishing that you could experience it again. — Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Route 66 represents nostalgia in mythic proportions. It harkens back to an earlier era— back before the hustle and bustle of modern-day freeways, back before the advent of McDs, BKs, and numerous other fast food restaurants, and back before cell phones insisted that we keep in contact with anyone and everyone all the time, even when on the open road.

It is a blue highway incarnate, and, as I am sure you have figured out, I am a blue highway kind of guy.  When I was planning my bike trip, I designed it to follow some of the loneliest, bluest roads in the US and Canada. Of course there were compromises, Las Vegas being a glaring example. And there were times when my only option was to climb onto a freeway. As I followed busy Boulder Highway up and out of Las Vegas, however, it was Route 66 and North America’s other historic byways that I was dreaming of.

I worked my way up to Railroad Pass, which marks the dividing line between Las Vegas/Henderson and Boulder City. It had been a long haul out of Vegas so breakfast at the Railroad Casino seemed in order. The casino has been there forever and lacks the glamor of its Las Vegas cousins. It even came with an old-fashioned café. I ordered one of my favorites: sausage, two eggs over medium, hash browns, whole wheat toast and coffee. It cost four bucks. I left with a happy tummy and a smile on my face, retrieved my bike from the post it was locked to, and headed for Hoover Dam, keeping an eye out for the Desert Big Horned Sheep that hang out in the mountains above the highway.

Boulder Highway as it looks today... not much different than it looked in 1989.

Boulder Highway as it looks today… not much different from it looked in 1989.

“Watch the road, Curt!” I admonished me. Do you talk to yourself? I always have. Riding on a bike for six months by myself made me much more fluent, or maybe the word is verbose.

There is a fun story about the Big Horn Sheep in the area that I related in an earlier blog but is worth repeating here. A small park is located just off the road that bypasses Boulder City to Hoover Dam. The bright green grass beckons to the sheep up on the mountainside during Nevada’s hot, dry summers and down they come. I’ve stopped by a couple of times to photograph them. An acquaintance of my friend Ken Lake lives across the road from the park and related this tale.

The path the sheep follow down to the park passes right by a house that has a shiny, aluminum garage door. One day the herd ram noticed another large ram in the door— staring back at him, challenging him. Here was competition for his lovely ewes! This wasn’t to be allowed, of course, so he reared up and charged the door full tilt, crashing into it with his mighty horns. But the other ram was still standing, albeit a bit beat up. So he charged again and then again. The door was trashed. Apparently the owner had a hard time persuading his insurance agent how the damage was caused.

The herd ram determining whether my taking his photo was something he should be objecting to.

The herd ram determining whether my taking his photo was something he should be objecting to.

Peggy and I have a similar problem at our home in Oregon. The big tom turkeys that live in the forest like to parade their harems through our yard. The largest of the toms has discovered the turkey that lives in the bumper of our Toyota Tacoma pickup. He is not happy. I’ve seem him stand in front of the bumper for thirty minutes at a time, fluffing out his feathers, sticking out his neck in a loud gobble, and pecking the bumper. The other turkey fluffs his feathers, sticks out his neck and pecks right back. All of this would just be humorous except the big tom goes looking for the other turkey. He flies up, lands in the pickup bed… and poops. Admittedly, turkey poop isn’t as traumatic as having your garage door trashed, but it is copious and messy. The tom and I have had several discussions about my love of roast turkey.

I was yet unaware of the Big Horn Sheep and a long way off from owning a wilderness retreat in Oregon when I cycled by the park on my bike trip. I made my way down to Lake Mead and crossed over Hoover Dam. Looking out over the lake and the distant drop on the far side from a bicycle was quite an experience. If I were to cross the dam today on my bike, TSA would stop me at its check point and make me empty out my panniers to determine whether I was a mad bomber. Why else would someone bike across the dam— and up the other side?

The climb out was hot and steep, filled with hairpin turns, autos and large RVs. I sweated all of them, so to speak. Reaching the top, I was faced with another challenge, miles and miles of sizzling, desolate desert with minimal facilities. My kind of country.

A high four multi-lane bridge has replaced crossing over Hoover Dam when traveling between Nevada and Arizona. This shot looks down on the old highway I was following after climbing out of the canyon.

A high, multi-lane bridge has replaced crossing over Hoover Dam when traveling between Nevada and Arizona. This shot looks down on the old highway I was following after climbing out of the canyon.

A bit farther up the road looking south. Dante would have found this site suitable for his concept of hell.

A bit farther up the road looking south. This photo could have served as an illustration for Dante’s Inferno.

I biked on, catching far off views of the Colorado River and then picking out a distant mountain to bike toward. As I reached my goal, the sun began to set, and warm breezes turned slightly cool. It was time to search for a home. Unfortunately, a sturdy fence blocked easy access to the desert. I wasn’t particularly interested in being caught climbing over. There are a lot of guns in Nevada. A kindly dirt road came to my rescue. I took advantage of a break in traffic and zipped down it and into a dry gulch, the perfect hiding place— as long as it didn’t rain and the local rattlesnake was elsewhere. I fired up my backpacking stove, made a cup of coffee, added a dash of 151 proof rum, and downed a granola bar. Life was good. Coyote music lulled me to sleep.

Looking down on the Colorado River from a viewpoint on the Las Vegas-Kingman road.

Looking down on the Colorado River from a viewpoint on the Las Vegas-Kingman road.

I used this mountain as a marker to determine my progress.

I used this distinctive mountain as a marker to determine my progress.

Looking out toward my home for the night.

Looking out toward my home for the night. Not bad, eh? Or is it that 151 proof rum improves how everything looks?

I was up early in the morning and out before the traffic. Fifty-miles later I was in Kingman, Arizona, a town bursting with pride about its Route 66 heritage, and hoping to harvest a bundle of tourist dollars because of it. I grabbed a room in a beat up old motel that claimed Route 66 vintage and prices. Following a much-needed shower, I headed out to follow the road through the town and absorb some of its ambience.

Kingman, Arizona is quite proud of its connection to Route 66. Two different museums in town feature Route 66 themes.

Kingman, Arizona is quite proud of its connection to Route 66. Two different museums in town feature Route 66 themes.

A number of murals depict a romanticized view of travel on the highway.

A number of murals depict a romanticized view of travel on the highway.

When I talk about the inexpensive motels I found along my bike route, this is what Peggy assumes they looked like.

When I talk about the inexpensive motels I found along my bike route, this is what Peggy assumes they looked like.

A beautiful desert sunset as seen from Route 66 in Kingman.

A desert sunset as seen from Route 66 in Kingman.

The next day found me absorbing much more as I left the town behind and made my way east on what was once one of America’s main cross-country routes. Today it is a quiet road. The majority of the people traveling east and west are zipping by on Interstate 40, rushing toward whatever destination/destiny awaits them.

When I think of Route 66, I think desert. When I was a small boy, I was enthralled by my grandfather’s subscription to “Arizona Highways.” It often featured Route 66, and it featured deserts. My first acquaintance with the highway was when I was driving west from Atlanta in 1968 and followed portions of it through Arizona, including the one I was biking on.

My route for the day took me on a gentle climb up through arid lands with views of mesas along the way. Occasional creeks were teaming with life that was seeking the desert’s most treasured commodity, water. I passed by ramshackle old buildings that had seen their heyday in the 40s and 50s. I waved at the few cars that passed me, either locals going about their business, or romantics like me, seeking a taste of a bygone era. A train whistle receding into the distance fit right in. I ended my day at the Grand Canyon Caverns, a tourist attraction of the early Route 66 that still pulls in visitors today.

Route 66 above Kingman.

Route 66 above Kingman.

A mesa above the highway. Traveling over the mets and beyond will bring you to the Grand Canyon.

A mesa above the highway. Traveling over the mesa and beyond will bring you to the Grand Canyon.

An old building that served as a gas station and garage during the heyday of Route 66. The gas pumps had been updated, but even they were no longer in use. I rendered the photo in black and white to represent the era.

An old building that served as a gas station and garage during the heyday of Route 66. The gas pumps had been updated, but even they were no longer in use. I rendered the photo in black and white to represent the era.

My campground for the evening with a typical Route 66 sign.

My campground for the evening with a typical Route 66 sign.

The campground/motel and caverns also featured dinosaurs. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

The campground/motel and caverns also featured dinosaurs. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

The restaurant featured Betty Boop.

The restaurant featured Betty Boop.

And this map showing historic Route 66.

And this map showing historic Route 66. The arrow points to the Grand Canyon Caverns.

Sunshine lights up dark clouds that were promising rain at the campground.

Sunshine on the juniper trees provides an interesting contrast to the dark clouds that were promising rain at the campground.

Sunset at the Grand Canyons Cavern Campground.

I’ll conclude this post with sunset at the Grand Canyons Cavern Campground.

Note: If you are new to this series, my wife Peggy and I are retracing my 1989 bike route, this time in our van. Most of the photos come from our present trip.

NEXT BLOG: I will feature the rest of my bike trip across Arizona, including a very scary one a.m. invasion of a motel room I was sleeping in.

 

33 comments on “Route 66: A Journey Back in Time… The 10,000 Mile Bike Trek

    • Almost everyday as Peggy and I retrace the route, Yvonne. During the trip, it was pretty much get up in the morning, climb on the bike, and start peddling. Each day had something to offer and was a new adventure. –Curt

  1. Some astounding vistas here Curt. I laughed out loud at the turkey business! I continue to be amazed that you cycled all of this. I have to go rest now at the thought.

    • The turkeys and their antics are good for hours of entertainment, Sue… possibly too much. My writing chair looks out on our back yard where they like to gather. Many a blog and book chapter has been interrupted. 🙂 As for the route, Peggy is sharing your sentiments as we drive it. It seems a long way in the van! –Curt

    • I’m impressed, Apatosaurus it is. And he comes with a name, Zoomie, and a story. The big fellow was originally meant to oversee the Zoomar Petting Zoo in San Juan Capistrano, Ca. (home of the returning swallows). Some city officials felt that the giant was inappropriate for the zoo and region— and evicted him. Grand Canyon Caverns came to the rescue and gave Zoomie a new home. 🙂 –Curt

  2. Oh those images! My husband and the kids and I did a trek across the country several years ago and were on route 66 for quite a while. It’s one of the best memories of my life. We took 8 weeks and traveled 10,000 miles. This was a great post Curt. I love reading about your adventures.

    • It sounds to me, Sylvia, like you and your family had a great adventure as well. And what a great experience for the kids! Thanks for your comment and kind words. Much appreciated. –Curt

  3. Thanks Curt – another interesting installment. I think of the hours and hours alone in the middle of nowhere, how that can calm the mind, heal the soul. Nowhere to go, nothing to do but put one foot on front of the other. Sweet.
    Alison

    • That is a good observation, Alison. It is very basic, even zen-like out there. It was lonely at times. I’d stop at restaurants just as much to talk with people as eat. And sometimes, I would even go to a motel for an evening of TV. But for the most part, I enjoyed the solitude. And I enjoyed having such a simple job: Get up in the morning and pedal. Deal with whatever the day had to throw at you as it came up. Thanks. –Curt

      • We are planning on walking the Camino next summer. It’s more than a year away and yet I’m already excited about it. I love the thought of exactly what you said: a simple job: get up in the morning and walk, and deal with whatever is in store as it arises.
        A.

      • From what I have read about walking the Camino, Alison, it would be a similar type of experience and challenge. It is definitely something to get excited about. –Curt

  4. Cherie and I are pondering getting a travel trailer and taking a year to have a look around the country. If we do it, Route 66 is definitely going to be on the itinerary. And that old vintage trailer in your post would be a beauty if someone with the right skills fixed it up!

    • Go for it, Bill. You and Cherie would have a blast. And the two of you could use a break from the long hours of work. This trip has reminded Peggy and me just how beautiful and diverse the US and Canada are.
      I wished that old trailer could talk. I imagine it has quite a story to tell. 🙂 –Curt

  5. I really enjoyed reading this and I put myself in your shoes, somewhat. I would have liked the solitude and scenery. But in measured doses as I’m one for comfort.

    Lol @inexpensive motels 🙂

    • Thanks, Timi. Peggy can be quite amusing when it comes to my saving money on lodging. She has spent the last 25 years upgrading me. There are gorgeous lodges in some of the places, like the Grand Canyon, for example. You can kind of have it all. 🙂 –Curt

  6. I get a thirst just looking at the scenes of desolation and desserts. Australia too, is by and large a very dry continent. People sometimes leave their broken down vehicle, against all advice, to seek help and perish quickly through dehydration.

    • Not wise to leave your vehicle, Gerard, although with a bike, I am not sure it would make much difference. My first day into the desert did convince me to carry extra water, however. It was a lesson I shouldn’t have had to learn. –Curt

  7. I read your comment about talking to yourself and chuckled Curt. All my touring was solo, so I can relate. I didn’t ride in the desert SW, but on some of my blue highways, I also found myself singing at the top of my lungs – probably scared the hell out of the birds and squirrels, but it made me feel not so alone. ~James

  8. Having recently read Larry McMurtry’s reflections on Route 66, it was interesting to read yours. Myth, realities, and quite different experiences, all along one highway. I grew up in Iowa with highways resembling the portions of Route 66 we occasionally drove — narrow, curbed, poorly-drained and with drainage outlets that ate car wheels on a regular basis. It’s hard to be nostalgic about that!

    Of course, over time, the road improved, and then it got a good marketing department, and the rest is history. It’s not that I don’t appreciate 66. I do. When I come across it, I stop to take photos of the signs. And the country it uncoils through is marvelous, as your photos show. I just can’t quite dredge up the enthusiasm for a road trip on its remains. Funny, that.

    On the other hand, one of my favorite songs is Asleep at the Wheel’s version of “Route 66”. I have to be careful of listening to it too often. It can set up travel-lust pretty quickly.

    Wonderful, wonderful post that made me a little restless, too. 🙂

    • I probably mentioned to you that Peggy and I stopped off in Archer City on our way through Texas. Sad to see Mcmurtry’s fabulous book store there being dismantled, but it was still impressive. Archer City will get its own blog. Route 66… It was actually in better condition than many of the roads I would ride over. You don’t do blue highways without some bumps along the way. (grin) Peggy and I have been amply reminded of that! She has become one one of the world’s leading experts on dodging pot holes. Thanks for the link, I always appreciate them. And thanks for your kind words. Inspiring restlessness has always been one of my jobs. 🙂 –Curt

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