In 1926, a committee of American highway officials created a new interstate artery that tracked bits and pieces of existing roads and trails. The highway ran southwest from Chicago, across eight states and 2,400 miles of hills, plains, desert, and orange groves, until it dead-ended at the Pacific Ocean. The road's sponsors hoped to christen it Route 60, but the number was spoken for. Their second, infinitely catchier choice: Route 66. Route 66—which turns 75 this year—wasn't the first interstate highway, but it's unquestionably the most famous. No road has cast such a powerful spell on the modern imagination. Route 66 is the Glory Road, John Steinbeck's Mother Road, and Depression-era families in dilapidated trucks fleeing the Dust Bowl. It's Mom, Dad, and three kids in a wood-paneled station wagon, out to see the Petrified Forest. It's America's Main Street, a 1960s TV show, and a song. It's motor courts, curio shops, and the Cadillac Ranch. Faster, sleeker freeways long ago bypassed the idiosyncratic old road and diverted goal-oriented travelers. But Route 66 still gets plenty of traffic. It is, at 75, much more than a road. It's a monument to a younger, more innocent America, a country that was just starting to take to the highway.
Meramec Caverns: The greatest show under the earth
Though it stretches across some of the most arresting countryside on earth, Route 66 is most famous for its funky man-made attractions—the motels, trading posts, and frozen custard stands that sprouted along the side of the highway like so much 20th-century folk art. Even the Meramec Caverns, a seven-story network of limestone caves 300 feet beneath the Ozarks, are known as much for the zany tactics employed to promote them as for their natural beauty.
Located 60 miles west of St. Louis in Stanton, Mo., the caverns were used over the centuries by Native Americans as shelter, by miners as a source for saltpeter, and, possibly, by Jesse James as a hideout. A local entrepreneur named Lester Dill opened the caverns as a roadside attraction in 1935. To draw tourists from nearby Route 66, Dill pioneered advertising techniques that are still in use today. He was an early adopter (some say the inventor) of the bumper sticker—wiring ads to car bumpers before the advent of adhesive backing. And he anticipated the huge billboards that companies from McDonald's to Buy.com have erected to lure people to their sites, both real and virtual. Beginning in the 1930s, Dill traveled the country offering to paint farmers' barns for free—so long as he could emblazon huge "Meramec Caverns" ads on the roofs. At one point, some 400 such barn billboards existed in 40 states, and 100 remain today. Meramec Caverns' 22 year-round employees still include one full-time barn painter, Jim Gauer, 79, who's been with the company for 45 years. (The biggest change since he started: He no longer paints the signs by hand. "You can spray them a lot faster and a lot better," Gauer says.)
Dill was also adept in the use of "free media"—getting newspapers and television to do his promotional work for him—a technique favored by politicians today. In the late '40s, Dill sent his son-in-law, Rudy Turilli, and an accomplice to New York City, where they ascended to the observation deck of the Empire State Building clad in caveman costumes, climbed over the railings, and threatened to jump unless everyone in the world agreed to visit Meramec Caverns. They kept up the act long enough for reporters to get their fill.
"It's very challenging to keep people coming," says Lester Turilli Jr., Dill's great-grandson. But the family-run business continues to find imaginative ways to spread the word. June 27 will be Meramec Caverns Day at St. Louis's Busch Stadium, with young Cardinals fans (ages 5-11) receiving free passes to the caverns.
But it's not all hype: Visiting the caverns is a treat. Tours begin in the Ballroom, which was used as a dance hall in the 1800s, then proceed to the Jungle Room, where you get a close-up look at stalactites. Tours also visit the Mirror River, which is a few feet deep, but appears as deep as the Grand Canyon, thanks to an optical illusion. The effect is so real as to cause vertigo.
But the highlight of the 80-minute tour is a re- creation of a 1946 performance at Meramec Caverns by Kate Smith. Against towering walls of onyx, colored lights by the hundreds flash in sequence. The lights slowly converge to project an American flag as Smith belts out a rendition of "God Bless America." Last year it was heard by 160,000 visitors—testament to both the enduring attraction of the caves and the American genius for salesmanship.
Meramec Caverns is open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas. Admission is $12.50 for adults, $6 for children ages 5-12. Children 4 and under are free. It is located off Interstate 44, Exit 230, in Stanton, Mo., (800) 676-6105, www.americascave.com.
Big Texan Steak Ranch: Here's the beef
The guy looked like he played tackle for the Dallas Cowboys. Six-foot-four and a good 300 pounds, he sat on a raised platform at the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, Tex., making his way through the meal set before him: shrimp cocktail, salad, baked potato, roll, and a 41/2-pound steak. His goal? To eat for free.
Welcome to the Big Texan, a onetime Route 66 institution where dinner is on the house if you can put away 72 ounces of beef and all the trimmings in an hour. Fail and you're out $54.13, tax included.
To describe the Big Texan simply as a steak house hardly does it justice. "We don't sell steak here," says Dan Lee, who owns the restaurant with three of his seven siblings. "We sell the Old West experience." Outside, a 12-foot-tall fiberglass steer—brought from the Big Texan's original Route 66 location a mile and a half away—surveys the endless stream of cars and big rigs that rolls along on Interstate 40.
But amble inside, away from the roar of traffic, and you enter a romantic re-creation of the Old West. Musicians strum guitars under the wagon-wheel chandeliers, and the walls are replete with more steer horns than a Texas roundup.
The Big Texan was the brainchild of Bob Lee, a Kansas City native and Old West aficionado. Arriving in Amarillo in the 1950s, he was dismayed to find no place in the capital of cattle country to get a steak dinner in a Western setting. He opened the Big Texan in 1960 on Route 66, advertising the free steak dinner on billboards up and down the highway for hundreds of miles.
The massive steak is an important part of the restaurant's continuing appeal, allowing ordinary folks to watch with awe and disgust as someone tries to eat a 2-inch-thick slab of beef the size of a child's place mat. Some 35,000 gluttons have accepted the challenge since 1960, and among the roughly 5,000 successful comers have been a 69-year-old grandmother, an 11-year-old boy, and Frank Pastore, a former major league baseball player who downed the meal in 91/2 minutes. As for the guy who looked like a Dallas Cowboys tackle, he managed two-thirds of the meal. "When I saw the steak I thought, 'No problem,' " he said, massaging his jaw. "I didn't figure on all the chewing."
There's a reason for all that chewing. Says Dan Lee: "Steaks in Texas aren't dry-aged like they are in Kansas City or Chicago. What we serve is fresh beef right at the source."
The 1968 opening of I-40 devastated the restaurant and other businesses along Route 66. In 1970, Lee moved to the interstate, where, 31 years later, the Big Texan is a thriving roadside attraction.
Not hungry? Stop by the gift shop to pick up some dried and varnished souvenir steer droppings. Road weary? Get a room in the Old West-theme motel, where, as a brochure advertises, you can "swim across the Lone Star State" in a Texas-shaped pool.
It's easy to dismiss the Big Texan as a tourist trap, but the fact is that ranches and feedlots in this region still supply 25 percent of the nation's beef. The restaurant reflects a genuine piece of Amarillo's history—the cattle drives that persisted well into the 20th century and the freedom of movement that attracted restless men to this vast, open space.
It's a legacy that once drew many travelers down Route 66, people who grew up with the Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers and who felt a connection to these high plains that stretch west to the horizon. It's a legacy that still exerts a pull.
The Big Texan is located off I-40 in Amarillo, between exits 74 and 75, (800) 657-7177, www.bigtexan.com.
Wigwam Motel: Get your kitsch . . .
Route 66, the escape route to the West, once welcomed woodies and Willyses with a roadside carnival of castles and caves, snake pits and trading posts, with Humble and Esso stations, griddle cakes and chicken-fried steaks, and a new kind of overnight accommodation born of the motorcar age: the motel. There were Dew Drop Inns and U Drop Inns and probably the most famous of the bunch, the Wigwam Village motels—a dozen or so stucco teepees in a semicircle that travelers, especially children, found irresistible.
Frank Redford, a collector of Native American artifacts, envisioned the first Wigwam Village motel. To house his collection he built a teepee-shaped structure, which he erroneously dubbed a wigwam, near Horse Cave, Ky. The so-called wigwam became a museum and shop, and in time Redford added 15 Sioux-inspired teepees around the original. In 1936, he patented the idea.
By the 1950s, there were seven Redford-designed Wigwam Village motels from Florida to California. Most have been demolished, but one, in Holbrook, Ariz., has been completely renovated.
Holbrook's Wigwam Motel was built by Chester Lewis, an orphan from Indiana who came to Arizona at 15, worked as a mechanic, and began building motels. He put his eight children to work at the Wigwam. "We had a Texaco station back then and in the summer I pumped gas," recalls John Lewis, one of Chester's children. "My sister and I made pillows for the beds from down and canvas. But it was not all work. We had a playground and we played with the kids who came through."
Today, John Lewis manages the motel, which sports a sign out front asking, have you slept in a wigwam lately? With their hickory furniture, the snug teepees have the feel of an age gone by, despite modern amenities like air-conditioning and cable TV.
Travelers from all over the world come to stay at the Wigwam. "It's like a national park," says Lewis, who recalls the old days when a hurly-burly of bumper-to-bumper getaway trekkers came through Holbrook. "There was a nonstop train of cars," he says. "No fewer than six people in each. The kids wanted to stay in the teepees and they got their parents to do it." With two double beds and roll-aways, the teepees could sleep six to eight people. Back then, Lewis says mistily, "There was a great deal of love in the American family. That's what Route 66 was about—it was a common, beautiful thing."
When Interstate 40 bypassed the Wigwam Motel in 1974, Lewis's father closed the place down. But after his death in 1986, the family decided to renovate. "It was our duty," says Lewis. "Route 66 was, and still is, the most famous street in the world. It's a universal form of communication, like John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. It's the postgraduate course in American history."
When the motel reopened in 1988, the family didn't advertise. Says Lewis: "Word got out via the drumbeat of Route 66." Today, when visitors come to see the Grand Canyon or Petrified Forest—both within a half-day drive—"they're surprised to find the motel still in the same family," Lewis says. "The motel is a sanctuary for those who are glad there are places left where they can go to remember."
The Wigwam Motel is located at 811 West Hopi Drive in Holbrook, Ariz., (520) 524-3048, (800) 414-3021, www.nephi.com/wigwam_motel.htm.
Roy's Motel and Café: Gas, food, lodging
In the Mojave Desert, where the landscape blurs in immeasurable distances, hopeful Americans once braved the most ragged and forlorn segment of Route 66. Walt Wilson, a former construction equipment salesman, and Timothy White, a photographer, are preserving Roy's Motel & Cafe in Amboy, Calif., the last Route 66 stopover between the towns of Needles and Barstow. "It's a mission," Wilson says. "We want to improve what's here but keep it original. They're ripping everything down and you can't see this kind of thing anymore."
Last year Wilson and White bought the entire town of Amboy (population 7), all 700 acres of it, including the church and post office, from one of its previous owners, Buster Burris. Back in 1938 Burris, a mechanic from Texas, was working at the nearby March Air Force Base when he met an Amboy girl whose father, Roy Crowl, owned a garage, some cabins, and a café. When Burris married Roy's daughter, they became business partners.
By 1940, Crowl and Burris had turned the garage into a 24-hour operation and added a wrecking service. Five years later, they expanded the café. After World War II, when America was on the move, mostly westward, cars were often backed up at Roy's, waiting for repairs. When the cabins were full, travelers slept in their cars. So Roy and Buster built a motel. They began pumping gas, too, which they hauled in from Barstow. In time, Roy's had 90 full-time employees. "Back then, Amboy was the only place to fix a car within 40 miles," Wilson says. "And things did not get fixed in an hour. More like a week. There was no AC and in the summer it was 125 degrees. Travelers got to Needles and said, 'Ahhh, California.' But there's 90 miles of desert between Needles and Amboy, 250 miles before anything turns green. Those travelers must have thought, 'What have we done?' "
From the postwar 1940s to the 1970s, Amboy was, as Burris put it, "a madhouse." In addition to Roy's, three restaurants and gas stations moved to town. The onetime mining and railroad hamlet became a giant rest stop. And Roy's was hopping, day and night, with people waiting in lines to eat at the café or use the bathroom. "I used to think everybody in the world was driving through Amboy," Burris once said. But in 1974 the new Interstate Highway 40 opened, and on Route 66, according to Burris, "The traffic just plain stopped."
When Crowl died in 1977, Burris continued managing Roy's, though he seemed to lose his taste for it. He'd sit in the café, Wilson says, "with a Winchester pump shotgun, and if he didn't like you, he'd lock the door." Wilson and White leased the place in 1995, and five years later Burris agreed to sell it to them if they'd "keep it alive—as it was." After the sale closed last year, Burris, who was 92, died.
In the beautiful, austere Mojave, Wilson is honoring that last request, welcoming folks to Roy's with a classic menu at the café, clean, cozy cabins, and directions to the best spots for hiking at the Mojave National Preserve 18 miles away.
For the new owners, Roy's is a memorial. "The people who came through here in the heyday of Route 66 knew what hardship was," Wilson says. "They left places where they worked 12 hours a day for 50 cents a week with hopes that when they got to California they could make a buck and a half a week. What we're doing may not be Mount Rushmore, but it's a monument to those people, and to the people who stayed open 365 days a year to help them get where they were going."
Roy's is located at 6666 Old National Trails Highway, in Amboy, Calif., (760) 733-4263, www.rt66roys.com.
Photography courtesy of Raleigh Muns/Wikimedia Commons
This article was first published in May 2001. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.