I've written three books about Route 66, mostly concentrating on ghost stories travelers encounter along the road. During my travels, I felt like the ghost hunter played by John Cusack in the movie "1408." We had no reservations. We'd just find the visitors' center and say, "Point us to the most haunted places in town" when we arrived at a new Route 66 location.
Route 66 is an American icon, emblematic of a way of life that has disappeared, a simpler time. People of a certain age long to revisit tourist sites along the road. They are nostalgic when they do, and sometimes they're disappointed. Maybe they traveled the road with their parents, asking "Are we there yet?" Maybe they traveled Route 66 with fellow motorcycle enthusiasts, roaring into a town like Oklahoma City to see the famous store with a giant milk bottle on top (which is now a Vietnamese convenience store with great egg rolls). Maybe, in these troubled times, we all just long for simpler times, when life was good and there was no talk of national bailouts or TARP programs and the American-made Cadillac was king.
I came away with a renewed appreciation of the Mother Road after actually driving it. The musical lyric "Get Your Kicks on Route 66" by Bobby Troup was really true for many American families, who made motels popular for the first time and traveled the route with families in tow. (Europeans today are quite taken with our Route 66 and the circulation of the Route 66 magazine is more than 70,000, with many subscribers from abroad.)
The problems came when the highway began to deteriorate. The ultimate solution was not to repair the old road, but to build an entirely new interstate system during the Eisenhower era. Entire towns were bypassed along Route 66, like Seligman, Ariz. Towns promptly died within days. Some towns fought the de-certification for years, such as die-hard Williams, Ariz.
Today, you have to buy special maps that take you mostly on I-40 with side trips to the places on Route 66 where museums flourish (among the best is Clinton, Okla.) or relics remain, like the restored Phillips 66 station in McLean, Texas. A trip to these former tourist meccas illustrates just how much the highway's death hurt the towns along it.
During World War II, Route 66 was a military conduit. That use by the military, as much as anything, helped seal the road's fate. By war's end in 1945, the road's decay meant that its death was inevitable. It was decommissioned in 1985.
Here are a few of my very favorite stops along the road
* Fort El Reno is about 20 miles west of Oklahoma City. It was established during the Cheyenne uprising in 1874 as a remount station and was converted to a military post in February 1876. It served as a military remount depot from 1908 to 1947. The men stationed there helped escort cattle drives and served as wardens to 1,335 imprisoned World War II German POWs, who worked for 80 cents a day on neighboring farms.
Today, Fort El Reno is a grazing lands research laboratory owned and operated by the United States government. There are no horses, even though, in its heyday, such luminaries as Will Rogers and Amelia Earhart would drop by to attend horse races and polo matches.
Our trip by lantern-light to the burial ground of Fort El Reno took us down a mile-long gravel road lit only by moonlight. Ghost stories abound: Tales of a hearse being struck by lightning twice; of Hans Seifert, a German POW who -- one day before he was to be released -- accidentally set himself fatally ablaze while lighting a natural gas stove; of Buffalo Soldiers (i.e., African American soldiers) buried alongside their white counterparts; of men, women and children of Fort El Reno who died and were buried there. The site is spooky in the crisp November air.
* Another favorite stop along Route 66 is in Flagstaff, Ariz., at the Museum Club. This honky-tonk music emporium is a dark, woody place where travelers could easily lose an entire afternoon, sitting at the bar chatting with the regulars, placing pari-mutuel bets, listening to the ghost stories that abound and learning about the hanging tree that still stands in the middle of the dance floor where a man was lynched, shot and burned.
* Flagstaff's Monte Vista Hotel, one of the most haunted hotels in America, was founded in 1927 with 73 rooms. The Monte Vista played host to Gary Cooper, Jane Russell, Spencer Tracy, Bing Crosby, John Wayne while they were filming westerns in nearby Sedona. All these famous folk told ghost stories about the hotel later: Bank robbers who hid out in the bar (one died of a gunshot wound before he finished his drink); prostitutes thrown from the balcony to their deaths; a rocking chair in room 305 that never stops rocking; and a crying child in the basement. All the stories are here, and, if they're not here, they're down the street at the Weatherford Hotel, another haunted lodging.