We saw the first glint of the sea through the salty haze, and knew our Route 66 adventure was over. We had made it all the way from Chicago, tracing the well-worn treads of migrants and fugitives and dreamers down America’s most lionized highway. We had cruised through farmlands and punishing deserts and twisting mountain roads, but now there was no more highway – only the worn wooden planks of the Santa Monica pier jutting out into the blue-green waters of the Pacific Ocean. We climbed out of the car and jostled our way past the arcades and roller coaster and funnel cake vendors, into the salt breeze of the sea. We’d run out of land to cross.
The Santa Monica pier is not technically the endpoint of Route 66. The closest extension of highway ends about a mile from the water. But the oceanside has been embraced as the Mother Road’s spiritual terminus since, of course, people expect their journeys west to end with the grandeur of the sea.
Over the past week, driving the final stretch through the drastic landscapes and ghost towns of the Southwest, every stop was thick with American characters and peculiarities.
In the Texas Panhandle the Devil’s Rope Museum taught us how barbed wire carved vast and contested tracts of land into the contemporary West. We tore ourselves away and kept driving until we got to the famed leaning water tower, bulldozed askew decades back by a crafty truck stop owner keen to grab the attention – and business – of passing motorists. In the garage behind the tower we found Keith Britten working on trucks and tractors in the shadow of his grandfather’s marketing brainchild, hands thick with oil and sweat coursing down his face.
Next we pulled over to gawk at the 19-story steel cross erected by the family of NFL player Zach Thomas, then drove on to Amarillo. At the Big Texan we took in the degenerate Roman spectacle of a young Australian man trying – and failing – to gobble down a steak the size of his forearm before a packed banquet hall of onlookers.
We staggered out into a night that flashed with blinking lights and blew with meat-scented winds, heads swimming with too much Americana taken in too fast.
We drove out of Texas and into New Mexico, following Route 66 straight down into the heart of Albuquerque. On the edge of town we wandered into Enchanted Trails, an RV park immaculately preserved in early 1960s style – complete with fake green grass, pink flamingos and an array of antique campers fitted out with vintage trappings and available for rent.
It’s not enough for Enchanted Trails owner Vickie Ashcraft to say she fell unexpectedly in love with Route 66 as a young women. She has to explain that, when she first drove the Mother Road, she was driving a 1976 red convertible Jensen-Healey. The car is the thing.
“The car is part of my story,” she says.
Ashcraft had driven the red convertible west from Massachusetts, helping her father move, when the carburetor died in New Mexico. A helpful trucker passed a radio message forward to flag down Ashcraft’s father, who rummaged around roadside junkyards for replacement parts. Car fixed and spirits lifted, Ashcraft twisted through the foothills down into Albuquerque.
“That’s when Route 66 really became something to me – the curves of the road, the up and down of the hills,” she said. “I fell in love right then and there.”
She has lived and worked on the road’s edge ever since, rising from bookkeeper at Enchanted Trails to its sole owner.
Out of New Mexico and into Arizona we drove, reaching the Petrified Forest National Park in time to see the shadows deepening on the rocks as the sun sank into the hills. At the edge of the lunar landscape of the Crystal Forest, Maria Elena Hernandez sat quietly, gazing out into a sky bruised with cloud. Her husband followed her grandchildren as they squealed and clambered over the paths; they had all driven to Arizona from Houston.
“We always dreamed of going to the Grand Canyon when we were young, but we couldn’t afford it,” Hernandez said. “So now we’re going with our grandchildren.”
Hernandez grew up on the road, migrating with her parents from Texas to Minnesota to pick sugar peas. Now she packs her family into the car and takes off into the growing darkness, gliding at last through her own American dream.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
In this final stretch through the Southwest, we came across all kinds of roadside characters who were seduced into giving their lives to Route 66 – and, gradually, this decision starts to make a sort of sense.
Back in Tucumcari, NM, the owner of the vintage Motel Safari described trading his corporate lifestyle in Tennessee to run a motel on the banks of the Mother Road. “It’s like a roller coaster ride,” Larry Smith said of his first Route 66 road trip. “As soon as it was over, I wanted to get on again.”
At the time, I just nodded. I was passing the time, wilting in the stupor of late afternoon heat and waiting for Tucumcari’s famed neon to blink to life along the shabby main drag.
Now, I admit, I remember his words – and I get it. If I didn’t have family and work waiting, I wouldn’t be adverse to turning around and driving all the way back to Chicago.
Instead I walk the pier. The Ferris wheel spins, the roller coaster creaks and every kind of human being moves to every kind of music. We’re off the road now, here in the spot where America’s western ambitions finally meet the sea.
To see the full story, visit natgeo.com/route-66