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Route 66: The Mother Road

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An original section of Route 66 from Oklahoma, now on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

There’s a piece of the road in the museum—square slabs of aged asphalt excised from west of Oklahoma City.

I’ve never seen such a thing in a museum.  I have seen shrunken human heads and Tyrannosaurus teeth, polished suits of armor and a queen’s underpants, but never before have I seen a chunk of road lying in a museum like a framed work of art.

I stare at the little bits of broken stone, forever frozen in the flattened pavement and wonder, how many cars passed over this spot? How many Midwestern thunderstorms rained down into those microscopic holes, how many ’57 Chevys and milk trucks trundled by, how many people’s weight helped settle, then polish, then crack and break this special bit of Route 66?

The display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is big and peppy, with Route 66 scrawled out in red on a billboard-sized map of America. A 1929 Oakland Sedan and 1936 Ford truck are parked beneath a vintage sign for Phillips 66, a gasoline that was first tested along Route 66.

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A 1929 Oakland Sedan, one of the first popular family cars to travel Route 66, on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

Behind me, a few hundred spring breakers whiz past, uninterested—all except one young boy who stops to gawk before beckoning his mother, “C’mere! It’s Route 66!”

The kid is young, maybe nine or ten years old, but he’s about as thrilled as most kids would be if they were slapping glass at the gorilla house at the zoo. His joy is infectious, so that suddenly, I get excited, too—like I zapped up all that little kid energy with a pair of jumper cables and remembered that tomorrow, I will begin driving down Route 66.

Though my pre-trip checklist remains mostly unchecked, and I have not even begun to pack for the long road ahead, I am pleased to pay homage to the Mother Road here, in our nation’s capital. No other American highway has a place in the Smithsonian, and no other road has little boys jumping up and down with excitement.

A few months ago, when I told my parents that I was planning a trip down Route 66, they staged an intervention in which they poured me a large lemonade, then sat me down in front of their television and forced me to watch Cars. My mom really loves Mater, the anthropomorphic tow truck, while my dad appreciates the filmmakers savvy inclusion of Chuck Berry’s recording of the song, Route 66. I liked how the duration of the film is equal to the amount of time it would take me to drive the first hundred miles of the actual Route 66, from Chicago to Lexington, Illinois. I also liked that the working title of Cars was Route 66—How many highways have their own Disney movie?

Though many minds helped our highway system emerge, the diagonal highway between Chicago and Los Angeles was the vision of Tulsa native Cyrus Avery. The Oklahoma state highway commissioner fought long and hard to see his dream come true, and in 1926, “Route 66” was approved at a meeting in Springfield, Missouri. Interesting fact: the road was meant to be called “Route 60”, but this number had already been assigned in Kentucky, so the federal government offered Avery “62” which lacked any sense of poetry, leaving the road’s founding fathers to request the iconic and alliterative “66”.

Just how is it that Route 66 became more memorable than larger and longer interstate highways, say I-80 or I-75? And how is it that even now, nearly 30 years after the highway was decommissioned and disappeared from most road maps, Route 66 maintains an indelible allure for travelers from all over the world?

Because this is the Mother Road—a road that follows in the footsteps of Native Americans who once followed the buffalo; a road that winds over the wagon ruts of pioneers and breathes the lonely horse trails of cowboys and conquistadors. Route 66 represents the evolution of America from fresh wilderness to a nation of states.

The road represents change and movement, time and exploration, a longing for freedom and the call of America’s wide-open west. Though it lacks any federal recognition as such, Route 66 is America’s history, spelled out in 2,488 miles.

Exactly 75 years ago (today!) John Steinbeck published his novel, The Grapes of Wrath, in which he wrote so wistfully about Route 66 and christened this “The Mother Road.” Which other highway has its own Pulitzer Prize-winning novel?

As stories go, Route 66 has been done to death—already, people ask if I will be stopping in Radiator Springs, when such a place does not actually exist (only places like it). They ask how my trip will be new or different—how will I stand out from the millions who have traveled the iconic Route? Might I consider “doing” Route 66 by Segway, or writing the gluten-free guide to Route 66?

But gimmicks are like spare tires—they only get you so far. What matters to me is that this trip is entirely new—to me. While I have driven considerable sections of Route 66 in the past, I have never traveled its entire unfettered lengths, from beginning to end. Like every great expedition, this road trip will bring plenty of adventure and no lack of stories.

The beauty of road trips, is that no two drives is ever alike, which is why I am asking you to follow along, from start to finish—from Chicago to LA.

We are driving a road that no longer shows up on any present-day maps. In a way, we are traveling back in time, while following the sun westward, to the future. I expect this trip to be fun and educational, and at times, beautiful—and I imagine that somewhere west of Oklahoma City, I will dodge a square-shaped pothole and think of that hunk of asphalt that sits proudly in the Smithsonian, a piece of highway with its very own spotlight.


Post Script

  • Despite popular belief, Route 66 is not a fixed roadway—it’s a flowing river of time and towns and turns that have come and gone and changed. Whenever possible I shall attempt to follow the original route as spelled out, turn by turn, in the guidebooks, maps and websites that I have studied. This will not be possible all the time, as some original sections of the road no longer exist, but whenever I can, I shall stay committed to taking every detour back to the real Route 66.
  • I say Route (rüt) 66, as opposed to Route (raut) 66, though according to most American English dictionaries, both pronunciations are correct. Some linguists suggest that Route (rüt) is more common in the East, whereas one is more likely to hear Route (raut) in the West (I shall be paying close attention to any shifts in the vernacular along the way). For the record, the word route derives from the Old French rut, which comes from the Latin ruptus (to burst), which is the same root for the English word “rupture”.  And I sincerely hope that my etymological curiosity is not, in fact, some type of tire situation foreshadowing.
  • As a matter of personal policy and safety, I never tweet or text while driving. Every text you will see from me was made while the car was stopped and pulled off the road.

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