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Pink neon calls travelers from Route 66 to the vintage 1939 Boots Court Motel in Carthage, Missouri. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

Route 66: Coffee with Clark Gable

“I’m gonna put you in the Clark Gable room,” she said, then handed me a single key on a plastic keychain.

“You mean Clark Gable slept in there?”

“Yes, he did,” answered the woman behind the desk. “He had an old war friend here in Carthage, and this is where he stayed when he came to visit.”

Inside, the room smelled like time—like winding the clock through a hundred calendar seasons. It smelled like freshly fallen leaves and clean varnish; like white soap and my grandfather’s tweed coat. It smelled like the forties.

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Exhibiting classic art deco of the late 1930’s, the Boots Court Motel has been refurbished with detailed authenticity. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

The Boots Court Motel in Carthage, Missouri was built in 1939. Flawlessly art deco, the white exterior simply shines on historic Route 66, while the pink neon sign beckons tired travelers from the road. Saved from demolition, the motel was restored to its 1949 glory, with painstaking detail—down to the original tile floors in the bathroom, vintage furniture, and inviting chenille bedspreads. Authenticity is king, which is why my room had no television—only a single old-time radio (working) that played a soft song from yesteryear. Outside, the motel still advertises, “A Radio in Every Room”—as they did back in 1949.

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A sign from the past, Boots Court Motel still advertises a radio in every room–a real luxury back in 1949. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

Clark Gable’s mustached ghost did not visit me in the night—I slept very soundly, and in the morning, after wondering if I was, in fact, showering in the same shower as the King of Hollywood, I head over to the Jasper County Courthouse on the town square. It was still early, but a vendor was selling flowers from a truck and the birds were having a little party on the grass.

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The Jasper County Courthouse stands on what was once the first battlefield of the American Civil War. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

The very first (land) battle of the Civil War was fought right here, in Carthage, on July 5, 1861. If that battle were ever reenacted today, the best view would be from Mother Road Coffee.

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Although Mother Road Coffee only opened last year, the cafe has become a not-to-miss destination on Route 66. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

Unlike so many of the cafés and diners I stop at along my trip, Mother Road Coffee is brand spanking new—they’ve barely been open a year.

“Almost a year now that we opened, and we’ve already had customers from 50 different countries,” said Kara Hardesty, owner, barista and the visionary behind what has to be the coolest coffee shop on Route 66.

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Owner and visionary behind Mother Road Coffee, Kara Hardesty says she loves getting visitors from all around the world. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

Every leather sofa chair begged me to crash, and the wall of books, mostly about Route 66, made me want to stay all day—The free-flowing Wi-Fi meant that I could. Suddenly I wanted to stay in Carthage forever.

Kara pointed to the world map on the wall, and a separate map of Europe right next to it, marked with colored pins from every traveler who’s passed through on Route 66.

“That’s just amazing!” I said, looking through the pins one by one—South America and Asia, and then Denmark, Poland, and a Great Britain so crowded with pins, some of those folks were claiming to live in the sea.

“The very first day we opened,” said Kara. “I remember, we had a family of ten from France.”

She served them up with a few knockout espressos and they were very impressed. They hadn’t expected such good coffee so deep in the heart of America. What they didn’t know is that Kara and her husband Ed moved back to Missouri after more than twenty years in Seattle—this couple knows coffee.

“I love that I get visitors from all over the world,” said Kara, “because I’m always learning new things from them.” A steady stream of global clients has expanded Kara’s coffee menu to target every taste.

“You want a New Zealand flat white, or a real Cubano?” she asked, “I can do that now!” The word is out, and now the Hardestys see Kiwi biker groups stopping off in Carthage for coffee—as well as Germans, and Chinese, and Belgians and Italians, and just about anybody traveling Route 66.

The Mother Road is still alive, and though I’ve spent so much of my trip with my head buried in the nostalgia of the road that once was, I find it extremely comforting to see what Route 66 has become. Today, this road is a destination that calls to folks in the farthest corners of the globe. And they come in droves. Although they may pass a dozen derelict diners along the way, they stop at recently-renovated businesses like the Boots Court Motel and at brand new businesses like Mother Road Coffee.

I fee like this is the only thing that will save Route 66 from oblivion—these new establishments that respect the legacy of the past while breathing new life into the road.

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Back in the 1950’s, a drug store occupied the shop where Mother Road Coffee now operates. (Photo from Mother Road Coffee, Carthage, Missouri)

At times, traveling Route 66 can feel so wistful, like I’m looking through a yellowed scrapbook of America’s youth, but at other times, it feels so open and possible and full of new meaning. Today, in a town like Carthage, Route 66 means a swanky night in Clark Gable’s room and a charming cup of coffee made by a skilled hand.

It’s an oasis for new travelers, emanating the true spirit of Route 66, shining a light on the road and calling with incandescent tones, “Stop here and stay for a bit.”

And so I did.

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A vintage red car (still in use) offers a bright reminder of Route 66 in Carthage, Missouri. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)