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A 1937 Ford truck sits on Main Street in Galena, Kansas, one of the main inspirations for the fictionalized Route 66 town of Radiator Springs in the movie "Cars". (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

Route 66: Meeting Mater

If you drive the speed limit and don’t catch any lights, you can be out of Kansas in under fifteen minutes.

Only 13.2 miles of Historic Route 66 cuts through the Sunflower State, like a hyphen between Missouri and Oklahoma. In fact, most travelers take I-40 and skip the state altogether—but that’s just doing it all wrong.

Kansas was my third border crossing on the Mother Road, and after rolling less than 200 yards out of Missouri, everything felt hotter and dryer. The sky was so blue and cloudless, I found myself gazing upwards through the windshield and almost driving off the road.

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Kansas only boasts 13.2 miles of the entire 2,448 miles on Route 66, but they are not to be missed. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

Old Route 66 takes a sharp right turn at the old Kan-O-Tex gas station, in the town of Galena. Refurbished and rebranded as “Cars On The Route”, the hamburger joint/souvenir shop is one of the “new” destinations on the old road, thrust into the limelight after the Disney-Pixar movie Cars. Of the many scenes and inspirations for the movie, much of the pretend-town of Radiator Springs was pulled directly from Galena, Kansas—including this historic gas station.

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The former Kan-O-Tex gas station in Galena, Kansas is now a popular stop for tourists wanting to see “real” scenes from the imaginary Radiator Springs. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

The upside of such a successful Disney movie is a renewed nationwide consciousness of Route 66. On the other hand, by letting fictionalized cartoon characters take over the story, we tend to overlook the real characters on Route 66, of which there is no lack.

Already, I’ve met at least a dozen real-life people who claim to be cartoon characters in “that Cars movie.”  Some of them actually were—café owners or mechanics who signed deals with Disney to have their likeness used. I’ve also met hundreds of amazing women and men whose lives are intertwined with this wonderful road across America and who will never be hinted at in a Disney movie. They are the folks that make this road what it is today, and the only way you’ll ever know them is to travel Route 66 yourself.

What’s funny (but predictable) is that everybody wants to be Mater. So far, I’ve heard about guys in Kansas, Oklahoma and North Carolina who all claim to be the man behind Mater, and I’m sure there’s more out there. I don’t really care—what I do care about is the 1951 International Harvester Tow Truck parked outside the gussied-up gas station, because, this is Mater.

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This 1951 Harvester International Tow Truck once worked the lead mines of Galena, Kansas. Today, he’s known as the inspiration for the Pixar “Cars” character Mater. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

The antique tow truck was the original inspiration for the most lovable and folksy of the cars in Cars. Though the new owners have stuck googly green eyes in his windshield and painted “Radiator Springs” on the driver’s side door, it’s all just a Halloween costume for the real truck inside.

Long before his breakout role in the 2006 feature film, Mater was your no-nonsense tow truck working the lead mines in this remotest corner of Kansas. A powerful machine, he pulled equipment out of the area’s lead mines (the town Galena is named after the shiny lead ore that first put this place on the map).

Standing in the noonday sun, I stared at the rusty old truck with affection and respect—and then some consternation as other tourists parked, jumped out of their car for a picture, and then tore on down the road.

“Poor Mater,” I thought. Utterly unrecognized in his long career, and then post-retirement, parked as a permanent photo-op and a way to get folks to buy a mediocre meal.

“Oh, he still runs!” said the lady in the shop as she fried me up a hamburger, “He just don’t got any brakes.”

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Staff at “Cars on the Route” compare real-life s scenes in Galena, Kansas to scenes in the animated movie “Cars”. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

There’s something poetic about a tow truck that can’t stop, I thought, as I ate what has to be the fortieth hamburger on this trip. I watched as Italians and Argentinians and French families popped in to buy Route 66 shot glasses and tank tops and Cars posters.

Then I texted a picture of Mater to my five-year old nephew, who might just very well be the tow truck’s number one fan. His mother (my sister) responded with enthusiasm.

“Keep your eyes out for Lightning McQueen!”

There is nothing fast or royal about Galena, Kansas, but the racecar character reminded me of my ultimate destination—Los Angeles, California—and how it’s the utter opposite of this bit of the road.

“Does Mater live in a junkyard?” my nephew asked via text from a thousand miles away.

“No,” I texted back. “He lives at a gas station and now people from all over the world come to see him.”

My phone rested silent on the bar for a moment, and then buzzed back into life.

“Please tell Mater, ‘I love you when you are in Cars,” said the text.

I know not to deny a five-year old’s request to tell a car he loves them, and so, stepping back out into the hot Kansas sun, I walked up to Mater, the rusted tow truck without any brakes, and passed on the message.

The sun’s twinkle in the windshield did not lead me to think the car was actually communicating approval or affection. The two truck just sat there, and I eventually left, pointing my own car south. Ten minutes later, I crossed into Oklahoma.

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Original road markings remain in the pavement on the Kansas stretch of historic Route 66. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)