Route 66 stretches over 2,000 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles. Though Kingman, Ariz., and Barstow, Calif., both make it into the song “Route 66,” the original alignment between the two towns is among the loneliest stretches anywhere from Lake Michigan to the Pacific Ocean.
Highway planners have smoothed, blasted and tunneled away the kinks that once plagued travelers struggling the last arid stretch to the promised land of California.
At Sitgreaves Pass, jalopies that had made it all the way from Missouri or Oklahoma would boil over, crack an engine, lose their brakes and go over the side. Those that made it to the top, at Oatman, Ariz., were within sight of the Golden State, which looked decidedly brown and gray from that vantage point.
They could stop for the night in Oatman, where legend (often debunked) says Clark Gable and Carole Lombard spent their first night after marrying in 1939. Today it is more famous for the wild burros in the streets and the mock Old West gun battles put on for tourists.
The bridge that once carried travelers across the Colorado River into California now carries a utility pipe. Those who don’t opt for I-40 head off into one of the bleakest segments of the original alignment. Towns like Needles, Goffs, Essex, Cadiz and Newberry Springs roast in the summer heat.
Only the hot, dry air that keeps everything in arrested decay and the perseverance of a few hardcore highway preservationists have maintained bits of Route 66 history along the way. Check out the landmark “flying V” sign at Roy’s, the once-bustling motel / cafe. There’s Baghdad, the fictional setting of the 1987 movie “Baghdad Cafe,’” and Newberry Springs, where the movie was actually filmed using the Sidewinder Cafe. The road heads through the desert, with the Mojave National Preserve to the north and the Twentynine Palms Marine Air-Ground Combat Center to the south.
In Barstow, the ghost of Route 66 intersects with Interstate 15, where thousands of motorists heading back from Las Vegas with lighter wallets are usually in too much of a hurry to check out the Route 66 museum in town. After Victorville, it’s up and over the Cajon Pass. It was here that a generation of Okies would first see the vast groves of citrus trees that signaled an end to the desert and their entry into an often-challenging Eden of their future.