A time tunnel into the heart of American history, Route 66 is a road like no other. Dubbed the Mother Road by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, this 3,000+km drive from Chicago in the east to Los Angeles in the west provides one of the most famous road trips on the planet – so famous it inspired several TV shows, a movie and a classic song too.
Here we’re going to give you a guide to this iconic strip of the USA, pointing out some must-see sights along the way – and, of course, helping you to pick up a few essential words and phrases that you’re sure to hear on your trip. Over such a long distance, and passing through so many US states, you’ll really begin to notice just how American accents can vary from town to town. There are some words you’ll hear all over one state, but not at all in the next. There’s a lot to explore along Route 66 when it comes to language as well as the tourist sights – so happy travels!
A bit of history
Route 66 first connected Chicago with Los Angeles in November 1926, and this new ‘Main Street of America’ led to lots of small towns popping up along the route between these two major cities. It also led to the road becoming awash with entertainment places and home comforts for those on the move such as motels, restaurants, museums, drive-in cinemas, famous landmarks and other sites of interest.
The idea for Route 66 was dreamt up by Oklahoma entrepreneur Cyrus Avery. He wanted to build a new national highway linking the Great Lakes with the Pacific Ocean and formed an association to promote the idea and get the route built. It connected up with existing roads, many of which passed through remote rural areas, allowing for easier travel from the rural east to the sunny Californian coast in the west.
Originally it ran from Chicago, Illinois, through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona before ending at Santa Monica, California, covering a total of 3,940 km. Route 66 served as a major path for those who migrated west, and was a vital lifeline for those looking to escape the Dust Bowl of the 1930s for a more prosperous life in California.
The route also helped to support the economies of the communities through which the road passed, with countless novelties and tourist attractions being built along the way. Designed to attract motorists – and dollars – many of these attractions still exist today, and are major sights along the road trip route.
Route 66 today
Eventually a new interstate system spelt the end of the old Route 66, paving over much of the old highway, and bypassing much of its collection of quirky and kitsch roadside artifacts. Today, thanks to the work of lots of conservation groups that are determined not to let the route’s history disappear, you can still connect up what remains of the old route along roads and highways, connecting you to places where the 1950s never ended that give this special road trip its enduring appeal.
There’s so much to see along Route 66 that you could spend months here, taking diversions to small towns that are off the beaten track – that means that they’re not visited often, especially not by tourists. Some of the major natural sights include the Grand Canyon, the Mississippi River, Arizona’s Painted Desert and Petrified Forest National Park, and the Pacific beaches of Santa Monica.
There are plenty of weird, wonderful and fun sights along the way too. Check out Cadillac Ranch, the Blue Whale, the Gemini Giant, and historical sites like the beautiful Coleman Theatre.
Driving along the whole of what’s left of Route 66 is going to take you a while, especially if you want to pack in some sightseeing. Route planning sights recommend that you allow two weeks for travel, so you’ll need to make plenty of stops to rest along the way. When you do you’ll find no shortage of motor courts along the way. Also known as motels – a mixture of the words motor and hotel, these are small hotels that are designed to cater for motorists, with plenty of parking out front. Rooms are typically small, cheap and basic, as most people only stay for a night or two before they hit the road again.
Look out for signs saying vacancies, which means that they have rooms available. No vacancies, full, or fully booked means that there are no more rooms available.
No matter what part of Route 66 you’re on, you’re sure to find somewhere to quench your thirst of satisfy your hunger. You’ll find countless diners – cheap, simple eateries like roadside cafes that you’ll have seen in lots of movies and TV shows. These are great places to overhear some local language, dialect and slang, whatever American state you’re in, as well as the place to head whether you want a greasy breakfast, pancakes, burgers and fries, or just a coffee.
You’ll also come across traditional American soda fountains, also known as soda shops and malt shops. They serve up fizzy sodas in lots of flavours, as well as ice cream sodas, much like ice cream parlors – places that serve lots of dessert dishes alongside hundreds of flavours of ice cream – the perfect place to cool down when the weather heats up on your trip.
When you arrive in Texas and New Mexico, you can expect to come across lots of Tex-Mex food too. This phrase is a mix of Texan and Mexican, which describes exactly what this hugely popular type of food is – fusing traditional Texan dishes with Mexican ones to create things like chili con carne, quesadillas, fajitas, and more. While you’re down south, and if you’re feeling hungry enough to eat a 72oz steak, make sure you check out the Big Texan too…
Before you set off you might want to join an automobile club – a company or association that will come and rescue you if your car breaks down, and make sure that you have a spare tyre in the trunk or boot of your car, a Sat Nav, and map in case your Sat Nav breaks down, and plenty of water.
What kind of vehicle are you going to be travelling in? Along the route you’re going to bump into motorists and motors of all kinds. There’ll be bikers – both on bicycles and motorbikes, cruisers – leather-clad bikers riding the kind of motorbikes that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Route 66 in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, hot rodders – people who love driving classic American cars on this classic American road, as well as RV-ers – RV stands for Recreational Vehicle and these are basically huge camper vans designed for family and group travel.
Gas stations are where you need to head to refuel your car. In America, petrol is called gas, and you’ll want to have a full tank before you set off! If you’re running low on gas, we’d recommend asking “Where’s the nearest gas station?” at the next opportunity, as you don’t want to be stuck on this long stretch of road without fuel. Gas stations are also known as rest stops, as they’re places where you can stop and rest, go to use the bathroom, and often there’s a little shop where you can pick up some snacks and cold drinks.
Want to learn some more lingo for your trip? Here’s a great guide to some of the old slang words and phrases that were in regular use when Route 66 was first built, plenty of which are still in use today, so listen out for them on your travels. And don’t forget to let us know about some of the favorite words and phrases you pick up while your there – or if you’ve driven Route 66 already, let us and our readers know all about it in the comments below!