January 10, 2017 - Adventure Cycling Life Member and tour leader Brian Managan kindly shared his experiences on Bicycle Route 66.
If you grew up with brothers or sisters, you might know the drill. The oldest kids get the new clothes, and when they outgrow them, the remains get passed down to the next kid. Route 66 is a bit like that for me.
Officially designated Route 66 on November 11, 1926, this route quickly became the most famous road in America. It was the conduit for escapees from the Dust Bowl in the 1930’s. It was the ultimate post WWII road trip. It was written about in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, it spawned a television show, the Disney-Pixar movie franchise Cars, Bobby Troup’s song “Get Your Kicks on Route 66,” and earned the titles “The Mother Road,” “America’s Main Street,” and “The Will Rogers Highway.” But after a good life and multiple realignments, it was decommissioned in 1985 after being replaced by the Interstate Highway System.
Some parts of Route 66 have been forever tossed away, but much remains in the form of back roads, side and main streets, frontage roads, and bits of remote freeways. Adventure Cycling has patched a few holes and done a little tailoring with the remains of Route 66 and has created a 2500-mile route filled with discoveries. Cyclists are the next kid in line to enjoy this hand-me-down, and like your favorite pair of old jeans, complete with a few nicks and tatters, Route 66 just feels sooo right!
Our little gang got to “beta test” Route 66 on Adventure Cycling’s inaugural self-contained tour with a spring 2016 departure, eastbound to Chicago from the Santa Monica Pier. Backwards from the traditional way, you might say, but I think we were mostly in agreement that it was perfect for us. Who could complain when friendly tailwinds blew us nearly the entire way across California?
The first challenge was getting out of metro Los Angeles and over Cajon Pass. We navigated the city without incident due to strategic routing through neighborhoods and climbed over the pass using the widest smoothest shoulders I’ve ever seen on a freeway. Even better, the shoulders were nicely separated from the traffic lanes by properly installed rumble strips. This scenario repeated itself a few times over the course of 55 days.
Our next big city, Albuquerque, was two states away! In between was the Mojave Desert, smaller towns like Needles, CA, Kingman and Flagstaff, AZ, Gallup and Grants, NM, and the Continental Divide. We can’t forget the much smaller towns like Oatman, Seligman, and Winslow. And way off the beaten path, you’ve probably never heard of Ramah, NM, but Ramah’s Stagecoach Cafe might be your favorite place in all of New Mexico for chow … until you reach the Ancient Way Cafe near El Morro for dinner, that is.
Except for the times you’re either on the freeway shoulder for a short stretch, or on the nearby and barely used frontage roads, we could count on very quiet, seemingly forgotten roads. Sometimes the roads were so empty, grass and flowers were growing up through the cracks. I lost track of how many ghost towns we passed. Doesn’t anyone live out here? After Albuquerque and Santa Fe, it was wide, open country across the Texas Panhandle to Amarillo and only slightly more inhabited until Oklahoma City.
East of Oklahoma City, things started greening up nicely, and small towns appeared more frequently along with their historic motels, cafes, gas stations, bars, and a multitude of businesses labeled “Route 66 … this or that.” Yet even with visits to Tulsa and St. Louis, most of the route was strangely quiet, with plenty of farm and forest country in between ice cream stops.
There were many places along the route where we enjoyed the ease of bikeways and rail-trails, often navigating right through the heart of busy metro areas. Our route took us into St. Louis, using several miles of strip-mall-lined suburbia, but took us back out along the Mississippi River, and right past the base of the Arch, using miles and miles of riverfront bike trails and crossing the river into Illinois on the retired (no cars!) Chain of Rocks Bridge.
East of the Mississippi, all the hills disappeared and most of Illinois felt like we were riding a billiards table. If the landscape became less “detailed,” we didn’t mind since all the historic and kitschy, fun, roadside, American icons began showing up in force.
Even when riding right into downtown Chicago on our last day, nearly 40 miles of our 60 miles that day were on part of Chicago’s extensive network of rail trails and bikeways.
What did I learn? When first approached about leading this tour, I assumed, correctly, I’d be immersed in the car-centric history of Route 66, but I also assumed, incorrectly, I’d be immersed in the traffic-heavy, hub-bub that goes with it.
Not so. Once again, Adventure Cycling has designed a first-class, thoughtful bicycle touring route and I’m happy to pedal this “hand me down” from the golden age of American road trips.
Certainly, there are many challenges on this route not to be taken lightly, and some cyclists might choose to race their bikes on their own versions of Route 66 like Lightning McQueen, the serious, racecar star of the movie Cars, but think about another fun-loving character from that movie, pictured below, and ask yourself, “What would Mater do?”
Brian Managan is a Tour Leader and Life Member of Adventure Cycling. He rides constantly, photographs frequently, creates cheesy videos occasionally, and blogs once in a while. Visit his place at bcmbike.net/blog.
Photos by Brian Managan
It’s the second week of our January New Member Drive, and if you haven’t joined by now, what are you waiting for? New members who join Adventure Cycling during the month of January receive a free 2017 Bicycle Travel calendar, $10 gift certificate to our Cyclosource store, a chance to win an Advocate Cycles touring bike — as well as other great prizes from SKS, Burley Trailers, Osprey Packs, Nutcase Helmets, and Club Ride Apparel.