Route 66’s Detour to Colorado

Charming and nostalgic exhibition of America’s “mother road” closing soon at Longmont Museum.

“Return to Route 66” ends its three-year national tour at the Longmont Museum & Cultural Center on March 9. The show features black-and-white and color photographs by Shellee Graham, who lives not far from the storied highway that linked the Midwest, the Plains, the Southwest and southern California. Graham photographed iconic motels, drive-in theaters, gas stations, roadside attractions, cafes and other eateries and, of course, the people who ran them. Some still exist, most in a state of decay, and some are gone completely. The show also includes four vintage automobiles, a Texaco gas station display (with the price at the pump permanently set at 24.9 cents a gallon), a pyramid of oil cans, chrome hood ornaments, postcards, maps and more memorabilia.

Graham lives in Missouri, so many of her images are from there and from Illinois. I remember a long-ago trip from Connecticut, where I grew up, to Albuquerque that included many miles on Route 66. Other than crossing the Mississippi, virtually nothing stuck in my mind from Illinois or Missouri, though surely we stopped to refuel in the kinds of places Graham documented. All I remember about Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle was the occasional sign saying “Stuckey’s 90 Miles” or some similarly imposing distance, at the end of which was a pecan log roll. The brilliant neon lights of Amarillo, which we reached at sunset, and Tucumcari, which we passed through late at night, are etched in my memory more enduringly than the Art Deco and funky, folksy businesses they promoted.

But for the rest of what I value now that I’m an adult and increasingly dismayed by the chains that dominate the landscape, I was then too young and too ignorant to appreciate what I saw along Route 66. Oh, how I longed for Howard Johnson’s, with its familiar fried clams and 28 ice cream flavors. I missed New England, with towns that were just a few minutes apart not many miles apart. I wan’t used to driving for what seemed like hours between places to stop. I had no sense of the the importance of those vast, flat stretches, knew nothing of the Dust Bowl except for its name and couldn’t really understand why the road had been so important in American migration.

Now, whenever my husband and I take an east-west road trip in New Mexico or Arizona, we always escape from Interstate 40 to explore what remains of the old Route 66. Grants, Gallup, Holbrook, Winslow, Flagstaff, Williams and Seligman are my particular favorites, and these towns have worked to resurrect their Route 66 heritage.

It serves as downtown Albuquerque’s main drag, but in smaller towns, remaining landmarks have proved to be enduring attractions along the way. In fact, Route 66 is the destination and not the detour for many travelers, including many Europeans, who seek out Historic Route 66, as its remaining sections are now signed.

For an armchair road trip, get Graham’s evocative book, Tales from the Coral Court: Photos and Stories from a Lost Route 66 Landmark. For a real trip along the proud old road, I recommend the Route 66 Traveler’s Guide and Roadside Companion by Tom Snyder, one of numerous guidebooks. Historic Route 66, dedicated to providing information to travelers, maintains a current list of useful books.

Admission to the Longmont Museum is free (donations welcome). It is located at 400 Quail Road, Longmont (just east of Main Street and south of downtown and Ken Pratt Boulevard); 303-651-8374.

2 thoughts on “Route 66’s Detour to Colorado”

  1. I’ve started a new adventure: I moved to Oklahoma to a small town called Chandler, just .5 mile from the old Highway 66. There’s a 1930s motel called The Lincoln Motel just a jog away. It’s cute. When you get a moment, check out http://www.route66photographs.com.

    Shellee Graham

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