The Ramblers’ views of Route 66 Then and Now

We Ramblers have always loved heading down the open road, although today’s highways are much more crowded with cars and trucks than they were even 20 years ago. Crowded roads were not an issue when the Ramblers’ took  their first long trip together. At this time, the Senior Rambler was stationed at March AFB, Riverside CA, and in January, 1954, the Ramblers  were married in Chicago and drove back to the base in a 1949 Chevy without air conditioning. Fortunately it was January and we needed the heater rather than air  conditioning most of the time. This long and sometimes chilly drive was our honeymoon.

Before the Interstate Highway System Act was signed in 1956, the main  road west to California in 1954 was the now legendary Route 66, which was then a sparsely developed (by today’s standards) two lane highway. There were no fast food restaurants; tourist courts rather than chain motels, and truck stops which were bare bones fuel stops

There were none of these signs welcoming travelers in 1954.
There were none of these signs welcoming travelers in 1954.

Sometimes the truck stops had a restaurant which most times was a “greasy spoon,” with inexpensive but mediocre food.  Those who wax nostalgic about the glamour of the old Route 66 might have felt differently about it if they had to drive it in the winter of 1954-55.  It was really pretty bleak then, although we didn’t care. Of course, by the mid-fifties,  the new Interstates and increased auto traffic  brought development which included chain motels and restaurants. We traveled 66  a few years too soon.

Since we Ramblers left from Chicago, we drove south on an angle along Route 66 from its starting point.

This was the route we followed until we got to California.
This was the route we followed until we got to California in 1954.

Even today if you study  a road map of the United States, you will see that most of the major roads run east-west, rather than north-south. Of course this map only shows Route 66, and there were others, but all were two lane and ran from east to west across the continent. Today we can zip along through the mountains on a four-lane divided highway, then you might crawl along on a windy, twisty road with no turnouts. If you were behind a truck or slow moving car, you just had to relax and take it easy and wait for a stretch where you could pass. Often when you did reach a passing zone, a car was coming the other way.

Instead, you might see signs for a tourist court like the Tall Pines along the way.
Instead, you might see signs for a tourist court like the Tall Pines along the way.

Truthfully I don’t remember too much about that first road trip west. Not only was it 62 years ago, but it was our honeymoon. I had not the remotest idea that I would be blogging about it decades later.  Of course blogs and the internet were non existent then. Frankly 1954  seems even further in the past than  62 years. 1954 might have been 1934 or even earlier as most people still traveled long distances by train rather than car, not to mention flying. However our country was  on the cusp of expansion and change in 1954. The transformation would begin shortly, we just didn’t know it.

You were pretty much on your own if you had car trouble on those lonely miles of Route 66. Yes, AAA was available, but cell phones were not. If you were lucky, you limped into the nearest garage and hoped its owner was a good mechanic. Of course, cars were not computerized then, and many men, including the Senior Rambler, were excellent mechanics. His skill turning wrenches came in handy on our trip back to Illinois a few months later when our Chevy developed valve trouble. A helpful garage owner let him use his shop to change the offending valves so we could get home. We had hoped to stay in California for a while but only a few months later, the Senior Rambler learned he was going to Greenland, courtesy of the USAF. I stayed with Mom and Dad for a year until he got back.

But back to describing Route 66 as it was then.  There were no welcoming Holiday Inns yet; instead we stopped in Tourist Courts, usually a cluster of small, dank and chilly cabins, sometimes connected, sometimes not, that were rented by the night.

The El Tovar opened in 1905. It was constructed to house passengers who wanted to visit the grand canyon and came there by train. It was not yet a national park.
The El Tovar opened in 1905. It was constructed to house passengers who wanted to visit the Grand  Canyon and came there by train. The canyon  was not yet a national park.

No fast food restaurants provided edibles that were  a known quantity. Instead the Ramblers had to take  their chances at truck stops or stopped in one of the towns en route to try our luck at finding something good to eat. Admittedly, it was a long time ago, but I don’t remember that there were that many restaurants to choose from then, even in the towns. People just didn’t eat out that much in  1954,

A few things stand out. One was our side trip to the Grand Canyon. It was truly awe-inspiring even on a chilly January day.

The view from the El Tovar at sunset. If you haven't visited the Grand Canyon, go. It is one of the few places that can't be done justice to in photos.
The view from the El Tovar at sunset. If you haven’t visited the Grand Canyon, go. It is one of the few places that can’t be done justice to in photos.

We were the only folks at the viewing spot where we pulled off, as the park did not yet attract the huge crowds of tourists that flock there today even in the summer  heat. However, in less than 10 years, thousands of people would drive to the Grand Canyon National Park every year, eclipsing the Santa Fe Railroad as the main way to get there. The El Tovar Hotel had been built by the railroad in the early 1900’s to house the tourists who came to visit the Grand Canyon  by train. However, in 1954, we didn’t even think of stopping there. We had a limited military budget and the Senior Rambler had to report back to the base.  A few years ago, when we revisited the Canyon we drove by the El Tovar, thinking to have lunch but just walked through it instead. It was absolutely jam-packed with tourists

They don't look that steep, but these gentle sloped proved to be a real test for the Senior Rambler.
They don’t look that steep, but these gentle sloped proved to be a real test for the Senior Rambler.

. Another event that we both recall was when the Senior Rambler wanted to show off by climbing down a similar incline in the Painted Desert. He really had a tough time climbing back up in the soft and crumbling sand.

In 2014, we left  Marietta GA on I-85 S, turned onto I-65 in and ended up on I-10 in Mobile. We were not thinking at that time to re-visit our honeymoon trip of 1954, just to see family in New Orleans and then head west to the Texas Hill Country Our last stop would be Albuquerque, New Mexico as we love the high desert lands of that state. Without planning, we found ourselves close to the road we had traveled so many years ago and  decided to investigate it.  However, in order to actually  drive along Route 66, we had to get off the Interstate and look for remnants of the highway in towns. This was not as difficult as it might seem as many towns actively promote their ties to Route 66 on ubiquitous billboards that line the Interstate.

In 1954, Route 66 usually went through rather than around  most of the towns on its path.

The El Rey is still there, welcoming travelers, although its surroundings have changed. We stayed there in July 2014.
The El Rey is still there, welcoming travelers, although its surroundings have changed. We stayed there in July 2014.

Many of these urban sections have been preserved and are a source of revenue to businesses which promote the old highway as a place to “get your kicks.” Amazingly a few motels still remained on the old Route 66 that had been built in the 1930s when it was the main road west. Coincidentally,the Ramblers would stay in one in Albuquerque in 1954.

Look for more posts on our trip west in 2014.

No digital cameras or camera phones in 1954, so the photos in this pose were found on the Internet, mainly from Wikipedia Commons.

 

One thought on “The Ramblers’ views of Route 66 Then and Now”

  1. As usual a fun read! Found 1 little mistake, you were talking about lanes on a road & when u wanted to say 4 lanes it was typed 4 lands. Spell check passed it by! 🙂

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