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Cadillacs and Crossroads on Route 66

A pilgrimage on America’s legendary Route 66 promises a journey down memory lane. The Chicago-to-Santa Monica Mother Road was officially commissioned in 1926 and quickly gained popularity. In 1938, Route 66 became the nation’s first highway to be completely paved.

Route 66 weaves through the Southwestern states of Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Oklahoma’s numerous sights include the Will Rogers Memorial Museum — the route was also known as the Will Rogers Highway — and the Route 66 Interpretive Center. Texas claims the halfway point, and although it is a mere 186 miles long, 90 percent of the state’s original highway remains intact.

At the Texas border, groups enter New Mexico across a vast prairie that eventually leads to high desert. Before 1937, the route traveled through Santa Fe before dropping south to Albuquerque. Further west, Arizona’s La Posada Hotel and the quintessential town of Flagstaff embody the spirit of the open road before it cruises into California.

Will Rogers Memorial Museum and Birthplace Ranch

Claremore, Oklahoma

Will Rogers’ wit, wisdom and sense of adventure shine at the Will Rogers Memorial Museum. Rogers’ early days were spent traveling the world as a vaudeville performer. He eventually turned to radio, movies and politics, which catapulted him into American-icon status.

Rogers’ voice can be heard on radio replays as he anchored America’s first coast-to-coast radio hookup in 1928 and on his popular Sunday evening radio program. By 1935, Rogers was the nation’s most widely read syndicated newspaper columnist. He was printed in more than 4,000 daily and weekly newspapers, wrote dozens of articles and authored six books. Groups can also watch one of his 71 movies in the museum’s theater.

“One out of every three Americans had access to his writings, and he was the top male motion picture box-office star from 1933 through 1935, up to his untimely death,” said museum director Tad Jones. “No one in his day, and even today, commanded his reach or was as beloved.”

Near Claremore, a scenic drive leads to Rogers’ Birthplace Ranch, situated on 400 acres. The 1875 two-story house commemorates Rogers’ younger years. Outside, goats and burros graze beside the barn. Groups can picnic overlooking Oologah Lake and watch longhorn cattle as they roam the acreage.


Route 66 Interpretive Center

Chandler, Oklahoma

One-of-a-kind memorabilia from the 1930s to present day can be seen at the Route 66 Interpretive Center. A 1937 National Guard armory houses the museum. The Works Progress Administration building was built out of 20-inch-thick, hand-chiseled sandstone bricks that were hauled by mules from a local quarry.

At different stations, visitors sit in the seats of a 1930 Model-A Ford, a 1948 Willys jeep and a 1965 red Mustang while watching short films on all aspects of the Mother Road. The museum’s collection includes historic brochures and travel guides, vintage billboards and virtual “hotel rooms” with themes such as “Vanished Icons” and “Neon Nights.”

“The 20-minute then-and-now documentary film ‘Dick Besser’s Route 66 Adventure’ follows Besser’s 1959 journey on Route 66 and, again, 40 years later in his red Corvette,” said museum director Susan Pordos. “Our gift shop sells memorabilia from clothing to replicas of vintage road signs and CD compilations of Route 66 songs.”

Elizabeth Hey

Elizabeth Hey is a member of Midwest Travel Journalists Association and has received numerous awards for her writing and photography. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @travelbyfork.