“On the Nissan Altimate Rogue Trip we saw the spectacular in spades. And when the dozen journalist participants pulled up at the end of the road by the Santa Monica Pier, we shared a great sense of achievement…”
Riding the highway west along Route 66 for around 4,000 kilometres is on many people’s bucket lists.
After completing the epic journey from Chicago to Santa Monica, California, I must say there were times during the 56 hours, 36 minutes, of driving that I figured it might be the last item on my list!
On the Nissan Altimate Rogue Trip, we saw the spectacular in spades. And when the dozen journalist participants pulled up at the end of the road by the Santa Monica Pier, we shared a great sense of achievement. We all knew each other from new vehicle launches around the world, but this was different. This hardened, cynical bunch developed a greater camaraderie along the way and some even hugged as we gazed at the lapping waters of the Pacific.
We climbed aboard the 2015 model Nissan Rogue crossovers and Altima sedans one very chilly Chicago Sunday and set out to retrace the route of this historic highway, which was finally decommissioned in 1985, and fully replaced by the I-40 freeway.
Actually, routes – plural – would be more accurate as the road, which carried hundreds of thousands seeking prosperity out west, has followed a number of paths since the late 1920s. Some traces were lost beneath the freeway system, some disappeared, and some remaining stretches don’t really qualify as a stretch as they barely run beyond a stone’s throw!
Space limitations permit just a sampling here of what we saw and did along the way. However, you can find a complete report of the journey, gallery of photographs, video links and how the vehicles fared as long-distance transportation in the links below, all of these stories on Driveway Canada:
Interestingly, Route 66 faced a long slow ‘death’ by the signing of the Interstate Highway Act in 1956 by President Dwight Eisenhower, who was impressed by the efficiency of the German Autobahn system.
Many who have fought for its revival would argue it’s far from dead, even if it’s no longer a major shipping and transportation route. What’s left of the Mother Road, as it’s known, carried us through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and, finally, California. For most of us, it was an adventure musically inspired by many versions of the song “Get your kicks on Route 66”. I recall watching the TV show Route 66 in the 1960s but today tens of thousands are drawn each year to the highway by the 2006 animated movie Cars. The movie action takes place on the route, many of the fictitious locations are based on actual places, and real people inspired some of the characters.
However, our first contemporary culture reference came a few hours outside of Chicago, in Joliet, Illinois, where we were treated to action figures of the Blue Brothers dancing above a building close to where some of the movie action took place at the local penitentiary. The Bluesmobile was also on view, sitting atop a pole.
The early part of the route features many giant-sized statues of historic figures, such as Abe Lincoln (in Lincoln, surprise, surprise) and not-so-historic figures promoting various products, some of which are no longer sold!
Local communities have funded the restoration of old service stations and many have a classic car parked on the forecourt. I must say, after viewing the first eight old gas stations, whose defunct pumps boasted gas at a few cents a gallon, the novelty was wearing thin.
Bloomington proudly proclaims itself as the birthplace of McLean Stevenson, who played the part of Colonel Blake in the popular 70s TV series M*A*S*H*.
The town’s other claim to fame is being the sole source of that sweet ballpark favourite – beer nuts.
My favourite road name of the trip was found in Springfield – Kickapoo St. I should mention now that if you were to follow every suggested photo op or stop in the guidebooks, you would spend three months getting to the Pacific Coast. This road trip absolutely requires you to do your research and take some tough decisions on just what you are going to see along the way.
The Chain of Rocks Road leads you to Missouri and much of it is locked in the past with old-style travel motels and signage demanding your attention. The Chain of Rocks Bridge, built across the Mississippi in 1929, has a 22-degree bend in it. Depending who you talk to, the reason for the bend in the middle was either because sinking supports into the river bed was too much of a challenge on the directly opposite side or the spot where it makes landfall was cheaper land!
It’s closed to traffic but the protectors of the bridge, Trailnet Inc, opened it up to let us pass. It was from that span, we caught our first view of the St Louis skyline. That would have been a nice side trip, but time constraints forced us to press on to Cuba… Missouri. There we stayed at a delightfully restored cabin resort called the Wagon Wheel Motel.
The next day, a short distance away in Fanning, we inspected marvellous mural depicting the good old days of Route 66, which adorns the wall of a delightful gift store. This was also home of the world’s largest rocking chair.
It’s a gentle drive along well-maintained roads through most of Missouri. The Devil’s Elbow Bridge bears such a frightful name, not because of the terrain but the river below. High and treacherous bluffs tower over a bend in the river, which caused dangerous logjams in the olden days. Naturally, the God-fearing folks blamed its creation on the Devil rather than the Lord!
Kansas beckoned. Less than 21 kms of 66 runs through the Sunflower State before it breaks into Oklahoma.
I thought we would have the first crash of the trip when the first Rogue Altima, or maybe Altimate Rogue, (referring to the drivers, of course) screeched to a halt at the curb in Galena, Kansas. There at the front of the service station was the ‘real’ Tow Tater truck, on which the Cars’ character Tow Mater was based. This was one restored Kan-O-Tex gas station I was happy to eyeball.
The Field of Dreams ball field is a short pitch from here but we ran for the next base. Baxter Springs is the home of the Route 66 visitor centre, utilizing a Phillips 66 Station. There we met the real live Dean ‘Crazy Legs’ Walker, who is able to twist his feet backwards. The relevance of this feat – or feet – is that Tow Mater taught Cars hero Lightning McQueen to drive backwards and yes, you guessed it, the movie producers based the tow truck’s character on Walker!
That was fun but the remainder of the day’s drive to Tulsa, Oklahoma, was one long constant reminder that we were in Tornado Alley. We passed large areas of flattened mobile home parks and shells of concrete buildings, whose innards were blown out by recent tornadoes.
Claremore proudly trumpets its association with legendary Will Rogers, a cowboy comedian from the 1920s/30s. Bit before my time or that of co-driver Mark Richardson, so we whistled on to Tulsa. Rather than whistle, Mark broke out into a terrible rendition of Gene Pitney’s classic hit “24 hours from Tulsa”. I punished him with a selection from my extensive repertoire of UK TV advertising jingles from the 1970s.
“Hands that do dishes can be soft as your face with mild green Fairy Liquid,” quietened him down.
Pouring rain, doubtless brought on by our vocal efforts, forced a sprint into the restored 1927 Campbell Hotel for the night. Quaint, it certainly was.
On day three, we were soon on the way to Amarillo, Texas, in better weather. It was to be a long 600-kilometre drive but we made time to visit the Route 66 Museum in Clinton, Oklahoma. It is a fabulous museum and arguably the best of many found on the route. The Hippy VW camper van grabbed my attention. It tells the story of how thousands of young folk seeking peace and love in California travelled.
Crossing the border into Texas, the terrain seemed to change instantly to scrub-desert. In Shamrock, we pulled into the U-Drop Inn – a building that is the exact replica of Ramone’s Body Art Shop in the Cars movie. I guess that could be the other way round.
Later in the day, we were blessed with a magnificent Texas sunset before tucking into steak dinner. Natch. Eating a free 72-ounce steak was a challenge nobody on the Nissan Altimate Rogue Trip was prepared to accept.
The next day, day four, some of the group spray-painted messages (that’s the tradition) on the Cadillac Ranch art installation of ten Cadillacs, sunk nose first into the red dirt. Seen from a distance they bore an uncanny resemblance to the Cadillac Mountain Range from, you guessed it, Cars. It wasn’t until later, I learned that Conway, Texas, satirizes this installation with one of its own – VW Bugs planted in a similar ranch at where else but the Bug Ranch.
This day would be a short hop to Albuquerque, New Mexico, – a mere 475 kms – but more importantly, we would also reach the midway point in Adrian, Texas, where a sign encouraged us to continue another 1,139 miles (1,833 kms) to the coast.
Moving towards Tucumcari, our guide told us not to venture down a ‘dead end’ road under any circumstances, but join the group looking at some classic motels, such as the Blue Swallow Hotel, and more restored gas stations. There was an invitation co-driver Mark and myself could resist. We took the Nissan Rogue on the dirt road trail, some of it was paved but overgrown then it became rutted and tall grass brushed the underside clean. But we emerged triumphant and unchastened some 30 kms further on.
Day five found us enjoying the semi-desert from Albuquerque, to Williams, Arizona. Curvy roads offered stunning vistas. West of Gallup lies the Continental Divide, where water drains to the Gulf of Mexico on one side and to the Pacific on the other side.
The Tee Pee Trading Post in Lupton, Arizona, is irresistible for souvenir hunters. I walked away with the cutest pair of moccasins for my six-month old grandson Francis. He can’t read yet so this won’t blow his Christmas surprise.
Yet another movie reference was near. The rooms of the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook are concrete teepees. (Cozy Cone Motel in Cars). We talked to a couple from Latvia, who made their overnight accommodation selection based on their love for the movie.
Rock music aficionados make regular pilgrimages to Winslow, Arizona, where murals and statues pay homage to the Eagles’ hit song “Take it easy”. At the corner of Kinsley and 2nd streets stands the statue recalling the lyric “Standing on the Corner in Winslow, Arizona”. Behind that statue is a mural featuring a girl in a flatbed Ford, as if reflected in a shop window. I would love to show you a picture but it was somewhat dark when we rode into town.
Side trips to the Petrified Forest, Grand Canyon National Parks, on days four and five, left us all in awe, and stunning views soon filled our camera memory sticks.
The Petrified Forest National Park is situated in Navajo and Apache counties in northeastern Arizona. It gets its name for the large deposits of petrified wood, found in the semi-desert and badlands. Occasionally, you come across what looks like a normal log but it is hard as rock. Among all this beauty, sits a rusting old car. It marks the area where the old Route 66 passed by and the power poles behind it follow the original route.
An overnight stay in a cabin in a Kampground Of America (KOA), near Williams, was a little too rustic for these old bones. I consider Motel 6 to be camping. I had thawed out by the time we had reached the magnificent Grand Canyon. Only pictures can accurately paint for you what I saw.
We pressed on, stopping briefly in Seligman, a true blast from the past, complete with Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monro mannequins, at the roadside. It is the birthplace of the Historic Route 66 Association of Arizona, and home to Angel Delgadillo its founder and local barber! His store is a treasure trove of memorabilia.
We bedded at the El Trovatore Motel, in Kingman, Arizona, which has the longest Route 66 themed mural of any motel. It also boasts theme suites memorializing such past stars as James Dean, Elvis Presley and Paul Newman. I took the James Dean suite, being the “Rebel without a cause” that I am. It dates back to the 1930s. It will be nice when it’s finished. I think.
And so came our last day on the road. We began on the curviest patch of road along the route, passing through Dead Man’s Curve. Could have sworn we had spun around another Dead Man’s Curve days earlier. One day just runs into the next on Route 66.
The gold rush town of Oatman, now mines tourism dollars, and gave us an excellent send off though the Mojave Desert and down into Los Angeles. When the miners left town, the donkeys remained in what became a ghost town – literally. The place is said to be haunted by many an old ghost. The Oatman Hotel is papered with dollar bills, an estimated $200,000. And everyone bears a message, to greet to those who take the time to read them. The Nissan Altimate Rogue Trip budget ran to just one dollar bill but we all signed it.
The freeway has buried much of the rest of the way into California. The final few hours driving was more like an Olympic Luge event; such was the high-speed roar into town. Maybe it just felt that way after almost seven days of sub-70 klicks an hour.
It was good to see that ocean.
Now check our guide to Route 66 guides and movies. If you search #nissanroute66 online, you can also read more about the trip on social media.
And coming soon we’ll tell you how the Nissan Altima sedan and Rogue crossover handled Route 66.
Contact: keith [dot] morgan [at] drivewaybc [dot] ca
Videos from Nissan’s Altimate Route 66 Road Trip: