A Nostalgic (if Isolating) Road Trip Along Route 66

At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, with travel restrictions in place worldwide, we launched a new series — The World Through a Lens — in which photojournalists help transport you, virtually, to some of our planet’s most beautiful and intriguing places. This week, Luke Sharrett shares a collection of images taken along Route 66.

Growing up in suburban Virginia, I only experienced the romance of the American West on the occasional family vacation, or on Boy Scout camping excursions. But what I felt on those trips left long-lasting impressions. The big sky stretching out over endless prairies made me feel minuscule, even as a beefy teenager. The enchanting rock formations and rusty windmills seemed to transport me back in time to the days when the Western United States was (in my imagination, at least) still wild and untamed.

In April I embarked on a cross-country train trip to document the Amtrak passengers who were still traveling by rail during the pandemic. But as I zipped through northern New Mexico and Arizona, I sat in the observation car longing to be conveyed via a different mode of transportation, one that harkened back to my childhood: I wanted the freedom to spend a few days cruising along Route 66.

A few weeks later, I gave in. I flew to Albuquerque, booked the cheapest rental vehicle I could find and headed west toward the Mother Road, as John Steinbeck called it — or what was left of it, anyway.

Once stretching more than 2,400 miles from Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif., Route 66 has long existed as a testament to the American love affair with the automobile. During the highway’s golden era, local economies — including gas stations, mom-and-pop cafes, motor lodges, drive-in restaurants, movie theaters and roadside oddities — thrived on the money brought in by a seemingly endless stream of motorists.

Then came the interstate.

The construction of Interstate 40 — a faster, if less colorful, highway — marked the beginning of the end for Route 66, much of whose western portion was paralleled or overlaid by the new road. Dozens of once-vibrant communities in northern New Mexico and Arizona were permanently bypassed in favor of I-40’s long, straight path through the desert.

Yet the memory of Route 66, which was formally decommissioned by the federal government in 1985, lives on in many of these forgotten communities.

On the Historic Route 66 west of Albuquerque, in Gallup, N.M., vintage signs advertise an array of car dealerships, and a statue of a Navajo code talker stands outside the city’s train station. The station, near the Navajo Nation, served as the debarkation point for some 400 Navajo men who enlisted in the United States Marine Corps as radio operators during World War II, their language confounding Japanese soldiers who, up until that point, had successfully intercepted the communications of U.S. forces in the Pacific.

As the highway approaches the Arizona border, signs appear for roadside Native American gift shops. Jewelry, rugs and buffalo jerky all tempt passing motorists to pull over and spend their money inside the walls of the Yellow Horse Trading Post, situated just across the state line in Lupton, Ariz. A bit farther west stands the remains of Fort Courage. The once impressive frontier-themed rest area is now home to little more than an abandoned pancake house and a long-defunct Taco Bell.

Another hour’s drive to the west brings motorists to Holbrook, Ariz., where intrepid (and weary) travelers might be enticed by the city’s Wigwam Motel, advertised by a buzzing neon sign. Fifteen 28-foot-tall concrete teepees encircle the property in a U-shaped formation. Classic cars in various states of rust and decay sit parked around a gravel parking lot, their permanent presence lending the motel an almost regal ambience, even on the most vacant of nights.

Thirty miles farther down Route 66 from Holbrook stands Winslow, Ariz. Banners hang forlornly across the town’s main drag, requesting that residents spend their money in the community’s tiny economy. “Please,” they bid in stark letters, “shop local.”

Nearby a pair of retired Santa Fe cabooses sit on display in a small railroad park. Behind them, trains come and go from the bustling Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail yard and crew-change point. Not far from the cabooses stands a formidable wooden totem pole. It towers above the flat, sandy terrain in recognition of the region’s native residents.

Little remains of the original Route 66 between Winslow and Flagstaff. Instead, the four-lane 75-m.p.h. interstate plows through the desert with ruthless efficiency. Casinos and souvenir shops dot the sprawling landscape. Every so often the crumbling shell of an old service station appears on the horizon.

At Twin Arrows, the graffiti-covered ruins of a former trading post still remain. Two earth-struck, larger-than-life arrows beckon motorists to stop in for a selfie among the cannibalized gasoline pumps and ever-accumulating mountain of tumbleweeds.

As I cruised down these struggling main streets, I tried to imagine what they must have looked like during Route 66’s heyday, when gleaming porcelain signs directed American-made sedans toward shiny roadside motels. The irony of the moment wasn’t lost on me: Here I was, obsessing about the past, when the imaginations of most people in the atomic age were fixated on the wonders of the future.

Aside from my socially distanced contact with an occasional front-desk clerk or drive-through cashier, the trip proved to be just as isolating — if not more so — than life at home in Kentucky. Throughout the spring, I’d become accustomed to reading on my front porch as neighbors walked by with dogs or strollers. Out here in the desert, there was little evidence of passers-by other than the distant hum of big rigs on I-40.

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