Life

Why Did America Abandon Route 66?

A road trip down its iconic path to the West Coast to see what’s left.
abandoned route 66
VICE

Established in 1926, Route 66 was a highway that connected Chicago to Los Angeles, spanning nearly 2,500 miles across eight states. Once known as “the Mother Road,” its iconic path to the coast was eventually replaced by newer highways, and it was officially decommissioned in the 1980s. 

Still, portions of the original Route 66 exist today, hanging onto that old spirit of the open road. In 2016, for VICE TV’s Abandoned, skateboarders Rick McCrank and Frank Gerwer road-tripped it as best as they could, starting in California and stopping in each state Route 66 passed through. 

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“We’re gonna start this story at the end,” Rick said. “The end of the road”—California’s Santa Monica Pier. 

Before heading out, he spoke with Ian Bowen, owner of a Route 66 gift shop on the pier. 

“[Route 66] is the part of old-fashioned America that should be preserved,” Bowen said. “The culture, the conversation, the way people care. The way the old road was built, it went right through the main street of every town. It’s why it’s known as the ‘Main Street of America.’”

In the 1950s, new interstates offered quicker travel, with few exits connecting to Route 66. As major highways began to attract all the traffic, Mother Road lost most of its business. And though Route 66 was was included in the National Register of Historic Places after it was decommissioned, as Rick and Frank learned, some of the route’s historic attractions aren’t so, well, attractive

In Arizona, the Apache Skate Crew showed the duo their least favorite roadside stops in the ghost town of Twin Arrows. “Route 66 just cut right through the middle of the Navajo Reservation up here in northern Arizona,” said Apache Skateboards’s Douglas Miles. 

He pointed out several landmarks in the area. “There’s a bunch of cheesy, stereotypical, weird, semi-racist-looking kind of structures here now,” he said. “That’s why these places are falling apart too, in a way, because I think people over time realized this place is whack."

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“I’m embarrassed what the American people who came here have done to the Native Americans,” Frank admitted. “I felt embarrassed for the white man, basically, for fucking blowing it for all those years … I felt guilty.”

The Apache Skate Crew thanked the two for their acknowledgment of the issue and willingness to call it out. “Not a lot of people would have the guts to say that,” Douglas said. “We respect that.”

As Rick and Frank continued down the Mother Road, they found some lingering signs of life—including one of the lat remaining motels on a stretch in New Mexico.

Built in 1939, the Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari was still well-maintained and bustling with guests during the summer months. “We have people almost banging down the door [during the summer],” said Cameron Mueller, motel manager. “We have people from all over the world.”

“Route 66 is definitely thriving in some ways,” he continued. “There’s a lot of people who want to experience what America was like before cellphones and tablets and computers. They want to see Americana. They don’t want to just look at it on a computer screen. This is the best way to do it: a trip down the Mother Road.”

While certain parts of Route 66 were still alive and semi-well, others were completely abandoned. Take Texola, Oklahoma, for instance. Located right near the border of Texas along Mother Road, the ghost town boasted a population of just 43 people in 2020. The only sort of movement in the area was a lone tumbleweed, and even that was slow-moving.

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“I guess that’s the mark of a good road trip: it ends before you want it to.”

Speaking of tumbleweed, the only business in Texola was called Tumbleweed Grill, which was then temporarily closed. Masel Zimmerman, the restaurant’s owner, said she was attempting to maintain the town by purchasing any properties that were for sale and fixing them up. 

However, despite her attempt to revive the once-bustling town, she said, “The way that it was, it will never be like that again. Not here in this town. It will never be like that again.”

With access to far more convenient interstates today, not many people travel the Main Street of America anymore. However, those who do can enjoy a slower alternative to living—and countless historical attractions, abandoned yet charming towns, and loyal communities. 

By the time Rick and Frank reached the end—or, really, the beginning—of Route 66 in Chicago, Illinois, they reflected on their travels with a newfound appreciation.

“I guess that’s the mark of a good road trip: it ends before you want it to,” Rick said. “Because even when you’re driving down a dead highway full of ghost towns, rotten tourist traps, and tumbleweeds, even when you realize the nostalgia is bull—, there’s nothing like taking it slow with an old friend.”