Lonely Planet Writer

California towns along Route 66 plan to revive their fortunes and draw tourists back in

It’s known as the Mother Road, but these days some sections of the famous Route 66 are hoping to catch a lucky break.

Historic Route 66.
Historic Route 66. Image by Vicente Villamon / CC BY-SA 2.0

On a 150-mile section of the old highway between Barstow, California and Needles, on the Arizona border, towns such as Klondike, Siberia, Bagdad, Amboy, Goffs and Homer are pocked with empty buildings. Officials from as far afield as New Mexico and Illinois gathered in Barstow last week to share their insights on how to revive one of America’s greatest roads.

Route 66 was commissioned in 1926 to link Chicago to Los Angeles, a distance of 2440 miles, or almost 4000km. The road went on to symbolize the promise of America’s west: it featured in John Steinbeck’s 1940 novel, The Grapes of Wrath, was mentioned in Jack Kerouac’s 1951 landmark On the Road, and in 1946, Nat King Cole urged Americans to “get their kicks on Route 66”. It was even the subject of a television show of the same name in the 1960s.

Route 66 towns set for a revival.
Route 66 towns set for a revival. Image by Summer / CC BY 2.0

But the sheer volume of east-west traffic meant that, within decades, the two-lane road had become obsolete. It was decommissioned in 1985, and in 2007 was placed on a list of endangered sites by the World Monuments Fund. Today, some parts of the road have disappeared under newer, wider roads, such as the Interstate 40 in the southwest. Many of the towns that once boomed thanks to the highway have withered too. But some towns along the Mother Road, 85% of which is still navigable, have had better fortunes.

At the conference in Barstow last week, locals heard from residents of towns who have successfully revived tourism to their own sections of the old highway. The mayor of Pontiac, Illinois spoke about his town’s efforts to lure a collection of antique cars to a new Pontiac museum, while a motel-owner from Moriarty, New Mexico described how a family of owls that had colonised a historic motel neon sign turned into an internet meme. The hope is that, with a little imagination and elbow grease, California’s piece of driving history can be revived, as well as the fortunes of those who live alongside it.