We just got back from a long roadtrip: Los Angeles to Madison WI to St. Louis MO and back. We went out through the mountains (I-15 to I-70 to I-76 to I-80 to US 151), down through the heartland (I-39/90 to I-39 to I-55 to I-270), and back along former US Route 66 (I-44 to I-40 to I-15, with numerous digressions to the historical route). Here are a few observations on the trip:
- Nevada/Arizona (I-15). Although the stretch to Las Vegas is well known, the drive further N through the canyons before St. George UT is beautiful. The Arizona stretch of I-15 is interesting when you understand that there is no accessibility to it from elsewhere in Arizona — ADOT must get to it through either NV or UT. In any case, the chiseling out of those canyons was remarkable, and it is just a great drive. I’ll also note that Nevada DOT does some beautiful bridges and interchanges.
- Utah (I-15/I-70). The stretch of UT up to I-70 was an interesting drive, but even more interesting was I-70 through Utah. It was some of the most remarkable scenery I have ever seen — bluffs and plateaus and wonderful rock formations. Kudos to those who constructed the highway in this area for their hard work, and just imagine how hard it was for pre-Interstate travelers. The views are just spectacular, and the vista points are worth the stop. UDOT also does some beautiful bridges and interchanges.
- Colorado (I-70). The stretch in Colorado between Grand Junction and Denver is spectacular as you drive along the origins of the mighty Colorado river, and through beautiful mountains and passes. Just… wow. Also, we could tell we were moving east as the houses changed from stucco and brick to siding and brick. This is one stretch of I-70 with little to no cellular reception, at least W of Denver through Vail.
- Colorado/Nebraska (I-76, I-80). This stretch is dull country. Flat fields of corn. You would tend to think of the plains as vast openness. Well, it is, plus corn and cows. The small towns are, well, small. Driving these roads, however, you can begin to get a sense of where Trump’s support comes from. These are very heterogeneous communities: mostly the same race, the same background, the same church. They have been hit hard by economic woes, by the money moving to the urban coastal towns, by the jobs that the legal immigrants are willing to take and do (and they don’t see in the faces the distinction between legal and illegal, so they are lumped together). The other — the person from outside their community, from outside their frame of reference — is to be feared, and Trump just played to that. I don’t think we saw a single synagogue in the small towns; the Jewish population must be negligible. This, I think, emphasizes the point that the best solution to racism is eliminating the bars of segregation. Intermingling changes people from “the other” to “my neighbor” — and it is true for race, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, or any other point of division you can think of.
- Iowa (I-80). Rolling hills of farmland. It was weird driving it at night, seeing all the red lights on the wind farm towers without the ability to see them for what they were. Landing lights? Power lines? Nope, wind farm. I hadn’t realized how hilly Iowa was. Driving through Cedar Rapids on our way up US 151 to Dubuque was a land of farms, leading us into picturesque Wisconsin. We stayed at a small motel in Stuart, just outside of Des Moines. This was an example of a well-cared for old motel, unlike the motel in Julesberg CO.
- Wisconsin (US 151). This is what farmland should look like. Postcard perfect. Beautiful country. Great cheese. Most importantly, it is where are daughter is, so “Go Badgers!”. Driving around the UW-Madison campus showed how pretty it was, and the town was easy to navigate.
- Illinois (I-90, I-39, I-55, US 66). Our first impression of Illinois was having their hand out for a toll road: I-90 for the segment before I-39 splits off. After that, it was farmland, and highway signs that were much too wordy. We followed US 66 in some stretches paralleling I-55 for a bit, and it was well marked, although many of the 66 towns were dying or clearly dependent on 66 tourism. This was on the day of the eclipse, which we really didn’t see as we were in Rochelle IL where it was very cloudy. We did, however, see the incredible traffic on I-55 between St. Louis and Bloomington — all the people returning from viewing the eclipse. Bumper to bumper.
- Missouri (I-270, I-44). First, I must note that St. Louis and its suburbs is still one of my favorite cities, and home to some of my favorite people. Driving through the Ozarks was interesting: I hadn’t realized that it was so forested and there were so many trees and streams. Beautiful country.
- Kansas (US 66). We took US 66 out of Joplin because Oklahoma doesn’t make their turnpike prices and policies easy to find for tourists. This meant we actually traversed the portion of US 66 that cuts a corner of Kansas. These are towns that are clearly facing away thanks to the rerouting of 66.
- Oklahoma (US 66, I-44, I-40). As noted above, Oklahoma does not make turnpike policies easy to find, and so we tried to follow 66. That didn’t always work, especially in Miami OK where 66 isn’t signed well when it meets US 59/69. This lead us in the wrong direction, and then nav took us even further afield. We eventually make it to Tulsa, however, and then to Oklahoma City where we were finally turnpike free. I-40 and following US 66 was much easier W of OK City, where it is signed as OK 66. Long flat prairie. Lots of dying towns.
- Texas (I-40, US 66). US 66 was pretty easy to follow in Texas. Again, long flat prairie, with towns dependent on US 66. Amarillo had a load of construction along I-40 that made it hard to follow the frontage road. I really hate the frontage road onramps to I-40 that are neither well-marked, nor provide safe access. Only in Texas would the hotels have waffle makers shaped like Texas. I did have fun playing a lot of “I’m leaving Texas” songs as we left the state. I did try to find the Cadillac Ranch, although I couldn’t find the cars.
- New Mexico (I-40, US 66). Long, flat, and straight. That’s I-40 in New Mexico E of Albuquerque, with the occasional ride through US 66 towns such as Tucumcari. Albuquerque is neat: they are preserving the Route 66 neon along Central Ave, even if they aren’t preserving the buildings. There is also an incredible amount of public art in the city. Central Ave is really gentrifying. We also knew we were back in the West again, as stucco reemerged. The NM-DOT interchanges in Albuquerque are also quite nice; however, they make it a real pain to get on the freeway with the long frontage roads — especially near the I-25 / I-40 interchange. I’ve also decided that Santa Fe exists to separate wealthy people from their money. West of Albuquerque is flatland, with increasing bluffs and some lovely Route 66 diversions in both Grant and Gallop. Former trading posts along Route 66 were being replaced by Native American Casinos (I’m guessing slot machines are an easier way to separate tourists from their money than selling pottery and blankets). There are still Native American stores near the highway, and a few of the “old school” shops exist in the larger Route 66 cities. However, the merchandise seems mostly to be the same everywhere (including the jewelry), making me wonder how much is Native American made, vs. Native American ordered. New Mexico does a pretty good job of signing historic Route 66, but it is clear that many of the towns are highly dependent on Route 66 tourism and nostalgia — and there are so many dead / dying motels and gas stations. One other oddity: Unleaded gas is 86 octane in both Texas and New Mexico, not the 87 we’ve come to expect — which is a pain when your manual insists on 87 or higher.
- Arizona (I-40, US 66). In many areas, the old 66 trading posts still exist, and seem nicer than the touristy ones. We particularly liked the ones just across the AZ/NM border in Lupton AZ. As we noted in NM, a lot of the old trading posts have been upsized into full casinos to separate the tourist from their money. We did take a number of US 66 diversions, especially those that were also Business I-40 loops. This included the classic towns like Holbrook and Winslow. Loads of loads of dead motels along the way (and dead gas stations). Were I still in the photography mode, there could be some beautiful photo-essays there. I still remember the dead outposts at Meteor City (the exit before the actual crater), Fort Courage, and a number along the path in Holbrook and Winslow. However, classic trading posts such as those in Lupton and the Jackrabbit are still around. As the “Route 66” song says, we didn’t forget Winona, although it was very forgettable — perhaps two gas stations. It was also well off the road and not on a Business 40 routing — you took County 515 up past Winona to US 89, and then US 89 into Flagstaff. Given there is a different routing now for former 66, I think the routing past Winona was an older one from perhaps the 40s, and was replaced by a more southerly routing that leaves 40 near exit 204 (then again, it could have been that Winona was near the highway, and was so dead with missed it and thought it was further up the mountain). and well off the road). ADOT doesn’t do pretty interchanges, and tends not to maintain old 66 except in the major Business 40 towns.
- California. It is so nice to see postmiles and Botts Dots again (even though the latter is going away). California is doing a better job of signing Historic Route 66 along I-40, although it tends to spell it out vs. using the historic sign. However, they refuse to use the Business I-40 shield: they would rather spell it out. Seeing the SBD CR 66 sign reminded me of my role in getting that route created: they came to me for the sign specifications (and it should have been either N-66, P-66, R-66, or S-66 to be proper, given the county group). There are many dead hotels and gas stations in Needles, and an increasing number in Barstow. Next stop: Home!
We also noticed, along the road, the dearth of decent coffee shops. You only found good local coffee and tea — or even marginal Starbucks — in the larger cities. At the truck stops and gas stations along the major interstates — no decent coffee. In many of the small and dying towns — no decent coffee. It appears that Starbuck-style coffee shops, as opposed to diner-style coffee shops, only exist in areas with sufficient disposal income.
As for our thoughts on where we stayed, which will eventually go into reviews:
- La Quinta, St. George UT. Very nice hotel. Some portions were under-construction, but no big deal. Very pet friendly, nice breakfast. In fact, it was so pet friendly that they had a “pet row” on the first floor; it turned out that next to us was the wife an Aerospace employee with her pet. It reminded how much we liked the La Quinta chain; when we last did Route 66 we stayed at a number of their properties.
- Motel 6, Grand Junction CO. Cheap and clean, although you paid extra for the WiFi. Spartan furnishings, but worked well for the pet. And I do mean Spartan: thin smaller towels (but clean), lighter blankets, not updated for a lot of plugs, paying extra for the wi-fi, smaller rooms. But they were clean and everything worked. Motel 6 is what it advertises itself to be: clean and cheap. But that is also why we normally don’t stay there, except when I’m having to pay for two rooms and to have a pet-friendly motel.
- Budget Host Platte Valley Inn, Julesburg CO. An old highway motel, pet friendly but that’s about it. Restaurant closed, about to reopen. Our daughter’s room smelled of animal urine (as the pet room), but then had a roof leak from an air conditioner so they moved her. Bathroom skimpy. The place needs some TLC. No working ice machine. Note that there are no restaurants nearby, and the ones somewhat close are closed by 8pm. Your best bet is to go to Big Bs Bar and Grill in Ovid — we had some great ribs there. (It turns out they used to run the restaurant at the hotel, but that’s a long story)
- Stuart Motor Lodge, Stuart IA. Yet another old highway motel, but this one was loved. Nice room, nice amenities. Clean and cared for. Yelp reports it as closed, but it is open and we liked it quite a bit. I did get a chuckle from the sign at checkin that indicated that locals could not stay in the hotel. Hmmm. As for the hotel: Nothing particularly fancy, but we didn’t require fancy. It worked very well for my daughter’s dog.
- Best Western East Towne Suites, Madison WI. The first hotel that didn’t need to be pet friendly. Nice, clean, comfortable, with a good breakfast. Good location: near I-90, and easy to get to our daughter’s room with lots of shopping nearby. When we go back to Madison, we’ll certainly consider this place.
- Comfort Inn and Suites, St. Louis (Westport) MO. Not as nice as the reviews made it out to be. The Ice machine on the first floor wasn’t working, and the parking left a lot to be desired. We had some sort of water leak near the A/C that we realized the 2nd day, which left our room a bit musty. Still, for what we were doing, the location was nice.
- Country Inn, Tulsa OK. Nice hotel with nice personnel. Decent breakfast. We’ve always liked this chain. They were easy to get to.
- Sleep Inn and Suites, Amarillo TX. What is it with the Choice Hotel chain and water? First the door key wouldn’t work, so they moved us to a different (and much nicer room). Kudos to the very receptive front desk staff on duty that evening. This would have been great… except that there was a water leak by the A/C that left 1/3 of the room with a sopping floor, and although there was a TV for the in-room whirlpool, there were no controls for the TV. The Waffles were in the shape of Texas — only in Texas. Alas, the front desk staff didn’t stay good: we never got a receipt because the front desk clerk couldn’t be bothered to do it, insisting instead that our third-party booking company (AAA) would send us one. They never did.
- Econolodge Old Town, Albuequerque NM. One of the nicer motels we’ve been at — good breakfast, good people. This was clearly an older hotel that had been updated by an owner that cared about the property. They even had posole out in the evening for guests, and made their typical breakfast very nice. One oddity: Their wireless network keeps changing its identification from “Econolodge N” to “Econolodge N+1”. We’re now up to 4. This isn’t a new network, mind you — you stay connected, you don’t have to re-login. It seems to be just a new name. The water problem here? The vanity sink drained slow — that was about it. So Econolodge was the best of the Choice chain.
- Green Tree Inn, Flagstaff AZ. Nice room, no identifiable problems (except for the couple in the room next to us who were loud). The hotel has gone green, meaning pump bottles of amenities instead of little bottles. They also had an interesting stall shower instead of the usual tub/shower combination. They also had the largest bath towels of any of the hotels on this trip — a win in my book. They were the only hotel to provide two luggage racks — another plus. They were in this area with loads of hotels off former 66, right next to I-40 where I-17 ends, over by NAU.
- River Valley Inn, Needles CA. This is an older Route 66 hotel, but again well maintained. No breakfast. The room did have a ceiling fan, which was useful. But clean room (modulo the occasional small desert flying bug that goes with the territory), well insulated, that didn’t cost much.
On the whole, we put almost 4900 miles on the car in just under 3 weeks. The Subaru was a champ on the road, although it did have a bit of effort at the higher altitudes. But then again, so did I. The best full tank “milage to empty” was 690; typically it was between 500-560. A few more Mother Road observations in some follow-on posts.