Few highways can count themselves as legendary. You could make a case for the German Autobahn, which lacks a general speed limit, inviting drivers to, well, speed. The Pacific Coast Highway sure is sexy, with its stunning beauty (the ocean practically spills into your lap), danger (hairpin turns threaten to literally spill the ocean into your lap) and pedigree (the Hearst Castle!), even if you could get from Los Angeles to San Francisco quicker by skipping. And the sheer size and scope of the 29,800 mile Pan-American highway, which stretches from Prudhoe Bay, in the extreme north of Alaska, all the way to the Ushuaia, Argentina, the most southern city in the world, inspires awe.
All this is well and good, but none of these roads have been immortalized by the likes of Nat King Cole, the Rolling Stones, made into a brand of jeans by Kmart, had its route sign become a muse for artists, taken up an entire section in the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C, and was coined “The Mother Road” by John Steinbeck in “The Grapes of Wrath”. On top of that, perhaps no road in history has better defined a nation; built upon Native American trails, functioned as a vital route for migrant farmers escaping the Dust Bowl during the Depression, and ultimately entered the American psyche as a symbol of freedom and possibility. Route 66 was the first highway to become a destination unto itself, traversing mountains, canyons, and rivers where once only Native American trails existed, and inspiring an entirely new brand of entertainment; the roadside attraction.
The iconic route that bridged the Rocky Mountain Divide and inspired generations of travelers to hit the road for parts unknown was eventually decommissioned in 1985 with the completion of Interstate 40. It is no longer possible to drive Route 66 uninterrupted from Chicago to Los Angeles (it was placed on the non profit World Monuments Fund list of 100 endangered monuments), yet there are still many surviving parts of the iconic highway that act as portals into American history.
Route 66 contains far too many sights and sounds for one little article, so we’re going to focus this chapter on Arizona’s natural wonders, all accessible by the Mother Road:
1) Start in Northeastern Arizona in Navajo and Apache counties that hold one of the most surreal landscapes in America, the Petrified Forest. Folsom spear points were found in the forest, revealing that Paleo-Indians had been living there for 8,000 years. Zuni, Hopi, and Navajo roamed the park, some choosing to live within it, evidenced by the incredible find of a 100-room pueblo by the Puerco River. The wood of the forest is made up of solid quartz, which shimmers in rainbow colors when touched by sunlight and is so strong (it weighs 168 pounds per cubic foot) that you can only cut it with a diamond tipped saw.
2) The Painted Desert, a great name for an unbelievable natural wonder. The vibrantly colored, 146-square mile badlands is an opportunity to literally look at time frozen. The colors of the desert, which vary between red, pink, green, brown, and blue, are each specific indicators of the ancient soil horizon. Whichever color you see was set thousands of years ago, depending upon the minerals present in the soil and the water table level at the time. You can head to Navajo nation’s Tuba City, located within the desert, to check out some seriously huge dinosaur tracks, grab a mutton sandwich from the Navajo flea market, and take in one of the most stunning sunsets in the world at Coal Mine Canyon.
3) Due west of Tuba City is a little hole in the ground called the Grand Canyon. Route 66 picks back up again on the western side of the canyon, in the city of Peach Springs, a Hualapai tribe administrative center that is on the way to tribe owned and run Skywalk. Nearly 1,200 feet above the Colorado River in the canyon, the Skywalk offers an astonishing, albeit slightly terrifying vista.