Unveiling America's Hidden Treasures: The Eccentric Charms Along Route 66

By James Wilson September 3, 2023

Take an adventurous journey through America’s forgotten and quirky roadside attractions along the historic Route 66.

If you are planning to hit the road from the east coast to the west, choose the highway that many legendary performers like Nat King Cole and John Mayer venerated in song – Route 66. This path, more than just a highway, symbolizes a journey through the American roots – a slice of blue-collar Americana that's been captured in the words of much-loved songs, movies, and television shows.

As the song goes, Route 66, starting in Chicago and trailing right through to LA, is where you can indeed get your kicks. This is precisely what Drew Knowles illustrates in his "Route 66 Adventure Handbook" as he delves into the idiosyncratic charms that line this iconic road. From ginormous dinosaur replicas to a museum housing the globe's largest ball of string, Route 66 is unquestionably a treasure trail of peculiar attractions.

However, despite its history and immense popularity, Route 66 nearly became a forgotten track in the late 1950s when a fresh set of cross-country highways sprouted across America. With time, this resulted in a significant decline in footfall, leading to the eventual erasure of small roadside businesses. Nevertheless, the traces of the route and its quaint charms are still there for those adventurous enough to delve deeper.

According to Knowles, starting at the easternmost point in Chicago is the best way to navigate the highway. He notes the city's Art Institute lion statues salvaged from the 1893 Exposition and the famed Billy Goat Tavern, known famously for its "cheese-boiga" sketch. As you steer away from the city, the attractions get progressively weirder, with concrete space giants, the world's largest ketchup bottle, and an annual horseradish festival in smaller towns like Wilmington and Collinsville.

And there’s no shortage of oddities even in larger cities. Take St. Louis, for example. Have you indeed seen the city if you missed gawking at "the world's largest pair of underpants" in its City Museum? Or the Delta Dental Health Theater, housing a collection of 16 giant, glowing teeth?

Route 66 cuts across multiple states, each bringing its unique sights and flavors. In Stanton, Missouri, you can walk through Jesse James's controversial life at a dedicated wax museum. Oklahoma, too, presents a mixed bag of attractions, from the yet-to-be-constructed Mickey Mantle Museum to the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.

And if kitschy attractions are not really your thing, Tulsa offers more sober spots, like the Woody Guthrie Center, the Greenwood Cultural Center, and Mabel B. Little Heritage House, memorializing tragic historical events such as the Tulsa massacre of 1921.

Knowles’s journey then takes you fast through Texas and slowly through New Mexico, where numerous motels feature a characteristic western theme in their neon signs. The Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque and the Navajo Code Talkers Room in Gallup add an educational value to this quirky trip.

Route 66 ends at California's Santa Monica Pier, not before passing through Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park and the comic World Tobacco Spitting Championship in Calico. In California, why not give the iconic fast-food franchise's first museum in San Bernardino a visit? Or maybe hop over to the Bunny museum in Altadena? As you finally hit the Pacific coast, the nine-story Ferris wheel and five-story roller coaster at Santa Monica Pier make for a fitting finale to this uniquely American journey.