May 9, 2009 -- The most striking thing about old Route 66 is how much is gone.
We came to the Mother Road, as John Steinbeck once called it, expecting a nostalgic tour of days gone by. That's what most people expect. That's why they come. They want to slow down, remember a simpler era.
In our two days' driving from Clinton, Okla., to Albuquerque, N.M., we met tourists from Italy, England, Sweden and Minnesota—travelers celebrating milestones in their lives. A birthday. A 35th wedding anniversary. Honeymooners clad in leather on motorcycles.
And if you pick and choose your stops just right, that's what you'll get—a trip down memory lane.
Start out as we did in the Elvis suite at the Tradewinds Inn. They say the King slept here four times. We're pretty sure we slept in the same bed he did. (Could that have been his hair in the tub?)
Get a bite to eat at Clinton's Dairy Best Diner, swing by the Route 66 museum, then make a beeline for the U Drop Inn in Shamrock, Tex. Don't forget to see the Devil's Rope museum (who knew there were so many kinds of barbed wire?) and the Cadillac Ranch outside Amarillo. The ugly crust pie at the Midway Café in Adrian, Tex., is worth the drive too. Barb preferred the peanut butter-chocolate cream. And the Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari looks like it's straight out of a postcard from 1950.
If we'd stopped only at those tourist sites, we'd probably have come away with a different impression. But we didn't do the typical Route 66 tour.
We stopped the car in Texola, Okla., and walked around that deserted ghost town. We recoiled at the sight of a dead raccoon buried in the rubble of an old gas station. We marveled at the coffee pot someone left behind in a deserted house.
We pulled over and met a couple of guys who repair windmills in McClean, Tex. We told Donny and Butch we were just trying to get a sense of who lived along old Route 66. "Poor folks," Donny said.
We started thinking of them as "survivors," doing all they could to keep their towns going.
Ranchers told us they're having a bad year -- not enough rain. We learned that it's impolite to ask a rancher how many acres he has (west of Dallas anyway).
But no one here blames the current economic downturn for their troubles. A farmer in Vega, Tex., told us things have been bad around here for decades. "We don't know no different," as Donny put it.
And yet they stay. This is home, they said. It's safe and quiet and a great place to raise kids.
Some have launched businesses trying to capture the Route 66 tourist traffic. They'd love to recapture the glory days of the road—when neon signs lit the way and the highway was packed with headlights every night.
We admired their tenacity, their hope. We appreciated the individuality of towns like Groom, Vega and McClean, Tex. There are no Starbucks here, no McDonalds or Wal-Mart.
If we came back in 50 years for another road trip down Route 66, would those towns still be here? We sure hope so.
Kate Snow anchors GMA Weekend. Her sister Barb Snow is a social worker in Portland, Ore.