This Fall 2021 was our third time road crossing the country east to west—the first time on our motorcycles in 2004, from Toronto to Seattle, and more recently in 2019 on board Mr. Bond, our trusted motorhome. These had been primarily Points A-to-B drives. This time around, we were determined to slow down and explore those fly-over states we’d be crossing. And what better way than to map our itinerary along famous Historic Route 66!
For many of us, Route 66 recall lyrics from the famous rhythm & blues hit song…
“If you ever motor west, Take the highway that’s the best, Get your kicks on Route 66!”
Highway 66 (US 66), also known as the Will Rogers Highway, was established in 1926. Nicknamed the Main Street of America and also the Mother Road, it was one of the original highways in the U.S. Highway System. From Chicago to Los Angeles, US 66 served as a primary route for those who migrated west, especially during the Dust Bowl period of the 1930s. The road supported the economies of the communities through which it passed. US 66 underwent many improvements and realignments over its lifetime, but was officially removed from the United States Highway System in 1985. Portions of the road that passed through Illinois, Missouri, New Mexico, and Arizona have since been designated a National Scenic Byway, named “Historic Route 66“.
The popularity and mythical stature of US 66 grew exponentially, thanks in large part to the Baby Boomers generation, many of whom had travelled the original route with their parents. While some of the motels, bars and other 1950’s structures have weathered well along the most touristy portions of Route 66, most sights along the way can be pretty bland and look economically depressed. Still, Route 66 blends in well with the already rich ‘western’ myths and real historic background of the cities and villages it traverses.
Our itinerary took us mostly along Interstate 40 which runs by sections of Historic Route 66 – with stops in St. Louis, MO, Kansas City, MO, Wichita, KS and Oklahoma City, OK, Amarillo, TX all the way to Santa Fe, NM.
Because the area has such a strong musical heritage, I thought it would be fun to introduce each city with related song lyrics that I think will be easily recognizable by most of my readers.
So come with me on this journey! You may be pleasantly surprised—as we were—by what these cities have to offer.
“I hate to see de evenin’ go down, ’cause ma baby, he done lef’ dis town,
Got the Saint Louis Blues, jes as blue as ah can be!”
St. Louis is a major city in Missouri along the Mississippi River. Its iconic, 623-ft (190-m) (high and wide!) Gateway Arch, built in the 1960s as a monument to westward expansion, honors the early 19th-century explorations by Lewis and Clarkand America’s exploration of the Wild West in general. As an internationally recognized symbol, the Gateway Arch is much more than a popular tourist attraction; it is indeed a very impressive sight to be standing at the bottom of the Gateway Arch and even more so at its top arch point. Clad in stainless steel, it is the world’s tallest arch and Missouri’s tallest accessible(!) building. The old Westward Museum collection has relocated in the ‘basement’ as it were of the Arch building and is very worth visiting.
St. Louis has strong French and French-Canadian roots thanks to a location that attracted explorers and Catholic missionaries from “la Nouvelle France” as well as from New Orleans. As such, the city of St. Louis was founded in 1764 by French fur traders Gilbert Antoine de St-Maxent, Pierre Laclède and August Chouteau who named it in honor of Louis IX of France. Many names of counties, towns, streets bear French names, like Carondelet, DeBalivière, Gravoix, Crève Coeur, LaSalle… all adding a sense of French flair wherever we went.
From 1870 until the 1920 census, St. Louis was the fourth-largest city in the country. Sadly and ironically, St. Louis now ranks the fourth most dangerous place to live in America… That said, throughout our very short time here, we felt safe in the neighbourhoods we visited. As in any other large American cities like Chicago, Baltimore, New York or Los Angeles, visitors need to ‘keep aware’ and learn to stay away from certain areas.
In St. Louis—and this may have been brought forward by the Covid lockdown—I had noticed that while the downtown core seems empty and neglected, the various St. Louis neighborhoods we explored are very much alive; places like The Loop, Central West, Forest Park (where world renowned St. Louis Zoo is located and where one can drive by 19thCentury grand mansions), Botanical Heights (with its equally renowned Missouri Botanical Garden), Benton Park and St. Charles. Everywhere, there are busy microbreweries, attractive small restaurants and cafés. Major prestigious research universities including Saint Louis University and Washington University in St. Louis as well as The Washington University School of Medicine, attract a smart student body that keep St. Louis alive and very cool.
St. Louis was also a pivotal player in the history of the blues, a fact attested to in the National Blues Museum, where Mark and I spent several hours satisfying our curiosity about a music style we love. We learned that St. Louis was already the centre for ragtime music that preceded jazz and blues. The ‘King of Ragtime,’ Scott Joplin, and many other top ragtime pianists made St. Louis their home in early 20th Century. Famous trumpet maestro extraordinaire, Miles Davis, also hails from St. Louis (and so many more). The blues were born in the Mississippi Delta and moved up river to Memphis and St. Louis and north to Chicago. Per museum write up, “with both rural and city musicians creating the blues and interacting with each other in many different ways, the music grew when St. Louis contributed, and piano blues formed the early ‘St. Louis Sound.’”
“I’m goin’ to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come…”
We rolled in Kansas City with Fats Domino’s rowdy rendition of that famous song blaring in our ears!
There are actually two Kansas Cities — I didn’t know that going in… The largest one of the two sits on Missouri’s western edge, straddling the border with Kansas (where the ‘other KC’ is). Kansas City, MO is known for its KC-style barbecue & strip steak, jazz heritage and fountains, yes beautiful fountains! Why the fountains of Paris and Rome do have some competition after all! 😊
Our first stop, the City Market. In operation since 1857, the City Market is located in the heart of the historic River Market neighbourhood. Open seven days a week, year round, it is the largest farmers’ market in the region, bursting with more than 140 farmer stalls. It’s an amazing place where in addition to fresh produce, meats and baked goods, one can take a deep dive into an array of specialty foods and other items from Africa, Europe, the Middle and Far East.
Not surprisingly, several special community events take place at the City Market. On the day we visited—October 2, 2021—a large woman’s rally, many of them with families in tow, were marching for abortion justice, joining supporters of abortion rights across America on that day. We happily cheered these women (and men, and children) of all ages and backgrounds as they passed through our area of the market.
Another ‘famous’ neighbourhood is 18th & Vine Jazz District where we visited the American Jazz Museum, which shares a building with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Kansas City was home to many legendary jazz musicians who became world renowned for their blues-based jazz style. This distinctive sound was perfected in nightclubs in the 18th & Vine District, where jazz luminaries like Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Big Joe Turner and hundreds more made the music that came to be defined as the Kansas City jazz style— a loose and relaxed rhythmic feeling, less stiff than its Chicago and New York City counterparts. Oh yeah…! 😊
Also of note is the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, with giant sculptured badminton shuttlecocks out front, houses nearly 40,000 works of art, from ancient to contemporary to eclectic collections, located in beautiful gardens. Certainly, in my humble opinion, the Nelson-Atkins is just as amazing as some of the best European museums we’ve visited.
We’re big fans of urban architecture and so a special mention goes to The Kaufman Center for the Performing Arts in downtown KC is beautiful building designed by Canadian-Israeli architect Moshe Safdie.
One last thing, under the “Who Knew” category as it were: Kansas City has the ambitious goal of becoming the most connected smart city in the United States. The city’s young tech industry is alive and well, made up of more than 3,800 technology companies and thus attracting a younger & educated generation of workers.
The KC Streetcar line project is a good example of its ‘connected city’ goal. Completed in 2016, it is free to ride, begins in City Market and runs along the downtown corridor and through the bustling district of shops and restaurants called the Power and Light District. It continues on through the Crossroads district, a funky, gentrified area of art galleries and cool loft buildings.
I invite you to stay with me for Part Two of our Route 66 journey as it takes us deep into the Great Plains, to Air Capital of the World that is Wichita (KS), and the New Frontier town of Oklahoma City (OK).