Reading “Route 66: The People, The Places, The Dream” (paperback, self-published, 260 pages, $34.95) is like listening to two New Jersey chums talking about their first trip on the Mother Road in a vintage Cadillac.
Plenty of Route 66 travelogues delve into the road’s rich history and context (Rick Antonson’s “Route 66 Still Kicks” is an excellent example). But Sal Santoro and Bob Walton’s text and abundant photos give readers a you-are-there feel to the road trip. In their own way, their book works well with that approach.
The amazing part is Santoro and Walton didn’t plan a book. When the annual Grand National event of the Cadillac & LaSalle Club was scheduled for Las Vegas in 2009, they saw their chance to live a dream of driving Route 66. They spent three weeks on the Mother Road in a 1968 red DeVille convertible (nicknamed “Big Red”), taking more than 8,000 photos and writing more than 100 pages in their personal journals.
When asked to give a presentation about their Route 66 experience at Cadillac clubs, they chose 450 photos for a two-hour presentation. Audience members were so impressed, they urged them to write a book.
In the forward, they explained why their book is a bit different from other Mother Road volumes:
Most Route 66 books do not feature dozens of photos of the author(s) or the author’s car. Our book has both because at the time we had no intention of writing a book, so we mugged for the camera to memorialize our experiences and shot lots of pictures of the car. We hope you like this more personal approach to Route 66 and can feel the joy, the excitement, the fun we were having by viewing those photos. When you look at a photo which features us, try to envision yourself in the photo instead of us. Where the car appears, try to visualize your car instead of ours. We sincerely hope that this may inspire a few of you to make the trip.
This approach offers more immediacy to their adventures. If a Route 66 business was closed because they went there at the wrong time, they say so. If their car breaks down several times because of a balky electrical system, they say so. If they get treated rudely by a Route 66 business owner, they say so. (Fortunately, the latter was a rare occurrence.)
But this seat-of-your-pants strategy also paid off with wonderful experiences, such as:
- Entering their car in a Memorial Day parade in Dwight, Ill.
- Chatting with Ted Drewes at his legendary frozen custard stand in St. Louis, and were given complementary T-shirts, stickers and refrigerators magnets.
- Treated to free sodas from Gary Turner at Gay Parita station near Halltown, Mo.
- Encountered the grand reopening of the Rock Cafe in Stroud, Okla., one year after a devastating fire.
- Experiencing Harley and Annabelle Russell’s music act at the Sandhills Curiosity Shop in Erick, Okla. They described it as “a cross between Haight-Ashbury and the Beverly Hillbillies.”
- Meeting a night manager at the El Rancho Hotel in Gallup, N.M., who used to work in the New Jersey town where Walton lives.
- Encountering a German couple getting married at the edge of the Grand Canyon. The newlyweds had their photo taken next to Big Red because its color closely matched the bride’s dress.
The two also experienced this somber moment at the Oklahoma City National Memorial:
Remember, this is Sunday of Memorial Day week, yet strangely, we were among the very few visitors to the Memorial that morning. Here we were in the heart of a fair-sized city, and the silence was deafening. Several churches surround the site on adjoining blocks. While we stood at the awe-inspiring site, the church bells began to toll. The sounds of the bells cutting through the almost sacred silence sent chills up and down our spines that solemn Sunday, making the atmosphere at the Memorial even more compelling and memorable. This was an experience unlike any other on the entire trip, and one neither of us will ever forget.
The book also struck me how much changed in the 3 1/2 years since the duo’s road trip. The Aztec Motel in Albuquerque and the Riviera Roadhouse in Gardner, Ill., are now gone. The Java Stop in Dwight, Ill., closed and was dismantled. Ernie Edwards of the Pig Hip Restaurant in Broadwell, Ill., and Thelma White of Whitehall Mercantile in Halltown, Mo., died. And Bill Kinder sold his Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, N.M.
Despite these somber realizations, I enjoyed “Route 66: The People, The Places, The Dream.” It may inspire you to fulfill a road-trip dream of your own.