Heroes of Highway 66: my interview with Route 66 News’ Ron Warnick

I might love its neon signs, retro diners and classic motels, but the people of the Mother Road will always be my favourite Route 66 attraction. So today, I’m launching a new blog series dedicated to their honour.

Through a collection of exclusive interviews, ‘Heroes of Highway 66’ will celebrate the people who continue to make an impact on the history of Route 66. I’ll be chatting to some of the Mother Road’s most respected personalities to learn more about their relationship with the highway, discover their favourite road trip memories and find out why Route 66 plays such an important part in their lives. It’s my way of thanking the wonderful individuals who devote so much time to protecting Route 66, from those who run its attractions, to the people who work to preserve and promote the road; you are all my Heroes of Highway 66.

For the first post in the series, I’m delighted to bring you my conversation with Ron Warnick, creator of Route 66 News. Ron’s blog is, in his own words, a ‘clearinghouse of news and events about historic Route 66’. It was a huge help when planning my own adventure along the Mother Road and serves as my fix of Route 66 goodness now I’m back in the UK. Therefore you can imagine how excited I was when he agreed to be interviewed and explain a little more about how his website came about.

VG: Route 66 News has become one of the most popular websites about the Mother Road. How did it all start?

RW: I began Route 66 News in October 2005 because the only publications dedicated to the highway were quarterly. I saw a need for more timely dissemination of news and the internet was the best way to do that. I thought my journalism background would prove handy in finding stories. I hadn't planned on using a blogging program, but the more I researched it, I realised it was what I needed – including the underrated archives that still drive traffic to the website daily.

Route 66 News proved its worth less than a month after inception when I found El Vado Motel in Albuquerque was endangered. The website and many other people marshalled forces to save that Route 66 landmark. Nearly 13 years later, it reopened this summer as a boutique motel.

VG: That’s a fantastic achievement; well done on all your hard work. It’s clear that you have a true passion for the Mother Road. When did the obsession start?

RW: My interest in Route 66 evolved slowly. I grew up near a major highway, U.S. 51, which runs from northern Wisconsin to New Orleans. I remember a flurry of television reports when the U.S. 66 was decommissioned in the mid-1980s. I read Michael Wallis' best-selling Route 66: The Mother Road during the 1990s. But the most consequential act was seeing a Route 66 fold-out map at a QuikTrip convenience store in Belleville, Illinois, about 1998. I, like many other people, didn't realise you could navigate the old road. I bought the map and took off for a trip along old Route 66 in Missouri within weeks. It took all day to traverse the state, but I saw many memorable things I knew I would see again.

VG: So why is Route 66 so special to you?

RW: Route 66 provides an alternate universe of America - one you don't see with the interstates.

VG: That’s so true. Driving Route 66 provides an experience like no other. What’s your favourite memory of The Mother Road?

RW: It's hard to pick out one memory. But my first time in the Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico, was special. It was like going back in time. And it inflamed my love for New Mexico, culminating in my move to Tucumcari earlier this year.

VG: I love Tucumcari. The Blue Swallow is my favourite motel on Route 66 and the food at the Pow Wow Restaurant and Lizard Lounge is delicious. Moving on to vehicles, what's you preferred mode of road trip transport?

RW: I've only travelled Route 66 by car. I have no experience in anything else, so I can't speak about motorcycles, RV's and the like. I'm too much of a klutz to trust myself on a motorcycle, anyway.

VG: I guess balance on a bike helps! One of the things I most enjoyed on my Mother Road adventure was looking round all the curio shops. What's the best thing you've ever bought whilst on a Route 66 road trip?

RW: I've got lots of stuff from Route 66, but my favourite is a print of a 1930s or '40s poster of the Painted Desert National Park I purchased at the park. It cost me more money than I expected to frame it, but it's held up impeccably during several moves, so I can't complain. I almost said a commissioned Route 66 News sign made by long-time Tucumcari sign painter Rudy Gonzales, but my wife bought me that one.

VG: I imagine that’s very special indeed. What about packing? What are your five must-take things to bring in your luggage on road trips?

RW:

  1. Pint-sized bottles of laundry soap

  2. An iPod or iPhone that can plug into the car stereo to play music

  3. Toothpaste and toothbrush

  4. Jerry McClanahan's EZ Guide to 66 guidebook

  5. Plenty of drinking water; you'll need it more than you think in the higher elevations.

VG: Good choices! I couldn’t have done without the EZ Guide on my trip, not just for the directions but also the recommendations on where to visit. If you could pick just three Route 66 attractions to visit on your next road trip, what would they be and why?

RW:

  1. La Posada in Winslow, Arizona, because not only are the rooms and grounds immaculate, the Turquoise Room is one of the very best restaurants in the country

  2. Eating at Ted Drewes Frozen Custard in St. Louis, because there's no better place to get ice cream

  3. Stopping at Nelson's Old Riverton Store in Baxter Springs, Kansas, which is the most old-fashioned store I've visited. It feels as if you're back in the 1940s in that place.

VG: I’ll have to add the Old Riverton Store to my itinerary for future trips. What other advice would you give to British and European people looking to travel Route 66?

RW: Don't be in a hurry to travel from one place to the next. And be sure to talk to locals. You'll learn a lot about a place that way and hear a lot of interesting and often funny stories. Taking back great memories are one of big reasons to do Route 66.

VG: I couldn’t agree more. My husband and I met some fantastic people on our trip. Why do you think Route 66 is so appealing to people from outside of the USA?

RW: I think foreign travellers enjoy the uncommon and unsanitized views of America that Route 66 affords. Too many Americans get upset about ruins or the grittier sides of Route 66, when many international travelers actually crave those sides. Route 66 still brims with authenticity.

You can check out Ron’s review of my book over on his website. Is there someone else you’d like to see featured in Heroes of Highway 66? Let me know in the comments.