Heroes of Highway 66: interview with Swa Frantzen from Historic66.com

Swa frantzen from historic66.com

Swa frantzen from historic66.com

Historic66.com is another of those websites that became an invaluable tool to Dave and me when planning our Route 66 road trip. We made frequent visits to its informative FAQs, huge list of links to Mother Road resources and stunning photo gallery when designing our itinerary. So when I decided to create my Heroes of Highway 66 blog series – a collection of exclusive interviews with some of the legends of the Mother Road - I knew I had to try my luck and see if the site’s owners would be interested in chatting to me.

Swa Frantzen and his wife Nadine Pelicaen first created Historic66.com in 1994, making it not only the oldest Route 66 resource on the web, but one of the first ever websites. Since then the site has grown from just 18 hits in its first week to winning numerous awards. In this interview, I speak to Swa about how it all began and get some great tips for future Route 66 adventures.

VG: Thank you so much for taking part in this interview Swa. Let’s start at the beginning: why did you first decide to travel Route 66?

SF: On a Californian holiday in 1993, we decided to come back to the USA and make the legendary Route 66 our next vacation. It was just a simple idea in Los Angeles. At the time, all we had was a Rand McNally Road Atlas. After seeking the iconic 66 shield in the atlas, we found that it just wasn’t there. All I managed to find were some state highways with a “66” number, but they didn’t connect. It left me a bit confused, but ever so determined to find out more about that legendary road I had seen in advertising and various Hollywood productions. To me, Route 66 stood as an icon for freedom, being on the road, Rock and Roll, seeing America and much more. Driving that legend was a dream. But I had no clue where the road started or ended at all.

VG: It’s thanks to that determination to discover Route 66 that so many more people can travel its length today, by following your website’s turn-by-turn instructions. Why did you decide to keep historic66.com live after your first trip, and why do you still maintain it today?

SF: Back in the very early days of the internet, there was a service called Usenet News - think of it as a global, distributed electronic bulletin board. Part of the community’s etiquette was that anyone who received an answer to a question they had posted should also provide a concise summary of it to enable future readers to take advantage of the information as well. I used the answers to some of these questions, as well as input I’d collected from the original Route 66 website I’d created, to plan our trip. In the early days, my website was mostly a way to show people what I knew about the Mother Road, as well as the gaps in my knowledge, in order to create a plan of where we were going to drive. After the vacation, I felt that I should honour my responsibility to the Usenet community and keep my website going as long as I could. So that’s how the Historic66.com survived our 1994 road trip.

VG: I’m so glad that it did. Historic66.com was invaluable when planning my own Mother Road adventure. I especially love the site’s banner. I understand that you commissioned Bob Waldmire to design it. What was it like working with him?

SF: I asked Bob to create the banner at the Wigwam Motel in San Bernardino. Bob’s VW van was parked there and I was staying in one of the wigwams. Most of the exchange went on inside Bob’s van. Those of you who’ve seen the van at the Pontiac Route 66 Association Hall of Fame and Museum will understand that Bob had to move a lot of stuff for us both to find a spot to sit down!.

Explaining what websites are and how the internet works was quite a large portion of the conversation! As I knew Bob’s work and needed to ensure the banner wasn’t too densely packed with illustrations, I limited him to small originals. However, I tried to give Bob as much freedom as possible when deciding what the banner would feature as I wanted it to have his style and flavour as much as possible.

I was really surprised to find that Bob had finished the banner the next morning. Turns out he drove off to a Denny’s restaurant and drew it there in a booth overnight. So I paid him the agreed amount and I had two pages of original artwork to take home.

VG: What an amazing experience and one I imagine a lot of Route 66 fans would be very jealous of! What would you say is your favourite memory of The Mother Road?

SF: Picking just one favourite is tough. I get excited every time we manage to get to some hard to reach bit of Route 66, drive something that’s usually not allowed, or just see or do something that we didn’t achieve on previous trips. We have driven over the Chain of Rocks Bridge (which is usually closed to traffic) and got the opportunity to explore – with permission – a piece of old road that’s been off-limits for many years, with large fines for trespassing. We’ve visited the Painted Desert Trading Post, reached the top of La Bajada (a very rough section of 1920s alignment) and been to a dead-end on a hill overlooking I-40, far beyond a handful of significant washouts in the desert. But all of those memories are in a different category from unexpectedly receiving the Will Rogers Award in Litchfield, Illinois, in 2008. It’s intense to hear your name called out and get pulled onto a stage to give a speech you’re entirely unprepared to make.

VG: I imagine that’s a moment you’ll never forget and an award thoroughly well-deserved for someone who has dedicated as much of their life to the Will Rogers Highway as you have. What is it about Route 66 that makes the road so special to you?

SF: Route 66 simply grew into a hobby that my wife and I share. I guess that, at times, it would be fair to call it an out of control hobby! Sometimes it had to be more of a background project due to other obligations, and at others we were able to put a lot of time into our love of the Mother Road.

VG: My husband and I share your hobby! What's the best thing you've ever bought whilst on a Route 66 road trip?

SF: It would have to be acquiring Bob’s artwork for the website. However, we don’t actively collect memorabilia. We lack the “collector” gene when it comes to material things. I guess that makes us atypical for Route 66 fans. What we do collect though is information and knowledge; we have a bit of a library in that regards, both physical and virtual.

VG: You might not collect, but you definitely prepare. What are your five must-take things to pack in your luggage on road trips?

SF:

  1. Essentials such as clothes, etc.

  2. Our plan - nowadays this is a rather comprehensive computer and GPS based system we use to keep track. If we were driving 66 for fun, an EZ66 Guide or so would do.

  3. Camera gear.

  4. A regular GPS (“satnav"), not for following Route 66, but for having a map, knowing where you are and for finding your motel/hotel and such.

  5. A computer to keep in touch with the rest of the world and keep tabs on things.

VG: I’m with you on using the GPS as a map. Our sat nav certainly came in handy if we missed one of the turns mentioned in EZ66 Guide. Speaking of not missing out, if you could only pick three Route 66 attractions to visit on your next road trip, what would they be and why?

SF: I’d try to pick things that we’ve not seen before. They could be new, hard to reach, places we know are in danger of not being accessible for much longer, or even attractions which risk being lost or demolished. With that in mind, I’d pick:

  • The Launching Pad and Gemini Giant in Wilmington, IL - we’ve been to it plenty of times, but I’d love to meet the new owners in person.

  • The Gasconade Bridge, although we were there in 2017, the risk to it is still significant in my opinion. As such, I’d like to revisit it as long as it’s possible.

  • The Painted Desert Trading Post, with its renewed, easier access. Our last efforts were foiled by locked gates and recent heavy rains, so it’s been a while since we succeeded in getting to it.

But we have a list of many thousands of places we want to take (more) pictures of, so hitting just three sites would never happen!

VG: The Launching Pad is definitely on my agenda for next time. I’ve been following the renovation on social media and it looks fantastic. What advice would you give to British and European people looking to travel Route 66?

SF: The big thing is time:

  • First of all, don’t postpone: go for it!

  • You will run out of time on a daily basis on Route 66. If you don’t, you’re not getting the whole experience. The trick to solve this is allowing more time for the trip and change your mind-set: a trip down Route 66 means that Route 66 is your destination. So, you’re at your destination from the moment you set foot on it, till the other end almost 2500 miles away. When you reach the other end the trip is over, so don’t race to finish. If you don’t have a month or more to spend travelling, try to focus on a shorter part of Route 66. There’s no “must do it all in one go” requirement.

  • Spend some time upfront to learn about Route 66, to see what’s available and what’s of interest to you. If you go unprepared, you risk ending up driving on the dreaded interstate and miss everything Route 66 has to offer.

  • But try to avoid making a to-do list: that's just going to add stress. Drive the old road, and enjoy it.

  • If you end up with a trip on Route 66 with only 10 or less “driving” days, you’re not going to have the whole experience.

  • Be very careful with side trips. They eat up a ton of time. If you get offers for Route 66 trips, there’s an easy test: if it sends you to Las Vegas, Nevada, it’s very doubtful it focuses on Route 66 itself as "Sin City" is nowhere near the old road. If you do want to go there, I’d suggest to keep it for *after* your trip. It works out much better that way.

VG: That’s some fantastic advice and I couldn’t agree more about planning ahead. Why do you think Route 66 is so appealing to people from outside of the USA?

SF: It’s a legend. The road almost got killed by the interstates, yet refused to die. It features in movies, advertising, TV series and reality programmes, and, as such, it’s an icon for many things.

Over the years, I’ve been asked quite a few times where I first heard of Route 66. As I honestly can’t remember - it feels like something I always knew - I started asking others around me the same question. The answer typically points to movies such as Easy Rider and Thelma and Louise. As such, it’s relatively easy to see where the lure of driving an icon that stands for things like rebellion, being on the road and having an adventure comes from. Just don’t let it end like those movies I mentioned - make sure you get safely back home!

What an inspiration! Thank you very much to Swa for his time and expertise; he truly is a hero of Highway 66.

Is there someone else you’d like to see featured in the Heroes of Highway 66 series? Leave me a comment and let me know.

Like this post? Check out my interview with Ron Warnick from Route 66 News.