Stunning landscapes, quirky attractions, historic architecture and brightly lit motel signs surround Route 66. But it is the people along the way who help shape the character of the Mother Road.
VOA Learning English traveled the entire length of Route 66. In each state, in each city, and at each stop we met people who are connected to the Mother Road. Some of those people have grown up right along the road. Others moved there later in life to open a business. And some, like us, were just passing through.
This week, we tell you about some of the characters we met during our travels.
Melba Rigg, Galena, Kansas
For decades, the Kan-O-Tex service station sat abandoned along Main Street in Galena, Kansas. It was one of the many abandoned businesses along the historic U.S. Route 66. When the road was decommissioned in the 1980s, entire communities disappeared.
But in 2007, Kan-O-Tex’s fate changed when four local women purchased it and opened Four Women on the Route. They created a gift shop and tourist center for modern-day Route 66 travelers. Melba Rigg was one of the women. She and the other original owners helped revitalize Galena’s section of Route 66.
Today, the shop is known as Cars on the Route. The new name plays on the popular 2006 animated films “Cars,” which featured several stops along Route 66.
Melba is better known as “Melba the Mouth.” Just listen to her speak and you will understand how she earned this nickname.
At Cars on the Route, Melba meets tourists from all over the world. And she suggests the travelers visit other shops along Route 66. Melba calls the people who live along Route 66 “one big family.”
“We want to support one another. We're just like a big ole' family. Route 66 is a big ole' family. I mean, you got your troublemakers and you got your crazies, I mean, you know, and you got your sweethearts. And there's a lot of us out here that we're trying to get the young kids involved in Route 66."
Melba knew all about one member of that Route 66 family, Jeannie Tait. We just happened to have met Jeannie in a bowling alley the night before.
Jeannie Tait, Lebanon, Missouri
Jeannie Tait has lived her whole life in Lebanon, Missouri. Route 66 goes right through her small town. Locals know Jeannie as an excellent bowler.
She practices at Starlite Lanes, a bowling alley right along the Mother Road. A photograph of Jeannie hangs on the wall.
The bowling alley opened back in the 1950s. It sits across the street from the family-run Munger Moss Motel, where Route 66 travelers have been staying since 1946.
Jeannie Tait has clear memories of the Mother Road in its heyday.
“I'm amazed that we could even travel the road as narrow as it was. And, of course, the cars back then were so huge. You know they didn't have these little compact cars. They had these big, long, wide Cadillacs."
She says Route 66 created business and brought travelers to her small town.
Stephanie, Elk City, Oklahoma
Stephanie tends bar at Knucklehead Red’s in Elk City, Oklahoma. She tells us that the name is for the owner who has red hair. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary defines knucklehead as “a stupid person.” But is also the name of a kind of Harley Davidson motorcycle engine.
And Knucklehead Red’s is definitely a biker friendly bar. So friendly, Stephanie says, that visitors often drive their bikes right through the front door and park them on the dance floor. The walls are covered with gun rights posters and big photographs of country music stars.
Stephanie is a transplant from southern California. She says she loves Elk City and does not miss the west coast.
Boris, Santa Fe, New Mexico
We also met another transplant in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Boris was born in Bulgaria and came to the U.S. years ago. He is a colorful character. On the day we met him, he wore a bright striped flannel shirt and blue jeans. But someone had painted pictures on the blue jeans. Atop Boris’ head is a white fedora hat with a crisp black brim.
Boris is stretched out on the grass in the middle of the city’s main square. Artists from around the region come to the square to sell their works.
Boris, himself, is an attraction. People come up and talk to him every few minutes. Boris seems to be holding court.
He speaks with a slight accent when he talks. But he comes across as a Santa Fe native. He can talk for hours about his adopted city, its history and its culture.
Michael Fox, Oatman, Arizona
Michael Fox has lived in the small town of Oatman, Arizona for 25 years. He is one of just 129 residents. On most days, tourists greatly outnumber Oatman locals.
We notice Fox as soon as we arrive in town. He is sitting on a bench outside of a souvenir shop. Fox is surrounded by wild burros that he is feeding by hand. Large numbers of the animals roam the streets of the town every day. They are among Oatman’s tourist attractions.
Michael Fox also entertains visitors. But he is a jack of all trades.
“Right now, I do pretty much anything. I play music in the hotel for tips. I do gold prospecting out in the mountains. I do wire-wrap jewelry and make feathers out of horn, and a little bit of this stuff and that.”
We stopped at the hotel later on for lunch. Micheal Fox is up on stage.
We enjoy his performance and not just for the music. Fox is also kind of an Oatman historian. He entertains the crowd with stories about the town.
Deven Perkins, bicyclist
Deven Perkins was among the tourists in Oatman. He is far from his east coast home of New Hampshire.
Perkins was in the middle of traveling across the country on his bike. No, not a Harley. Perkins’ bike has no motor. It is just a regular human-powered bicycle.
The 26-year-old started his trip in Bar Harbor, Maine, one of the eastern-most points in the U.S. Once he reached Chicago, he met up with the Mother Road.
Perkins listed Chicago and Flagstaff, Arizona, as his favorite cities along Route 66. But he said he also enjoyed Oatman and its wild burros and Old West look.
He almost missed out on Oatman entirely. The intense heat and the mountain road that leads to the town concerned him.
“I almost didn't take this route, because of the pass and the heat. But I decided to just, 'cowboy up,' I guess, you can call it now around here.
The heat is the toughest part of the ride, the cyclist said as he took off from Oatman. Sure enough, we found him repairing his tire along the side of the road later that day, in the middle of the Mojave Desert.
Fran Houser, Adrian, Texas
A brightly colored sign that reads “Midpoint Cafe” stands tall above the flat landscape in Adrian, Texas. The cafe is at the geographical midpoint of Route 66. It opened in 1928. During Route 66’s heyday, it operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Today, the friendly cafe serves coffee and food. It has become famous worldwide for its hospitality and its “ugly crust pies.”
Fran Houser owned Midpoint Cafe from 1990 to 2012. She is old friends with Melba the Mouth. The two share "Cars" fame. Fran herself was the inspiration for the character Flo in the film.
Fran decided to retire in 2012, and sold Midpoint Cafe. But she soon missed meeting people from around the world.
So she opened up another business right next to the cafe -- Sunflower Station. The small shop is a great place to buy interesting gifts and try some of Fran’s baked goods. Fran is back in action, talking with international tourists and sharing her love of Route 66.
Fran often tells her visitors to be sure to visit the 66-to-Cali shop on the Santa Monica Pier.
Dan Rice, Santa Monica, California
Fran Houser's friend, Dan Rice, is the owner of that Los Angeles business. He opened 66-to-Cali in 2009. Rice raises funds and awareness about historic Route 66 to help protect and revive the Mother Road. The businessman has travelled the entire route 29 times.
Rice knows many of the business owners and residents along the way. He meets Route 66 travelers every day at his shop.
Dan Rice says it is the shared connection among all those people that will help keep Route 66 alive.
I’m Caty Weaver.
And I’m Ashley Thompson. Join us again next week for more about our Route 66 journey.
Words in This Story
stunning - adj. very beautiful or pleasing
quirky - adj. very beautiful or pleasing
abandoned - adj. left by the owner
revitalize - v. to make (someone or something) active, healthy, or energetic again
transplant - n. a person who has moved to a new home especially in a different region or country
roam - v. to go to different places without having a particular purpose or plan
heyday - n. the time when someone or something is most successful or popular
cowboy up - idiom. to make a serious effort to overcome something difficult