Some of My Favorite Route 66 Books

There have been many books published about Route 66. A simple web search turns up over 75 different non-fiction books with "Route 66" in the title and virtually all that I have checked were published in the last 25 years and a significant majority in the last fifteen years. In addition there are even some books that are fiction and perhaps the title comes from the author trying to capitalize on the highway as a setting or backdrop to their novel. There are map sets and calendars and videos listed as well. I think that most of these books were written to enhance the knowledge of Route 66 among us readers. Few of us have the budget to buy every book so where does one begin?

In my opinion the two very best Route 66 books are the two earliest comprehensive books published about thirty years ago: Route 66 by Susan Kelly (photographs by Quinta Scott) originally published in 1988 and Route 66   The Mother Road by Michael Wallis which followed in 1990. Both books are extremely well-researched and well-written by people who knew and understood the highway's history and its context within twentieth century America. Either book or, even better, both books (there is less overlap than one would expect) will serve not only as an introduction to Route 66 but also a solid history of the old road.

There have been other comprehensive Route 66 books published since the time of these two. One might think that a book published later would somehow be better. After all, additional research is possible and more facts may be discovered. I have purchased some of these other books and read others and most have excellent photography, illustrations and layout. But assuming that the reader has already read the two early pioneering books mentioned above, the reader may think, as I do, that some of these newer books have simply not added much to the history and understanding of Route 66 itself and a few books have been flat-out disappointing to me. Three books in particular are so riddled with errors even at the time that they were published that it is remarkable to me that they even were so. Some of these later efforts make the two early books cited above stand out that much more.

One key element of these two early books is the abundance of first person interviews of people who lived and worked on the old road during its developmental years and/or during its later halcyon years. I do not think that either Susan Kelly or Michael Wallis, as excellent writers as they are, could duplicate their landmark books today if they were beginning from scratch. Those interviews that were conducted in the 1980s made their books so very special by giving the reader a direct connection to the entrepreneurship and life on the old road. Most of the interviewees were in their 60s and 70s or even older back then. Now add up to thirty years to those ages to get to today and sadly nearly all of the featured people have left us: Jack Rittenhouse, Gladys Cutberth, Howard Litch, Lucille Hamons, Homer Ehresman, Russell Soulsby, Lillian Redman, Juan Delgadillo, Buster Burris, Bobby Troup, Lyman Riley (Meramec Caverns), Francis Marten (Our Lady of the Highway), Red Chaney (Red's Giant Hamburg), Will Rogers Jr., etc. And there are countless others mentioned briefly in either book who have surely passed by now too. Those interviews and these two books can not be duplicated anymore. The time has passed.

To obtain a first person interview today a writer would probably have to seek someone who as a child grew up on the old road, although a child would probably recall Route 66 from a different perspective than an adult. Some more contemporary book authors have interviewed the children with success though.

If you are fan of the trading posts and small tourist stops along the western third of Route 66 as I am, I recommend Thomas Repp's Route 66: Romance of the West. Mr. Repp's well-illustrated book provides comprehensive stories and histories about so many of the small trading posts and iconic businesses that once existed from Moriarty, New Mexico, west into Southern California. The emphasis is on stops in western New Mexico and eastern Arizona, which was the prime region for the ubiquitous "Indian Trading Post". This book is available from the usual retailers as well as directly from Mr. Repp's web site.

If you are a Mojave Desert buff and a Route 66 devotee like me, I recommend Joe de Kehoe's The Silence in the Sun. Here are the detailed histories and stories of the development of a number of small settlements and towns in the central Mojave Desert of California. Also of at least the same importance if not more so are the human interest stories that open windows into the lives of early residents in this remote area. Route 66 towns from Siberia and Bagdad in the west to Chambless and Cadiz in the east are covered. Several other settlements south of Route 66 are also explored in detail. This book is available directly from Mr. de Kehoe's web site.

Books that feature photographs from Route 66 are always enjoyable. As one who relies totally on my compact camera's automatic focus and exposure capabilities to get a viewable snapshot, I admire the artistic and technical skill of the photographers working the old road today. Many of these books focus on the photographs themselves and any storyline is secondary but there are some exceptions. My favorite photographic books are called Route 66 Lost and Found by photographer Russ Olsen. His angle is to begin with an old postcard or an historic photograph of a particular Route 66 building, business, main street, or intersection, as a "then" image and he pairs it with one of his fine contemporary photographs taken from the same location as a "now" image. If the "then" photograph is a black and white image Russ pairs it with his own black and white "now" photograph. If the "then" photograph is a color postcard Russ pairs it with his own color "now" photograph. Russ always includes a locating map and a short essay that complements the photographic presentation. He has two books published now and has just completed a third book which he refers to as "the ultimate collection." You can buy his books at the usual places or purchase an autographed copy from the author here.

Route 66 Guide Books

There have been several guidebooks to Route 66 published in the past twenty-five years and they have all added value at their time of publication. One persistent problem was that the sights and businesses that existed one year on the old road could be gone the next. Tom Snyder's Route 66 Traveler's Guide and Roadside Companion was a pioneering book when it was first published in 1990. A later version is also available. That paperback book is not particularly detailed but it does includes re-printed vintage AAA state maps and text that can get the traveler from Chicago to Los Angeles. The book perhaps is a bit too high-leveled and I missed some turns and some locations when I used it way back then. I consider it more of an armchair read nowadays that you can enjoy in your home.

Bob Moore and Patrick Grauwels published A Guidebook to the Mother Road in 1994 which established a standard for a useful mile-by-mile guidebook. It was written for east-to-west travel which was troublesome for me half the time when I traveled in the other direction but I used my copy for years and a number of trips. A later version co-authored by Mr. Moore was subsequently published.

Clearly the best overall guide book for most Route 66 travelers today is Jerry McClanahan's The EZ66 Guide for Travelers. This guide book was originally published by the National Historic Route 66 Federation in 2005. A second edition was published in 2008 that incorporated the updates known at that time. In February 2013 a 3rd Edition was published that included the changes of the previous five years and some improvements in instructions. And in October 2015 a new 4th Edition has been published which has all the changes and updates known and sixteen more pages. I think that the first and second edition guides are too old to comfortably use anymore. A third edition plus the on-line updates (see two paragraphs down) may be acceptable but in general unless you are given a third edition for free or for a few dollars, don't buy an older edition. The newest 4th Edition is the version that you will want to buy now. (Some people are selling their old guides on internet auction sites. If you can not verify that the seller is offering the 4th Edition, you can bet that it is an older edition.)

The layout of the book makes the instructions easy to follow in either a westerly or easterly direction. The book uses a robust spiral binding that allows it to be opened and laid flat to any page that you want. As a skilled artist, Jerry has clear and accurate maps and sketches provided in the guide book for every place that you may need them along Route 66. And as an experienced writer (Jerry and fellow 66 expert Jim Ross wrote many detailed articles on the history of various Route 66 aligments in Route 66 Magazine back in the 1990s), Jerry's text is helpful, friendly and encouraging too. You can buy Jerry's book from Amazon, many retail outlets or directly from the Federation here.

More importantly Jerry is committed to keeping The EZ66 Guide for Travelers updated. Here's how it works. You can access Jerry's Route 66 web site and then click on EZ66 Updates and you'll be taken to a web page where you can print out the updates known to that time. Just tuck those printed updates into your book or pencil in the changes and hit the road. It works for me! Thanks to the internet and Jerry's work this ongoing support is a major benefit that guide books in the past did not have. They were published once and accurate for that time only and there was no convenient means to refresh them as businesses, conditions, and reference points along the highway changed.

Another good book that is a helpful companion to Jerry's EZ66 Guide is The Route 66 Adventure Handbook by Drew Knowles. An updated Fifth Edition published in 2017 is available. This book does not have Jerry's detailed directions and street maps but it does offer photographs and more recommendations on what to see in certain towns and at some sights along the way. This is a paperback book with a conventional tight binding so bring a bookmark if you use it on the road. Although organized for east-to-west travel, this book can easily be used in either direction.

And finally one more guide book that is really an interesting historical read today and I still enjoy it very much. The very first guide book was simply called A Guide Book to Highway 66 and was written and self-published by Jack Rittenhouse in 1946. Mr. Rittenhouse foresaw the increasing migration and travel in the post-War years along US Highway 66 and wrote his booklet to address those needs. Of course, what existed back then infrequently exists today but surprisingly there are a number of old motor courts and buildings cited by Mr. Rittenhouse seventy years ago that still do exist. The University of New Mexico Press publishes "A Facsimile of the 1946 First Edition". It is in print today in the same form factor (it's small: about 4½" by 6") with the same rough printing quality and illustrations as Mr. Rittenhouse's original book.