The Most Kitschy, Quirky, Cool Stops On a Route 66 Road Trip | The_ONES
Get Your Kicks on Route 66
Out on Route 66 anything can happen. Anything and everything and nothing. The near-mythical vastness, the sun-bleached horizon, the pockets of forgotten pasts, and peculiar roadside attractions, are all part of the historic route’s magic and lore. The stuff that’s long been inspiration for big-screen classics, like Thelma & Louise and Easy Rider and even the charmingly animated Cars. Though much of the original route has been rerouted down new interstates, this is still road-trip country at its best.
And that’s exactly why, for Brooklyn-based best friends Darian Darling, Morgan Stuart, Mischa G., and Douglas Theodore Cornwall, III, Route 66 promised unparalleled adventure. It would be a soulful sojourn through America’s heartland, an immense backdrop for an epic road trip, and, in a way, the perfect rite of passage for Darian, the impetus of the trip. A lifestyle blogger, makeup artist, and NYC nightlife icon, Darian had decided it was time to head back west after more than a decade on the east coast. With a little help from her three fashion-world besties, she packed her New York life into an SUV and the four set out to travel as much of the historic Route 66 (which once stretched from Chicago to Santa Monica) as possible, on their way to her new home in Los Angeles. “I was hopeful the trip would go down without incident and as our luck would have it, it did!” says Darian. “We are a full queer clown show so it was definitely something to be mindful of,” she adds, recalling some uncertainty around how their collective over-the-top style and glitteratti outfits would be received. But there was only one notable encounter that took this New York fashion set by surprise. “The only time someone warned us about the locals was when our barista in a coffee shop in Memphis said, ‘Just to let you New Yorkers know, people are going to smile and say 'Hello' here,’” laughs Morgan, a photographer and the trip’s designated driver.
From old-timey house museums to home-style restaurants to an immersive technicolor art space, the daredevil group documented their favorite Route 66 spots—all while looking head-to-toe fabulous—so that we could follow along in their sneakersteps. Take a peek and find out what they loved, ate, discovered, and packed for the road. (Hint: No less than 10 pairs of shoes!)
Blue Whale of Catoosa, Oklahoma
In a nutshell, this is the only 80-foot-long concrete whale statue you’ll find in the world. It was the centerpiece of an amusement park in the 1980s that fell into disrepair despite having become a beloved Route 66 icon. It’s been brought back to life since, with picnic tables and a souvenir stand—which even sells blue-whale bottled water. “The lady who runs the place is really nice and she liked our wacky outfits,” says Morgan. “She told us about her Native American heritage and her past as a former swimsuit model.”
Pops 66 Soda Ranch, Oklahoma
You’ll want to refuel at this glass-fronted gas-station-slash-diner, which has the largest selection (700 kinds to be exact) of soda, sparkling waters, and bubbly fountain beverages in the U.S. The menu offers bottomless soda (natch) and you can add flavor shots, like butterscotch and Irish cream. (“Champagne soda exists!!” Morgan tells us.) Look for the gigantic spiral soda bottle outside—and the tricked-out motorcycles, too, since Pops is a popular bikers’ hangout. “We got to gawk at some really rad bikes as we ran around in circles until our soda-induced sugar rush wore off,” says Morgan.
OK County 66 in Arcadia, Oklahoma
There’s no place quite like John Hargrove’s quirky roadside museum, a colorful, fun, and joyfully bizarre rabbit hole dedicated to all things Route 66: miniature replicas of attractions seen along the way, vintage signs, and relics collected over time. You name it, he’s got it. “It’s basically his home and garage filled to the brim with memorabilia and old cars,” says Mischa G., a hairstylist and Morgan’s wife. “The inside is decorated like an old drive-in movie theater and 1950s diner,” she adds. It’s also where John screens movies when he’s not restoring old Thunderbirds. Make sure to take a moment to hop inside all the old cars parked around his lawn.
“I’ll never forget seeing my Converse dangling from a street sign at the roadside museum in Oklahoma and knowing I was halfway to my new home in Hollywood.”
Youngblood’s Cafe, Texas
Breakfast eggs with a side of chicken-fried steak pretty much sums up Youngblood’s Cafe, a hidden gem in Amarillo that plates Texas home cooking at its best. “Our Uber driver recommended this spot,” says Darian. “I’d mentioned I’ve never had the official down-home, country version of a chicken fried steak, and he said the one at Youngblood’s was the only one to ever eat. And it was pretty spectacular.” Headed up by local chef Tim Youngblood, who did stints at the likes of New York’s Plaza Hotel, the lodge-style cafe is all comfort with no pretense. “Our darling waitress even gave us rubber gloves for spray painting fun later that day at Cadillac Ranch!” adds Doug, a hair stylist and colorist.
Cadillac Ranch, Texas
“The coolest place ever that was totally unexpected,” says Mischa of the public art installation, which features Cadillacs half-plunged into the ground in an empty field. Created in 1974 by hippy artists from San Francisco who called themselves The Ant Farm, the idea was meant to capture the evolution of the Cadillac tail fin. Now you can tag all over the cars.
The Big Texan: Steak Ranch and Brewery, Texas
This tourist mainstay is classic Texan kitsch in all its XL glory. There’s a 54-unit candy-color motel with old-west-themed decor and a Texas-shaped pool, a gated horse park, and a saloon-style steakhouse that serves Lone Star State portions. “If you’re brave enough, you can partake in their 72 oz.-steak eating challenge. You can’t get up until you’re done and you must eat all the sides, which are all carbs,” says Morgan. “Also, everything has bacon in it—even the vegetables.”
Meow Wolf, New Mexico
“It’s a surreal and interactive dreamscape that’s like being transported to the planet in Avatar,” says Darian. “Except it’s an art installation.” Established in 2008 by an art collective of the same name, Meow Wolf’s first permanent immersive exhibition launched in 2016. And the team’s been building out mind-bending art experiences ever since. The latest involves a neon-lit world that can only be reached by walking through a refrigerator in an unassuming living room/kitchen setting. “It’s a kooky wonderland that starts out as a spooky house, and the more you explore the more wild it becomes, including alien abduction and crystal forests,” says Doug. “And not only is it a fantasy exploratorium, it’s also a live music venue,” adds Darian.
The Oldest House in The U.S., New Mexico
Located in Santa Fe’s Barrio Analco, this historic pueblo-style home dating to the 18th century is “definitely worth a quick stop,” says Morgan. One portion of the house is now a tiny gift shop, while on the opposite end the dirt floors, adobe walls, and low-ceilinged rooms have been preserved. You can take a peek inside the house, which is staged to show how the family lived and set up their rooms.
Brad's Desert Inn, Arizona
Another Route 66 time capsule, this bright-yellow ranch motel is keeping the spirit of the wild west alive—think lifesize cutouts of cowboys and eagles, vintage freeway signs, red barn doors. Owner Peter Schmidt, an Austrian tourist who fell in love with the route and Arizona landscape and never looked back, has been putting up roadtrippers in his cozy suites for decades and still runs the inn with his particular brand of homegrown hospitality. “They’re the friendliest owners and they pack you little paper bags of snacks with fruit and granola bars for your trip ahead,” Morgan says.
Joe and Aggie's Diner, Arizona
Right across the street from Brad’s, this pink diner is the oldest Mexican/American restaurant in Holbrook and a historic institution along Route 66. “It’s a super small hole-in-the-wall breakfast spot that hasn’t left the ’70s,” says Mischa, who swears their homemade red-and-green chile and eggs was her best meal on the trip. It’s also had its own Hollywood turn: The owner, Stanley, was the inspiration for one of the characters in Pixar’s Cars.
Rainbow Rock Shop, Arizona
Fun fact: Holbrook is filled with dinosaurs. Statues of them, that is. And you’ll find them looming out front of the Rainbow Rock Shop, a specialty store that is exactly what it sounds like. Shop owner Adam Luna spent 20 years building his Jurassic family out of concrete while also amassing fascinating geological finds. “They have all sorts of stuff sitting out in their lawn, like petrified wood that feels like smooth stone and crazy big rocks,” says Morgan.
“We're all queer and dress loudly, so we entered each state with a little hesitation, not knowing how anyone would feel about us. But everyone was so welcoming. Pretty much every state surprised us.”
The Flintstones Bedrock City, Arizona
The theme park, with all its Stone Age dinosaur-kitsch, needs no explanation. “This was totally an unplanned stop on the trip but when we drove by it seemed mandatory,” recalls Darian. “It was slightly run-down and dilapidated but the perfect Route 66 mix. The sprawling desolate vistas of Arizona just adds to the charm.”
Grand Canyon, Arizona
A worth-it off-route detour, the Grand Canyon (which Doug calls “the world’s largest crack”) is Americana personified. It’s starred in countless big-screen classics, like Thelma & Louise and National Lampoon's Vacation, and the clear plexiglass Skywalk, much like The Jetsons or Disney's Monorail, feels both retro and futuristic. Picture-perfect as it may be, just keep in mind that not all selfies are worth the risk. “Random strangers convinced us not to attempt to reach this one makeshift ‘lookout,’ bribing us with wine to come back to a safer zone!” recalls Doug.
Joshua Tree, California
No place captures the freewheeling spirit of southern California quite like Joshua Tree, with its breathtaking desert landscape, geological curiosities, and cast of characters. The best way to soak it all in is to reserve a night (or three) in one of the park’s nine campgrounds, which work on a first-come, first-serve basis during the summer months. “We drove to this 1970s airstream trailer at night and it was gorgeous being in a place where all the lights were made to go down for stargazing” says Doug. “It was the first night we really let loose so we just drank whiskey, listened to music, and looked up at stars and sky,” adds Mischa.
Beauty Bubble Salon and Museum, California
“Anywhere that has Marilyn Monroe cardboard standees, Betty Boop statues, vintage ’70s Farrah Fawcett hair-styling heads, and ’80s Barbie hair salon playsets all in one place has my seal of approval,” says Darian, describing this fabulous spot in downtown Joshua Tree that’s blown out with old-timey beauty memorabilia. Owner Jeff Hafler has been collecting vintage hair and Hollywood beauty relics for 30 years, “including the oldest blow dryer, a perm machine donated by Veronica Lake’s personal hairdresser, and a handwritten letter from Joan Crawford,” adds Doug.
The Moments They'll Never Forget
The good, the bad, and the just plain crazy-scary-funny highlights along the way.
“Going to Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas, was probably the coolest place ever that was totally unexpected. Legally spray painting existing art to make your own art! You could see the layers and layer of paint built up and peeled back.” —Mischa
Doug’s Screen-Worthy Get-Ups
“I had a lot of outfit inspirations in my head: Thelma & Louise, Too Wong Foo, Priscilla Queen of the Desert...so I just dressed campy and fun no matter where we went. Highly inappropriate clothing always, aka lots of silk!” —Doug
Learning About Murders
“The ‘soundtrack’ we ended up listening to mostly in the car was actually 'My Favorite Murder,' a true-crime podcast hosted by two LA-based female comedians. Darian and Doug were really great at finding the episodes that covered crimes that took place in the states we were visiting to really up everyone's anxiety levels.” —Morgan
The Desert Attack
“The assault by the jumping cholla cactus on all of us when we stayed in Joshua Tree will go down in history. It was like being in that horror flick from a few years back, The Ruins.” —Darian
Score the Crew’s Route 66 Kicks
More of the good stuff—a celebration of the people who inspire us and the classic kicks in their closets.
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