Voices from the Road

Driving Route 66 in a vintage station wagon: A trip filled with nostalgia, gear oil, and pit stops

This road trip, like many of my past ones, started out with finding a vintage car on the other side of the country. Some months back, I purchased a 1961 Plymouth station wagon in Vancouver, Washington. Most people have their newly-purchased car shipped, but my idea of fun is to pick it up and drive it home. I love touring the U.S. and even more so in a classic car. You need to have troubleshooting skills and knowledge of automobiles if you want to road trip in a 60-year-old car, but that’s part of the adventure.

I took 9 days off of work, so I needed to drive west and back to North Carolina within that time period. I also wanted to get behind the wheel and see some of Route 66. It had been a few years since I traveled out west, but I longed to drive the Mother Road again. 

Before starting my solo trip, I had a friend drive the Plymouth to his place in Williams, California. My plan was to fly out on a Friday evening and land in California by the end of the day. I’d hang out on Saturday and Sunday and make sure the car was good to go for the trip. On Monday morning I’d drive down to Southern California and hop on Route 66 to begin my trek east. I had no specific itinerary but instead planned to just drive and stop at any places that caught my eye. I had a few favorite spots in mind, but for the most part I’d just play it by ear.

a station wagon at a vintage gas station

Meeting my new car

My friends picked me up from the Sacramento airport and I was in Williams by midnight. I was up early the next day and got a chance to look over my station wagon in person for the first time. The car is mostly original down to the paint. It’s equipped with a 318-cubic-inch V8 and a three-speed manual transmission, so I’d have plenty of power. The back was even packed full of extra car parts. I made sure everything was fit for my 2,800-mile drive. This car is definitely one of the nicer cars I’ve attempted to drive across the U.S. Many of my previous trips involved pulling an old car out of a junkyard, getting it roadworthy, and driving 3,000 miles. 

I left early in the morning via Highway 99 south toward Bakersfield, California. Once I reached Bakersfield, I hopped onto Highway 58 through the Tehachapi Pass. The V8 didn’t skip a beat on the steep grades, and I couldn’t believe how well everything was going—or so I thought.

The oil light came on just as I was rolling at 70 miles per hour. I was still in California and worried I would have to end my trip before even reaching Route 66. I pulled off the road and found that the oil pressure sending unit on the block was leaking oil, which had caused the warning light to come on. Luckily, I had an old set of Stewart Warner green line gauges and an oil pressure gauge line kit. I rigged the gauges under the dash so I could keep tabs on the oil pressure and got back on the road.

a green station wagon and man in front of a large green tiki head

The Mother Road at last

Outside Ludlow, California, I veered off I-40 and headed toward Amboy to check out the restored neon sign at Roy’s Motel and Cafe. For miles there was nothing but darkness until I finally saw the sign’s soft glow in the distance. I talked with the attendant and learned about the attraction’s history and future plans for the property.

I drove on and rolled into Kingman, Arizona, at night; almost everything was closed. I wanted to stay at the historic El Trovatore Motel but they were closed for the night. I drove up the road and found a room at the Ramblin Rose Motel. In the morning, I swung over to Mr. D’z Route 66 Diner. I always try to eat at local mom-and-pop places as much as possible—they almost never disappoint. Kingman has a lot to see but I was itching to get back on the highway.

One of my favorite stretches of Route 66 is in Arizona from Kingman through Peach Springs to Seligman. Not too far outside of Kingman, travelers will come across the “Giganticus Headicus,” a tall green tiki head at an old gas station and cafe. I pulled over to admire the landmark and other vintage cars parked on the property. 

The next stop was the Hackberry General Store. I talked with a few people, purchased a bottle of cola, and then continued on. I initially drove past the Grand Canyon Caverns but turned around and went back. I wasn’t in a rush and I’m a sucker for roadside oddities. I explored the grounds a bit and checked out the small museum and gift shop. 

After a scenic desert drive, I arrived in Seligman. I ate lunch at Delgadillo’s Snow Cap Drive-In, and got back on the highway. The scenery changes drastically from desert to snow-capped mountains and large evergreen trees. Williams, Arizona, is known as the gateway to the Grand Canyon, where you can take a detour off Route 66 to visit the national park. I’ve been there before, so I decided to skip it. 

I rolled into Flagstaff and everyone loved the car. But it was getting late, so I quickly searched for motels close by and found Earl’s Motor Court in Winslow. In the morning, I ate breakfast at the Falcon Restaurant. I ordered the famous chicken fried steak and thought the service was great.

a man stands in front of a green station wagon holding a sign that says "1836 mi"

Pit stops with 1,836 miles to go 

The back of my car was starting to get oily, which made me guess that I had some sort of leak. After a quick inspection I found the pinion seal was leaking. I drove all over Winslow trying to find a shop that had a grease pit or a rack but everyone was too busy to help, even though it was only a 10-minute job. After several failed attempts, I called Oxendale Auto Outlet. The mechanics enjoyed checking out my car; I pulled it over the grease pit and in a few minutes they had the plug off and topped the oil for me. I figured I’d just check the oil every so often for the rest of the trip.

I always stop at the Jack Rabbit Trading Post near Joseph City, Arizona. I purchased one of their mileage signs that shows the miles to your home from their location—I had 1,836 miles left to go. I made more stops at abandoned buildings and vintage signs along the way, and had a late lunch at Laguna Burger, in Laguna, New Mexico.

Albuquerque is usually a traffic nightmare, but after a lot of bumper-to-bumper driving, I stopped at the last Whiting Brothers Service Station in Moriarty, New Mexico. They don’t pump gas anymore, but they do sell batteries and perform small automotive repairs. 

Dirt roads and a meal of champions

I tried to make it another 2 hours to Tucumcari, New Mexico, before turning in for the night. Most of the motels were fully-booked, but I managed to get a room at Motel Safari. They’ve done a good job at keeping the vintage feel while still having some modern amenities. I arrived relatively late and all the food joints were closed, so I walked to a gas station to get dinner: beef jerky, a bag of hot fries, and a local beer.

I took old Route 66 out of Tucumcari and past San Jon, New Mexico, but the road turns to dirt, which may have been a bad idea in hindsight since my car was having trouble. You have to drive about 20 miles of dirt roads to end up in Glenrio, a ghost town located on the border of New Mexico and Texas. Adrian, Texas, is the midpoint of Route 66, located 1,139 miles from both Chicago and Los Angeles. It’s also home to Midpoint Cafe and The Bent Door. I’d been enjoying temperatures in the 70s or below, but now it was in the 90s—with no air conditioning in the 1961 Plymouth.

a vintage green station parked at an art deco vintage filling station

I continued on, figuring a bigger town like Amarillo, Texas, might have a repair shop that could check the rear axle oil level again. After striking out a few times, I found a local Jiffy Lube that topped it off with some gear oil I had bought just in case. In Shamrock, Texas, I stopped at the Tower Station and U-Drop Inn Cafe, featured in the movie Cars. The gas station was restored some years back and the cafe recently reopened. I ordered a milkshake and talked with the proprietor.

Farewell Route 66, hello home

I headed toward Oklahoma City and then to Ozark, Arkansas, where I stayed at the locally-owned Oxford Inn. I planned to drive the last 840 miles of my trip to North Carolina with no stops. I had breakfast at the Old South Restaurant in Russellville, Arkansas. It still has its old neon sign and for the most part is unchanged inside and out. I made one last stop to top off the gear oil and was back on the road.

I noticed there was a two-lane road alongside the interstate, so I veered off and traveled a section of Highway 70. This leg of the trip was quick—I had to be at work Monday and wanted Sunday to unpack and clean.

This journey was another great one, and I still didn’t have enough time to make every stop. People have preconceived notions that old cars can’t be trusted to travel long distances, but I’ve done it countless times and have always made it home. People want to talk to you about the car and hear your story—a surefire way to make an already-good road trip even better.

Meet the Roadtripper

Austin Swanger