Exploring history doesn’t always mean seeking out the biggest sites or the most famous objects. In this video, we go out seeking an abandoned picnic shelter hidden in the woods of Kananaskis. Steps from the highway but hidden from view and sitting alone for decades, a true relic from the early days of automobile travel in the area.
This weekend I learned about a place from Calgary’s past I had never heard of before — the Sunshine Auto Camp. Let’s dig a little into its history and see what we can learn about it.
With all three grain elevators in Milk River, Alberta currently undergoing demolition, it was time to get on the road and document these soon-to-be-gone giants of the skyline.
Skunk Hollow was a town located west of Water Valley, Alberta near the location where Silver Creek flows into the Little Red Deer River.
The town got its start in 1904 when two coal mines opened in the area. It was a short-lived community as the mines closed in the 1920s and the people moved away. At its peak, the population was about 75, but the town had many of the features you would expect of a town in that era: general store, post office, and dance hall.
The children of Skunk Hollow were educated at Bituma School, which opened in 1914 at a site about two kilometres east of Skunk Hollow. From what I found online, Bituma School operated up until 1958. At some point when the road was upgraded the school building was moved but I do not know where nor what its fate was.
At some point after the town ceased to exist, the area was home to a campground. During the floods of 2005 the bridge used to access the campground was washed away and the campground was never reopened.
Today the area is home to the William J. Bagnall Wilderness Park and offers some light hiking, picnic tables, and opportunity for exploration. Come check it out with us:
I have only been to this area once before, back in February of 2014. We need to come back at some point when the creek is lower (or we have more appropriate footwear) so we can explore further. Perhaps we should bring the drone with us so we can see if we can spot any remnants of the mining operations from the air.
If you have been following us for any length of time, you know we are big fans of the National Film Board of Canada movie called “Every Saturday Night”. We have made special trips out to places like Garden Plain just to see where some of it was filmed.
The stars of the show are certainly the band — The Badlanders. We made a trip out to Drumheller to purchase an album by band and then take the chance to explore a great abandoned place called Taylor Siding, down in one of the many valleys in the area.
With so many people planning their own Route 66 trips, I thought I would share a number of my random thoughts and lessons learned from our trip taken over sixteen days back in September and October last year.
In my previous post I talked about our planning process so now I’ll talk about what we learned along the way and how our actual execution varied from the plan. These are in no particular order, but rather my thoughts as they come to mind.
Route 66 Will Be Different For Everyone and That’s Okay
I mention this both as a tip for your own trip as well as a disclaimer for this post. “Your mileage may vary.” Everyone comes onto Route 66 with different interests, different timelines, different backgrounds, different means of transportation, and different expectations. Route 66 is a personal experience and you will need to customize it for what interests you the most.
For example, we focused our trip on the classic motels. We love the quirkiness of the individually owned places and the history of motels which have been welcoming travelers for decades. This worked for us and we loved it, but not everyone feels the same. If you prefer to stay in places with a more “you know what to expect experience”, you may want to pick stops with larger hotel chains.
You Will Need to Make Sacrifices Along the Way
Unless you have unlimited time, you will need to make some tough decisions about what to see and what you will have to skip. This applies to everything along the route — restaurants, motels, tourist attractions, old ruins, and alignments of the road itself. Around every corner there is more to see and at some point you will find yourself having to choose one thing at the expense of another.
We ran into this many times. Upon leaving Springfield, Illinois you are forced to choose between the older pre-1936 alignment of the road which runs through Girard and Nilwood or the newer alignment which runs close to the current path of Interstate 55. We opted for the older alignment but that meant we missed the Litchfield Museum and Route 66 Welcome Center.
We detoured from the old alignment across to Mount Olive to see the Soulsby Service Station but that detour meant we didn’t get a whole lot of time to check out the Chain of Rocks Bridge. We didn’t get to see the World’s Largest Catsup Bottle at all.
All of this occured in the first two days on the road and just in Illinois so it was a lesson we learned very early in the trip.
Our first day on the road we tried to follow Jerry McClanahan’s EZ66 Guide down to the letter — I mean every single turn in every tiny town. After getting a little messed up when trying to visit the Two-Cell Jail in Gardner, Illinois we soon learned that it was OK if we missed a turn or two.
On the drive from Springfield, Illinois to Cuba, Missouri, we were running a bit late. It was getting dark so rather than following Jerry’s book through the maze that was St. Louis, we just let the GPS route us to Cuba as fast as possible. That meant we even — gasp! — hopped onto the Interstate for a bit. The good news for us was that we knew we were backtracking to St. Louis the next day so we would get a chance to re-drive that stretch of road on Route 66 proper.
Bonus tip: Get Jerry’s book. Seriously. Do it.
Give Yourself More Time in the East
The Route 66 sites on the eastern portion of the trip are very close together, as are the towns. This means the stops are more frequent and it is harder to cover any distance. You should factor this into building your schedule. You also need to consider you will be dealing with a lot of traffic until you get a ways out of Chicago. We did not and after the first two days on the road we were feeling a little burned out because we were spending more time on the road than expected. It was overwhelming and I was wondering how we would manage to keep up that pace for the full sixteen days.
Give Yourself More Time in Los Angeles
Once you reach San Bernadino, California you get into traffic. A lot of traffic. It may not look far on the map but it takes a long time to cover the distance. You will see some crazy drivers, crazy cyclists, and it will be a little stressful. Watch the final video of our Route 66 series and you’ll see how burnt out I was after that drive:
Enjoy the People Along the Way
You will encounter a wide range of people along the route. Some of them will be business owners and some will be fellow travelers. All of them have a story to tell so take the time to listen. From Rich Henry at the Rabbit Ranch in Staunton, Illinois through to Dan Rice on the Santa Monica Pier, you will come across some of the nicest people during your trip. We had great visits with Lowell Davis at Red Oak II, Tony at the Jack Rabbit Trading Post and Bob “Croc” Lile at his art gallery in Amarillo. Too many people to mention, actually.
We also saw many of the same people multiple times throughout our trip. We came to recognize their vehicles and even exchanged contact information with some of them. One of the best memories was sitting around the fire at the Blue Swallow Motel in Tucucari with the operators and a group of roadies listening to the tales from the trail. It was kind of sad that many of the group we had leap-frogged all the way from Illinois with disappeared in Texas and we didn’t see them again.
And, nothing will prepare you for meeting Harley in Erick, Oklahoma. 🙂
Route 66 Will Change You
It’s hard to describe, but after doing Route 66 I feel very different. Maybe it’s because it has been winter here at home but traveling around our local area doesn’t hold the same appeal as it did before. We saw so many iconic sites and attractions on our trip that it feels like everything pales in comparison. I expect we’ll get back to our old habits soon, but completing Route 66 feels like such an accomplishment that I don’t know what to do for an encore.
You Will Want to Do It Again
If we had unlimited time and funds, we would set off on Route 66 again without hesitation. I would even consider doing it “backwards” from California to Chicago, just to watch the landscape change in a different manner this time. From the arid desert to the Ozarks, it would be like watching the Earth come to life.
You will see so much that you want to see again or you will miss things that you want to go back and catch another time. You could do an entire trip just focused on abandoned buildings or a trip just working on natural attractions like Meteor Crater and Meramec Caverns. There is something for everyone and it could be a different trip each time.
Prepare to Be Surprised
Along the way you will encounter things that surprise you. For example, while exploring the Jericho Gap in Texas, we stopped at the old Jericho cemetery. We found they had a billboard with old photos of some of the people buried there and we spent a whole bunch of time looking at them, piecing together their family trees, and then looking to find where they were buried. This was something that wasn’t even on our radar yet it became a really interesting stop.
Just because you have seen many of these attractions online doesn’t take away the impact of seeing them in person. We still reacted like a couple of kids when we got to climb all over the Blue Whale of Catoosa.
Don’t be Afraid to Explore Off the Route
Many people will make a side-trip to Las Vegas as part of a Route 66 trip. Or give themselves a day at the Grand Canyon. While these are not exactly Route 66 attractions, they are close enough to make them viable for people who want to extend their trips. Route 66 serves as a great guide for seeing America, but don’t be a slave to the road.
Remember to Enjoy It
Don’t get caught up in your itinerary and focus on getting to the next designated stop. Don’t let temporary setbacks (like our dead battery in Holbrook) get you down. It’s all part of the experience. Don’t get caught into thinking of all the attractions as nothing more than a checklist to complete. Live the road, experience the life, meet the people. Remember to look up from your map long enough to take in the sights. For many people, this is a trip of a lifetime so enjoy it while it lasts.
Do It Now
There will never be a better time to do Route 66 than right now. While some new attractions come up like Pop’s in Arcadia, it is much more common to see attractions disappear. For every preservation success story like the Painted Desert Trading Post, there are probably a dozen or more stories like the Summit Inn where historic buildings are lost to fire or neglect. There will never be more Route 66 than what exists today so get out and see it as soon as you can.
Since concluding our Route 66 adventure four months ago, I have continued to remain active on a number of Route 66 forums and Facebook groups. Those groups are full of people planning their own trips on the Mother Road and are always looking for tips and tricks about how to maximize their time.
I figured it might be an interesting idea to review of our trip, from planning through to lessons learned along the way, and consolidate those in a couple of posts so I have something I can link to that can be more in-depth than what the Facebook comment section will allow.
Phase 1: When Can We Go?
There really isn’t too much advice I can give here because this is going to vary from person to person depending on your circumstances. For us, the two biggest factors were work schedules and weather.
Thanks to my employment in a seasonal business, taking a large chunk of time off in the summer simply isn’t possible. I need to wait until the peak of summer travel is done before I can consider taking the time. Emily’s schedule is not nearly so cyclical so she has more flexibility in terms of the time of year.
Frankly, even if we could go in the summer months, I don’t think we would want to. Heading to the southern U.S. in the peak of summer would mean heat — and a lot of heat. On the other hand, we didn’t want to go in the dead of winter either because that would mean cooler temperatures and potentially bad roads, especially in the northern portions of our trip and at the higher elevations.
Once all that was factored in, we chose a departure in the latter half of September. That took us on to Phase Two.
Phase 2: How Long Can We Take?
This is a very common question for people planning a Route 66 trip. Again, there are a number of personal factors to consider. How much vacation time do you have? How long can you be away from work? And, of course, the longer you are on the road the more money it will cost so sometimes the best answer to this question is “How much can you afford to spend?”
After considering everything, we planned to take three weeks away from work to do the trip. We figured we would need two solid days of driving to get to Chicago and three days to drive home from Los Angeles. With those five days factored in, that would leave us 16 days to be on Route 66 itself.
Phase 3: Building the Schedule
My two biggest tools for trip planning are Google Maps and Microsoft Excel. Google Maps serves many purposes. For a year before we started our trip, I would save Pins to a Google Map of places we wanted to see along the way. This way it became a “checklist ” of sorts, making sure we didn’t forget something to include. And, of course, it comes in very handy for distances, drive times, and routing purposes.
Now, planning Route 66 is different than many other trips and Google Maps needs a little massaging to make it work. First, it tries to get you places the fastest way possible, which simply won’t do. For Chicago to Santa Monica, it wanted to route us through Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada. Nope, nope, nope. Lots to see through those areas, I’m sure, but we need to select the more southern route. Now, it has selected a whole lot of Interstate highways — I-55 from Chicago to St Louis, I-44 from St. Louis to Oklahoma City, I-40 from Oklahoma City to Barstow and then I-15 and a mess of freeways to Santa Monica. It mostly parallels Route 66 so it provides a good distance estimate, which in this case is 2138 miles.
Now for some simple math. 2138 miles divided by 16 days means we need to cover about 135 miles per day on the road. Figuring if we have an average driving speed of 50 MPH, that means a little less of three hours of driving per day, but let’s call it three to be safe. If we want to keep our average time on the road per day around 8-10 hours, that means we have 5-7 hours to see whatever we want along the way. That seems reasonable.
Now I move into building my Excel sheet. I created a bunch of columns, starting with the date on the left, the day of the week next, our starting point, our ending point, number of miles between them, and then a calculated field showing how many hours of driving I expect that to be. I then have further columns for the name of the motel we plan to stop at, our reservation confirmation number, and anything specific we want to see during the course of that day, especially if it is something larger like a museum that will take a bit of time. There simply wouldn’t be enough space to list EVERYTHING we want to see, especially if we were to count every little photo stop.
So, starting from the beginning, I plot out a rough itinerary. Using Google Maps to estimate distances, I build out all 16 days of our trip. At this point I’m not worrying about exactly where each day ends, I’m simply creating a lot of placeholders, roughly 135-150 miles apart — this forms the framework for the trip.
Now, from this point on, it becomes a process of constant refinement.
One of the things we were most interested in seeing were the classic Route 66 motels. We also knew we had certain ones we wanted to stay at such as the WigWam in Holbrook, Arizona, the Blue Swallow in Tucucari, New Mexico, and the Wagon Wheel in Cuba, MO.
We would look at our basic itinerary and see which stop was closest to that motel and then change our end point for that day to the motel we wanted. A quick search on Google Maps (and a lot of creating waypoints in between to force it to stay on Route 66 as much as possible) would give us new distances to plug into the speadsheet.
This process would continue over and over again.
“Hmm, if we want to stay here that means Day 9 is really long so we better change our stop that night to be here instead of here.” “Gee, if we want to have time to see this museum on that day we better not plan on getting all the way to such-and-such town that night.”
We would also factor in the days of the week. “Crap, we pass by the museum on a Sunday but it is closed so if we want to see it we’ll have to reschedule the stop the night before.”
That process would continue, often forcing us to make tough calls and prioritize certain things over others. With a limited amount of time it isn’t possible to do it all.
If there was a certain motel we wanted, we would book it once we had firmed up the dates. Many of the motels are very popular and can get booked up months in advance during tourist season so locking them in is crucial.
We tried to leave as much flexibility in our schedule as possible. We booked the specific motels we really wanted to stay at but didn’t book every night for the whole trip. If we came across something that took longer than expected, we wanted to be able to stop without going as far as planned and still be able to make it up later in the trip. The last thing we wanted was to be two hours from our destination with the sun going down and having to drive like crazy in order to make our reservation.
So, that’s how the plan came together. You can see the results in the YouTube playlist here:
Our Final Schedule
In the end, this is what our trip looked like. I’ll comment on our lessons learned in the next posting.
Day 01: Chicago, Illinois to Springfield, Illinois (210 miles)
Day 02: Springfield to Cuba, Missouri (187 miles)
Day 03: Non-travel day spent in St. Louis
Day 04: Cuba to Springfield, Missouri (179 miles)
Day 05: Springfield to Tulsa, Oklahoma (182 miles)
Day 06: Tulsa to Clinton, Oklahoma (191 miles)
Day 07: Clinton to Amarillo, Texas (176 miles)
Day 08: Amarillo to Tucumcari, New Mexico (113 miles)
Day 09: Tucumcari to Santa Fe, New Mexico (178 miles)
Day 10: Non-travel day in Santa Fe
Day 11: Santa Fe to Gallup, New Mexico (199 miles)
Day 12: Gallup to Holbrook, Arizona (99 miles)
Day 13: Holbrook to Williams, Arizona (121 miles)
Day 14: Williams to Needles, California (177 miles)
Day 15: Needles to Barstow, California (161 miles)
Day 16: Barstow to Santa Monica, California (133 miles)
Total Distance: 2306 miles