Rt. 66 for Vegans: Then and Now. A Brief Travel Guide for the Mother Road.
In August in 1995, my future husband and I loaded some bags, a cassette case and our sweet dog Lenny (RIP) into my Chevy Cavalier (RIP) and took off down Route 66, starting in Chicago and wending our way across much of the midwest to New Mexico. We didn’t have enough time off work to make it the whole way to California but we were armed with maps, Route 66 books and vague plans, having charted out our path in the weeks prior and we were determined to take as many of the original roads as we could. By the time of our Mother Road adventure, many of the original roads had been paved over but, in true pre-cell phone, pre-internet fashion, some Route 66 buffs had painstakingly described the lay of the land in their books, like “Turn right at the red barn, turn left at the last elm tree, go over the stone bridge and keep driving about 800 feet until you see an old playground on the left. Turn right. This road is part of the original Route 66.” So it was a slow, winding, meandering and quintessential road-trip, perfect for this time in our lives together when we were apartment-dwellers and before we became parents: free of many responsibilities, we just allowed ourselves to drift across Route 66 like a couple of carefree tumbleweeds and their tumble-dog.
The one thing that added a bit of a wrench to our untroubled perambulation was food. We’d gone vegan in February of that year and it was challenging enough to find vegan food in our home base of Chicago in 1995, let alone in the giant, meaty swaths of land we would encounter before we got to Santa Fe. We did have our trusty and dog-eared restaurant directory by the Vegetarian Resource Group and the Tofu Tollbooth (yes, it was a real thing and a lifesaver at the time) but in the days before cell phones and widespread internet, it was more than a little possible to drive hundreds of desperately hungry miles in anticipation of the nearest listed option only to find a “for rent” sign and cobwebs in the deserted storefront window. “Womp, womp” doesn’t begin to describe that kind of hangry. Despite this, we managed, and the trip was unforgettable but the food aspect made it tricky. Let’s just say we ate a lot of nutrition bars.
Almost 25 years later, it is so much easier to road-trip as a vegan, not just because of the radically increased options but the technology, like the HappyCow app, that make it so much less complicated. There’s a part of me that feels a bit of a wistfulness for those old days of white-knuckling it through less than hospitable environments and occasionally striking gold but going hungry more often than not. It certainly helped to make me more resourceful as well as grateful for the relative abundance of today, but I wouldn’t trade the increased access for anything because it means it’s easier for people to make plant-based choices. With the summer right around the corner, I’m thinking about road-trips and main streets and discovery and long conversations with a 50-pound beagle-basset hound panting on my lap so that means I’m also thinking about Route 66. It would be so much easier today. If you are looking for a one-of-a-kind adventure this summer, I highly recommend exploring this historic highway, that which is left of it. Here are some essential vegan eats and fun stops along the way. Most are just convenient to Route 66 (rather than on it) and some are a bit of a distance but this is about adventure, right? If you want to stick to the road or close to it, use an app like HappyCow to direct you to your nearest and best options. You will probably have your own preferences for vegan food options and other stops along the way. Please share those in the comments.
Vegan Eats: The Chicago Diner, Chicago
Not too far from where Route 66 began at Jackson Blvd. and Michigan Avenue, I recommend driving about 20 minutes north on the iconic Lake Shore Drive to the Chicago Diner on Halsted for a classic vegan dining experience, if not a Route 66 one, though the diner setting makes up for it. While the restaurant, founded in 1983, is vegetarian rather than vegan, ordering without dairy or eggs is the default mode now. Slide into one of their comfy booths, try their Poutine, world famous Radical Reuben and a Peanut Butter Cookie Dough Shake if you want to fuel up for a proper kick off to your Route 66 adventure.
Roadside Attraction: Gemini Giant, Wilmington
Even if you wanted to, you couldn’t probably miss the Gemini Giant “Muffler Man” in Wilmington, 60 miles southwest of downtown Chicago. The 28-foot-high green spaceman is a welcome sight for travelers and commuters along Route 66, one of three styles of mid-century metal Goliaths built to promote local businesses.
Natural Beauty: Lincoln Memorial Garden, Springfield
Much of the Illinois state capital is a tribute to its most famous son, Abraham Lincoln, who was born in Kentucky but resided in Springfield from 1837 until 1861, when he left the Sangamon County county seat to serve as the 16th President of the United States. (Maybe you’ve heard of him?) Today, the Lincoln Memorial Garden is a native woodland designed by world famous landscape architect Jens Jensen. The 100-acre site features six miles of interconnected trails that wind through the garden’s restored prairies, woodlands and wetlands, offering a meditative and peaceful environment for travelers, nature lovers and history buffs alike.
Vegan Eats: Lulu’s Local Eatery, St. Louis
Looking for a vegan café and ping pong bar in one? Lulu’s Local Eatery has you covered! The whole menu looks appealing (and very affordable) but the Poké Lettuce Wraps with sushi rice, watermelon poke, cucumber, radish, avocado and scallions topped with spicy mayo and black sesame seeds as an appetizer is calling my name and the Banh Mi Tacos with five-spice marinated jackfruit and lots of crunchy, shredded veggies looks like it’s also right up my alley. It looks like there is dogger-friendly outdoor seating available on their patio, too! Lenny would give it two paws up.
Roadside Attraction: Gary’s Gay Parita, Ash Grove
A fully restored Sinclair gas station from 1930, Gary’s Gay Parita has original fuel pumps and is jam-packed with curio from the early days of Route 66, when it was one of the first highways in the United States.
Natural Beauty: Route 66 State Park, Eureka
Close to the Meramec River, Route 66 State Park is a great place to hike, identify the more than 40 kinds of birds and simply inhale some glorious nature. With a historic roadhouse from 1935 serving as today’s visitor center, you can also get your nerd on by enjoying their memorabilia from the Mother Road. Deer, foxes, snakes, raccoons and wild turkeys call Route 66 State Park home.
Vegan eats: It’s complicated, but Joplin, MO
Okay, eating in Kansas is super tricky because only about 13 miles of Route 66 cuts through the southeastern corner of the state and it’s not a very vegan-friendly area as it is. I think I slept through the Sunflower State in 1995. What I have decided to do here is cheat a little and recommend picking up a meal in nearby Joplin, MO at one of several natural foods stores and taking it on the road with you to enjoy this little sliver of Kansas. You can choose from Suzanne’s Natural Foods or Fox Farm Whole Food for prepared vegan options or, if you want more of a restaurant experience, check out Instant Karma Hot Dogs for vegan Meatloaf and Mash or a Chili Cheese Coney Dog with dairy-free cheese and house-made meatless chili.
Roadside Attraction: Baxter Springs Independent Oil and Gas Service Station, Baxter Springs
With just over 4,000 residents at the 2010 census, Baxter Springs is the most populous town in Cherokee County and is at the edge of the Ozarks by the Spring River basin. Here you will find the Baxter Springs Independent Oil and Gas Service Station, a National Registry of Historic Places cottage-style gas station built in 1930, a survivor from an era when gas companies were trying to blend their stations in with the local homes. Today, the former Phillips 66 station serves as the Kansas Route 66 visitor center.
Natural Beauty: Brush Creek Bridge, Baxter Springs
Okay, now it’s time to unpack your food from Joplin (you didn’t eat it yet, right?) and enjoy the Brush Creek Bridge in Baxter Springs, also known as the Rainbow Bridge, the only bridge of its kind on Route 66 in Kansas, built in the 1920s using a patented concrete and steel truss design. Stark white (not rainbow hued, sadly), the 130-foot bridge was essential for helping early Route 66 travelers cross the Brush Creek. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, it is a narrow bridge that is easy for pedestrian crossings and nearby picnicking.
Vegan Eats: The Loaded Bowl, Oklahoma City
Now we’re talking! If Kansas was a little lacking in the food department, in Oklahoma we can find a food truck that was so successful, the owners transformed it into a brick-and-mortar vegan restaurant. The Loaded Bowl focuses on “conscious comfort food” that will be a sight for sore eyes and rumbly tummies, the kind of place we could have only dreamed about in 1995. A commitment to paying workers living wages and using sustainable products and practices only makes it that much more appealing. I would order the Down Home Bowl, which is cashew mac and cheese served with bbq vegan protein and grilled veggies. (Most of their dishes can be made gluten-free, too.) I would wander over to the bakery case and probably get the Peanut Butter Swirl Brownie or Turtle Cheesecake and pick up some donuts for the road. Just in case.
Roadside Attraction: Lucille’s Service Station, Hydro
Okay, kids, it’s story time. When we drove through Oklahoma on our inaugural trip down Route 66 in 1995, several of our guidebooks insisted that we stop in and visit Lucille Hamons of Lucille’s Service Station in Hydro. We did as we were told and were not disappointed. This photo is of our little man Lenny with the splendid Lucille. Lucille’s nickname was “the Mother of the Mother Road” as she was known for her generosity and dedication to motorists since the 1940s. We stopped into Lucille’s expecting to say hello to a legend and buy some small provisions, but this lively, friendly lady asked us if we’d like to stay for a visit and look at her book of newspaper clippings and mementos. We said that we’d love to but it was very hot and we couldn’t leave Lenny in the car. She said, “Well, just bring him in!” We sat with her at her table for about an hour, soaking up her warmth and kindness while Lenny cooled off on the floor by her feet and she offered some scratches. In the middle of our conversation, a German tourist, sweating profusely in the August heat, ran in and just yelled, “Budvieser!” As we sat blinking at him, he impatiently opened the cooler and grabbed a six-pack of beer. (Speaking of, almost all the fellow travelers we met while making our way to New Mexico were Europeans, clutching their maps and Route 66 travel books in their native languages. The Mother Road has a legendary status elsewhere, apparently.)
Lucille passed away in 2000, sadly, but her station remains one of the most important landmarks on Oklahoma’s section of Route 66. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places two years after we visited, Lucille’s station is one of only two upper-story, out-thrust Bungalow Craftsman style stations left on Oklahoma’s stretch of Route 66, built with the Hamons’ living quarters located above the service station. I bet you will still feel Lucille’s warm embrace there.
Natural Beauty: Oxley Nature Center, Tulsa
A free nature center with 10 different major trails and topography that includes ponds, prairie, marshes, woods, a lake and a swamp as well as a wildlife observation area, fauna and flora enthusiasts will not get bored here. Deer, raccoons, bobcats, minks, skunks, coyotes, flying squirrels and beavers as well as more than 200 avian varieties can be seen around Oxley Nature Center and the adjoining Redbud Valley Nature Preserve.
Vegan Eats: The Açaí Bar, Amarillo
Dear lord, we were so very hungry in Texas. I remember Amarillo as a kind of bottoming out point after a very hungry, fruitless (no pun intended) search for vegan vittles in Oklahoma. Today, you can refuel at a number of places, but The Açaí Bar looks the most appealing to me after that much time inhaling road dust. You can enjoy their signature fruit bowls, chia cups, smoothies or a couple different kinds of toast if you’re looking for something savory instead. I’d be ordering the Matcha Green Tea Bowl with kale, bananas, pineapples, almond butter, dates, matcha, maca, flax, chia seeds, coconut milk and the Kickin’ Cucumber Toast featuring sourdough bread, avocado, hummus, cucumber, olive oil, cayenne pepper, cracked pepper and Himalayan salt. The Açaí Bar is vegetarian, not vegan, so be sure to specify you want honey- and dairy-free options.
Roadside Attraction: The Cadillac Ranch, Bushland
Maybe I am partial to The Cadillac Ranch because it was one of our stops, but it’s a low-key, iconic destination and, in our era of social media, a great locale for a photo or two. The Cadillac Ranch was created in 1974 by the San Francisco artist collective known as the Ant Farm, and it features ten graffitied Cadillacs, half-buried nose-down in the dry Panhandle dirt of an empty field. Visitors can spray paint their contribution to the Caddies but you are also more than welcome to just soak in this fun slice of Americana folk art.
Natural Beauty: Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Canyon
Pop on over to Palo Duro Canyon State Park for the second biggest canyon system in the United States, situated conveniently in the heart of the Texas Panhandle. Here you will find breathtaking natural beauty on the more than 30 miles of hiking and biking trails as well as the striking ancient canyon itself, which is 120 miles long, 20 miles wide, and is up to 800 feet deep. You might see wild turkeys, white-tailed and mule deer, coyotes, bobcats, roadrunners (perhaps being futilely pursued by coyotes? Beep, beep!) and many species of snakes and lizards when exploring this ruggedly beautiful state park.
Vegan Eats: Thai Vegan, Albuquerque
Ah, my first Thai food since I hit the road. I think I would die of happiness here. I would get the Tom Yum Soup and the Red Curry for my main dish, because that is so hard to find without animal ingredients otherwise. Banana Spring Rolls sound like the perfect cap to a meal. Thank you, Thai Vegan!
Roadside Attraction: New Mexico Route 66 Museum, Tucumcari
How can you not want to continue absorbing all the Route 66 culture possible once you’ve made it this far? The Mother Road is addictive. Billing itself as home to the world’s largest Route 66 photo exhibit, the museum is a place to trace the history of the road with a particular focus on the New Mexico portion. You will also find a vintage diner display with a Rock-Ola jukebox, antique gas pumps, porcelain signs, memorabilia and lots of classic automobiles.
Natural Beauty: The Santa Rosa Blue Hole, Santa Rosa
There is so much to natural beauty to see in New Mexico, I would never do it justice but I will still take a stab at it because that’s my whole purpose with writing this. I recommend checking out the Santa Rosa Blue Hole, a bell-shaped pool that maintains a constant, refreshing 62 degrees and is 82-feet in depth, which is no small thing to find in the desert and the reason why the lake, a geologic phenomenon created by the Santa Rosa sink, attracts so many divers. The sapphire, artesian spring replenishes itself every six hours with fresh, clean water thanks to the underground aquifer that feeds it.
Vegan Eats: Red Curry Vegan Kitchen, Flagstaff
Yes, we just had Thai food in NM but who cares? Red Curry Vegan Kitchen features Thai and Vietnamese cuisine and is the only vegan restaurant in town so we would be happy to pull up here. Just glancing at a menu, my eyes are tempted by the Spicy Lemongrass Noodle Soup and the Mussamun Curry — potato, onion, carrot, cauliflower and spinach in peanut curry sauce — because I already got red curry in NM. Oh, well!
Roadside Attraction: Meteor Crater, Meteor City
What happens when an asteroid traveling 26,000 an hour hits Northern, AZ? Meteor Crater, that’s what. The collision may have happened 50,000 years ago (give or take a few) but it left a lasting, um, impression on the landscape near Winslow. At nearly one mile across, this is the best preserved meteorite-impact site on earth and even has a visitor center.
Natural Beauty: Sedona
A city of just over 10,000 people in the Upper Sonoran Desert of AZ, Sedona is most famous for the gorgeous orange-to-red sandstone layered rock formations that are unique to the area. Hike or bike a trail, go on a rafting adventure or just behold Sedona’s unforgettable views. It’s no wonder artists and spiritual seekers have been drawn to this desert community for years. Oh yeah, the Painted Desert and the Grand Canyon are pretty impressive, too.
Vegan Eats: Shojin, Los Angeles
Well, you powered through some tough states and now you are on easy street. With more than 96 vegan restaurants in the Los Angeles metro area listed on HappyCow, you, lucky herbivore, have an embarrassment of riches to choose between. I honestly couldn’t decide so I took it to a jury of my peers on Facebook and crowdsourced it. (You can check out the Facebook post to see all the responses.) There were lots of opinions but it seemed that Shojin had the most enthusiasm with Little Pine, Equelecuá Cuban Vegan Cafe and Sage Bistro right behind it. At Shojin, I would get the Sweet Orange Chicken for an appetizer (tofu nuggets, cauliflower, green shishito pepper and orange dressed in a sweet orange sauce) and the Crunchy Tiger sushi roll, which is an avocado wrapped soy chicken and asparagus roll topped with crispy potato served with wasabi-mayo and sweet tamari sauce. Oh, and I’d stick around a lot longer to check out the many, many other LA options.
Roadside Attraction: Calico Ghost Town, Yermo
Is it probably cheesy? Yes, but we haven’t really indulged too much in the kitsch while on this Route 66 tour and there will be plenty of temptations along the road. Calico Ghost Town is an old West mining town that has been around since 1881, during which time the town’s 500 mines produced over $20 million in silver ore over a 12-year span. A historic landmark due to its status as a silver rush ghost town, Calico is a popular attraction today as part of the San Bernardino County Regional Parks system. Come here to explore or visit the on-site museum, an authentic original silver mine, the Odessa railroad train, the Mystery Shack (love those tacky things!), pan for gold or do a ghost tour. The choice is yours.
Natural Beauty: Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica
We began this tour at the end of Route 66 (Chicago) so it only makes sense that we’d end at her beginning on the Santa Monica Pier. This 100-year-old pier includes an amusement park with a carousel dating back to 1939 but, really, it’s all about the beach and the magnificent ocean. Looking out over the Pacific with the mild breeze in your hair, you have the perfect locale for ruminating on your cross-country adventure and dream of ones still to come.