Some towns are so great you just have to sing about them.
Like New York. (Where Frank Sinatra's vagabond shoes were longing to stay.)
Or San Francisco. (Where Tony Bennett left his heart.)
And, of course, Joplin, Mo. At least, it must have been good enough for one songwriter, inspired by a cross-country trip on the historic U.S. Route 66, to include it in a ditty made famous by Nat "King" Cole and sung by generations of high school jazz choruses everywhere.
Bobby Troup wrote "(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66" more than 60 years ago in 1946, but people are still humming his tune as they motor more than 2,000 miles through Joplin and the nine other places he names between Chicago and L.A.
Originally, the tune's energy reflected the exuberance with which people headed west on that route. Since then things have changed a little, and while Route 66 remains a symbol of America's love affair with the open road, today it is more famous for its kitschy gift shops, roadside oddities, and old, neon-splashed motels.
Still, Troup had good taste for the most part, and modern travelers using his lyrical travelogue as a guide will find that there remains plenty to sing about.
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There are a million things to do in this city, but in the spirit of making a westward journey the Gateway Arch seems the most appropriate. It was near here that explorers Lewis and Clark set off in 1803 on their famous expedition. The Arch, completed in 1965, is a shimmering, soaring, skybending arc of stainless steel that stands 630 feet tall. The views of downtown and the Mississippi River from the cramped top are amazing, if you're not too claustrophobic for the small trams that take you there. There's also a small museum at the bottom. Information: 877-982-1410 or gatewayarch.com.
Rediscover the charm of Route 66 here, where the historic road passes through a lovely rejuvenated downtown. While the route was born in 1926 and led generations of travelers west, it has since been eclipsed by interstate highways and actually was decommissioned in 1985. Parts survive as scenic byways, but others are no longer drivable. Unfortunately, what modern interstate drivers gained in speed and convenience they lost in character and fun. Information: 800-657-2534 or visitjoplinmo.com.
Troup's lyrics call this capital city "mighty pretty" and they don't lie. That beauty takes on a quiet, almost eerie quality at the site of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. Now the area is replaced with a grassy field filled with 168 empty chairs, one for each person killed. Entrance is granted through openings in two giant gates. One is marked 9:01 (one minute before the bomb went off) and the other is inscribed 9:03. In between is a serene pool of water and a reminder of what can change in a minute. A museum is next door. Information: 405-235-3313 or oklahomacitynationalmemorial.org.
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No, that's not a car graveyard sitting in an empty field off to the side of I-40 here, between exits 60 and 62. It's Cadillac Ranch, a free display consisting of 10 old Cadillacs half-buried, nose-down in a bleak, dusty field. Each car in the row of angled automobiles is caked in layers of wild, psychedelic graffiti that continue to get thicker with every visitor who grabs a can of spray paint — their own or one that happens to be lying around.
The area's Hollywood past lives on at the El Rancho Hotel, which has hosted everyone from John Wayne to Katharine Hepburn. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower stayed here too. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this 1937 hotel became a popular haven for movie crews because of its easy access to western landscapes and rustic character. Information: 505-722-2285 or elranchohotel.com.
Even though this city in northern Arizona is best known by travelers as a staging area for adventures elsewhere, like day trips to the Grand Canyon, don't overlook its historic downtown. The pedestrian-friendly streets are peppered with quirky shops, bookstores, art galleries, and a pleasant mix of cafes and microbreweries with live entertainment almost every night. Information: 800-842-7293 or flagstaffarizona.org.
Every place along Route 66 seems to claim the Mother Road as its own, but Kingman does it with particular tenacity. Signs are painted on silos and even the road itself. Its Route 66 Museum offers a short film and its displays trace the evolution of travel along the route that would become U.S. 66, from Native American trade routes to early wagon roads. Information: 928-753-9889 or kingmantourism.org.
The song says, "don't forget Winona," and for good reason. Other than an exit off of I-40, this unincorporated area has little to entice travelers. It's worth noting, however, that it's the only town in the song that does not appear in geographical order as one passes from east to west. (It's just east of Flagstaff.) Maybe Winona's importance, then, lies in something more valuable than another tourist trap: a rhyme for Arizona.
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At one point or another anyone making a cross-country trip will need to stop for supplies. Why not make them designer ones? This town is known far and wide for its outlets. Barstow Outlets has 12 stores and nearby Tanger Outlets has nearly 40, drawing busloads of visitors. From Banana Republic to Coach, it's all here. Information: 760-253-7342 (Barstow Outlets) and 760-253-4813 or tangeroutlet.com/barstow (Tanger Outlets).
San Bernardino, Calif.
Brothers Dick and Mac McDonald opened up the first McDonald's hamburger stand here in 1948 selling burgers for 15 cents and fries for 10 cents. While the original building is gone, the site still stands as a monument to the billions and billions of burgers sold in the years to come. The current owner doesn't advertise, but people come anyway. So he's put together a free little museum inside, a shrine to all things McDonald's, from surviving artifacts to cases full of Happy Meal toys. Information: 909-885-6324