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A cross-country journey on historic Route 66

An MU photojournalism master's student recounts his trip from Rolla to Southern California through photos.

March 21, 2013 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Ingrained in American legend, the Mother Road stretches roughly 2,450 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles. My journey examines the color and faces along Route 66, the desolate outposts and retro kitsch. From guitar-playing hillbillies in Oklahoma to vagabonds in the California desert, the siren’s song of a bygone era draws thousands to drive the route. Avoiding the interstate and in search of two-lane byways, the journey is winding and runs through dusty towns and shuttered shops. The transit from east to west is reminiscent of America’s historical expansion and entwined with echoes of Manifest Destiny, including the good, the bad and the ugly.

My journey began May 8, 2012. I had five days alone to traverse almost 1,700 miles of open country. I was headed home to Southern California for an internship and wanted to make it back by Mother’s Day. It was my last road trip with my trusty old SUV, affectionately named The Yacht, with 160,000 miles on it. The Yacht had done half a dozen cross-country trips, and this was its farewell cruise, a journey home with no particular schedule. I started on Route 66 in Rolla, 93 miles south of Columbia.

View Stuart Palley's Route 66 journey in a larger map

Stuart Palley is an MU photojournalism master’s student. Palley earned silver in the interpretive project category for the 2012 College Photographer of the Year competition for his Route 66 photographs. This month, named Palley one of the top-40 photojournalists under the age of 25.

A gallery of Palley's photographs is available on the CPOY website.

Adrian, Texas. An old Chevrolet sits outside the MidPoint Cafe. The restaurant marks the halfway point of Route 66. Photo by Stuart Palley

Red Oak II, Mo. I stopped in Joplin to visit my friend who was still rebuilding his house after the May 2011 tornado. In nearby Red Oak II, I met local artist Lowell Davis, who paints scenes of rural America. Photo by Stuart Palley

Amarillo, Texas. In Erick, Okla., I ran into some self-professed rednecks who owned a shop filled with old road signs and gas pumps. Sitting in a rocking chair, I was serenaded with a banjo and a hillbilly rendition of Nat King Cole Trio’s “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66.” Later that day I met up with some friends at Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas, (pictured) and stayed overnight on the plaza in Santa Fe, N.M., the oldest capital city in the U.S. I’d spent considerable time in New Mexico and found myself in familiar territory and cramming in as much green chile as my stomach would hold. Photo by Stuart Palley

Albuquerque, N.M. Next door to a diner on Central Avenue downtown, a Chevrolet sedan of late 1950s vintage was parked next to a pawnshop. Two booths down, a man in a Stetson and patterned Southwestern-style cowboy shirt read the morning paper. Photo by Stuart Palley

The route meandered along hills while traffic on the interstate passed me by. It was peaceful, really, to know that I was moving along in no particular hurry, with no particular place to end up but home a few days away. I can’t describe the feeling, other than freedom, complacency and complete presence in the moment. There were cows in a field to the north against a sloping Arizona mesa underpinning a blue sky while afternoon rain moved in. Photo by Stuart Palley

Somewhere past the eastern Arizona border, I stumbled upon a closed trading post on land that is now used to graze cattle. A man drove up and announced himself as a professor from Diné College. He had keys to the locked gate and gave me a tour of the now abandoned trading post that once served Route 66 travelers near the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest National Park. Photo by Stuart Palley

Amboy, Calif. Before stopping, I saw some pinwheels glinting in the evening light, and to my surprise, a man was on the side of the road with all his belongings. I stopped, and we chatted for a while. He claimed police from another county threw him out in the desert. He was 60 miles from any sizeable town, so his story seemed plausible. He periodically wandered off from our conversation to answer a voice coming from somewhere else in that vast desert. I left him some provisions, and we parted ways. Photo by Stuart Palley

Winslow, Ariz. After a night’s rest, I went downtown and stood on a corner in Winslow, Ariz., with a statue of a guitarist inspired by the Eagles’ song “Take It Easy.” I zoomed west where a classic car rally was breaking for lunch at a burger stand. Rumor has it that the town inspired the Pixar movie Cars. Photo by Stuart Palley

Barstow, Calif. Heading home, it was 70 mph on a spaghetti map of freeways, state roads and viaducts back to Newport Beach. I pulled onto the island as dusk settled, exhausted but fulfilled. The trip was over — until next time. Photo by Stuart Palley

Comments on this article


    Thank You, Stuart Palley for sharing your photographic journey on Route 66. Enjoyed " Route 66 An American Highway." Loved the feel conveyed in the deep hued photography. Congrats on a wonderful article and a silver win in the 2012 College Photographer of the Year - interpretive Project Category. Looking forward to more of your work.

    Posted by Sherrie Kueckelhan Photography on Apr 9, 2013 at 2:56 p.m. (Report Comment)