Editor’s Note: Keep an eye out for Jefferson’s upcoming KelbyOne course, Travel Photography: A Photographer’s Guide To Route 66, due out later this week!
It’s not every day that Scott asks you to go out and get your kicks. With a camera. And tell the world about it.
Talk about a dream assignment!
Drive up and down old Route 66, capture the photo highlights, jot it all down and teach you how to do it well, so you can hit the ground running when you yourself go out out on the open, Mother road.
My new class, “Travel photography: Route 66” debuts this week, and I should start by telling you what it’s not.
No, I didn’t drive from the California Santa Monica Pier (the famous end of the road) all the way to Chicago. I’d love to do that some day, but what are the odds you’ll make the entire 1500 mile journey? In one sitting?
So please get hip to this timely tip:
What made more sense was to pick a smaller, more manageable area photographers could tackle. Like Arizona 66. More on that in a minute
First, remember that the original Route 66, the first “all-weather highway” that popularized auto travel beginning in the 1920s got passed over by bigger, wider interstate highways and Route 66 started losing its luster in the 1970s and 1980s.
It still kind of exists today, in chunks off the side of the main road. What’s left today is either a thriving downtown node to earlier times, (Flagstaff, Arizona) ghost towns, abandoned motels, diners and gas stations (fodder for us photographers and all over the state!) as well as classic motels, curio shops and natural beauty, awaiting your camera lens.
Which brings us back to Arizona. The Grand Canyon State has more than 250 miles of the old Mother Road still intact and driveable, including the longest unbroken stretch in existence.
You all know that Nat King Cole was hip on 66, but did you know that one state gets more mentions in the song than any other? That would be 3 for Arizona–Flagstaff, Winona and Kingman, compared to 2 each for Missouri and California and 1 for Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico.
So if the Grand Canyon State is good enough for Nat, it was good enough for me. And hopefully you too!
From one side of the state, namely Oatman, an old wild west town where wild mules roam the streets, just a few hours away from Los Angeles, to the Native American reservation and Tee-Pee curio shop in Lupton near New Mexico, there are tons of incredible photo stops.
And unlike most Route 66 travelouges, we don’t dash in and out of every stop within seconds. We actually take the time to explore, so again, you can find the good stuff when you come. And I highly recommend you do the entire 240 mile stretch. It’s just too much fun!
Beyond the painted desert and wild mules of Oatman, you’ve got great diners, curio shops, dark sky late night star photography in the “dark city” of Flagstaff, Winslow, the town that is the ode to the Eagles (“Standin on a corner in Winslow, Arizona”) with an old historic train hotel and a fabulous deserted bridge outside of town, a petrified forest national park and finally, the WigWam Hotel, where you sleep in a teepee. And of course, have fun photographing them at magic hour.
If you’re looking to a spring photo journey to the Mother Road (named by writer John Steinbeck in the classic novel “The Grapes of Wrath,”) do know that average temps in Flagstaff Arizona in April will be a nice 60 degrees, and comparable weather should follow you in the small towns nearby. If you do make it to New Mexico as well, you’ll also have the mountain town of Santa Fe and desert beauty of Albuquerque (home to “Breaking Bad”) to look forward to.
They’re great (and shameless plug for my YouTube Photowalks series, which just chronicled Santa Fe!) but know this: Arizona rocks are redder than New Mexico. And you also have the Grand Canyon at your disposal. And the Oatman mules. And WigWams.
As I say in the class, I was more than happy to show you about photographing Arizona 66, but if you want the learning to continue, through New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Illinois, just say the word. I’m more than happy to oblige, and keep even more kicks coming!
Former USA TODAY columnist Jefferson Graham is a Los Angeles based writer-photographer, a KelbyOne educator, the host of the streaming travel photography series PhotowalksTV, seen on YouTube and Tubi, and the co-host of the iPhone Photo Show podcast with Scott Bourne.