As we travel through Iceland you will hear about America’s historic Route 66 with Route Magazine editor, Brennan Matthews and Kat Bird of the Wandering Bird blog will share her adventures crossing Europe in an RV.
You haven’t experienced America until you’ve travel along the historic Route 66, also known as the Main Street of America. Route 66 was one of the original highways in the U.S. Highway System and Brennan Matthews, editor of Route Magazine, a bi-monthly publication that focuses on road travel, vintage Americana and Route 66 takes us along the iconic highway.
Then, would you believe that a night of gazing at the Milky Way would inspire you to leave your job and your home for a life traveling across Europe in an RV? Well, that’s exactly what happened with Kat Bird and her husband, the founders of the Wandering Bird blog.
Enjoy a tiny taste of Iceland while you hear about the quirky and iconic things along Route 66 and the joys of traversing Europe in an RV.
Ian Fitzpatrick: Today, World Footprints comes to you from Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavik. Brennen Matthews, editor of Route magazine, shares a bit of Americana along the historic Route 66, the main street of America.
Brennen M: There’s people behind all of these stories and all of these attractions and all this great history and we just love telling it.
Ian Fitzpatrick: According to Kat Bird, publisher of the Wandering Bird blog, the encounters you have with people while traveling in a motor home provides many beautiful moments.
Kat Bird: And they would, been chatting to the guys across the way in another van who were from Norway and then a German couple pulled up. We sat out under the stars around this campfire drinking each other’s beer and just sharing stories.
Ian Fitzpatrick: Join us as we travel along America’s historic Route 66 and traverse Europe in an RV on World Footprints with Ian …
Tonya F: and Tonya Fitzpatrick, today from Iceland.
Ian Fitzpatrick: You haven’t experienced America until you travel along the historic Route 66, also known as the main street of America. Route 66 was one of the original highways in the US highway system and Brennen Matthews, editor of Route magazine, a bi-monthly publication that focuses on road travel, vintage Americana and Route 66, takes us along the iconic highway.
Ian Fitzpatrick: Brennen, we were surprised to learn that your magazine is dedicated solely to Route 66. What is it about Route 66 that has made it an iconic feature on the American landscape?
Brennen M: We aren’t actually dedicated fully to 66, probably 90%. but I would say that our focus really is on vintage Americana. And it just so happens that Route 66 probably holds, within the US today of what’s still alive and people can visit, probably 85 to 90% of the really impacting Americana. So that’s really our focus. Route 66 holds the lion’s share of it.
Brennen M: There’s just so many amazing stories. Route is not a travel magazine, so we don’t generally have lists of things to do or not to do, places to go or not to go, what to pack, what not to pack. We are much more interested in getting the true story, the real story, the deep story behind some of the best Americana in the country.
Brennen M: Whether it’s a giant blue whale in Catoosa or it’s a wigwam motel in Rialto, California or it’s the rise of neon, there’s people behind all of these stories and all of these attractions and all this great history. And we just love telling it.
Tonya F: Well, and speaking of history, I know officially Route 66 doesn’t exist anymore, per se, in the historical sense. But do you know, why was it removed as a US highway and what areas can travelers still drive on this historic road today?
Brennen M: Sure. Well, 85% of the road is still drivable. But the numerical designation of 66 was actually assigned to the Chicago to LA route on April 30, 1926 and it was actually done in Springfield, Missouri. There’s a great backstory to that that I won’t go into right now.
Brennen M: But even from its very inception, as roads were being formed and designated in the US in the late, let’s say mid-’20s, there was even a lot of bantering and fighting back and forth who would get which numerical designation. Some people wanted something that they found was catchier. Others wanted something ending in a zero because all major roads ended in a zero at that point.
Brennen M: But it was finally decommissioned in 1985 with the last place being Williams, Arizona to be decommissioned. What was basically happening is the US government at the time looked and seen what was going on in Germany, the Autobahn, and they looked and seen how fast and efficient those roads were.
Brennen M: They said we need better roads in America. Our roads are getting congested. There’s much more travel on the roads. There’s a lot more vehicles on the road, a lot more people going here to there. We need faster roads. We need better highways.
Brennen M: They set about setting up the interstate system. So little by little, Route 66 towns were bypassed by the interstate. Of course, without an exit ramp or even if there was an exit ramp, but without any real reason to stop in those towns, most of the cities and the towns along Route 66, unless they were larger like Oklahoma City or St. Louis or Flagstaff, sort of died along the way,
Tonya F: The interstate doesn’t really work well today. Have you been to DC recently?
Ian Fitzpatrick: There are lots of organizations working to preserve famous landmarks along Route 66. What are some of the most unique landmarks that people perhaps are familiar with and perhaps some of the ones that aren’t so familiar?
Brennen M: Hmm. That’s a good question. Route 66 has, like I said earlier, some of the most iconic attractions and landmarks. They’ve all gone through different lifespans where they were really popular and then they’ve sort of let go and then they were reinvigorated.
Brennen M: One of the most famous is the Blue Whale of Catoosa and he’s amazing. He was created by Hugh Davis. And it was interesting because Hugh actually built this whale for his wife, Zelta, for the 34th wedding anniversary, because he knew that she liked whales. So he actually built her this enormous 80-foot-long concrete whale.
Tonya F: Wow.
Brennen M: Yeah. The couple had owned an alligator farm just off of Route 66 and Catoosa is just east of Tulsa. So by the mid-’70s, it really was the centerpiece of their attraction, which was called Nature’s Acres.
Brennen M: And then Hugh died and Zelta died shortly after and it started to fall into disrepair. Then volunteers began to come out from the … You know, people grew up with this whale. The Davis family actually had built slides into the sides of the whale and it was right on a pond. So people would come over in the ’70s and they would slide down the side, come into the pond and they just loved the Blue Whale.
Brennen M: So the community of Catoosa rose up to slap some new paint on it and mowed the lawn and cleared the forest a bit and really reinvigorate Old Blue. Now his son, Blaine, Hugh’s son Blaine, who himself is, goodness, Blaine must be late eighties, early nineties now, is still out cutting the lawn maybe once a week during the summertime due to all the rain in Oklahoma.
Brennen M: The place is always packed with lots of tourists, both national and international. We just love the Blue Whale and he really represents something pretty special.
Brennen M: Another interesting place is the Ed Galloway Totem Pole Park. That’s four miles off of Route 66, but we still count it as Route 66. It’s in a place called Foyil, Oklahoma. It’s a farming country and it’s just a peaceful, quiet place.
Brennen M: But Ed Galloway actually served in the military during the early 1900s. Upon returning home he started to really sharpen his woodcarving skills. Then he had a fascination with Indian heritage, so he started carving a huge totem pole, massive. He completed it in 1948, and they built some other ones too. It’s now a park. So they had Galloway Totem Pole Park and it was opened to the public. And yeah, it’s amazing.
Brennen M: In the big one that he created, there’s over 200 Native American-inspired icons built right into that one. Now, Ed died at the age of 82 in 1962. And then his son Paul and his wife, Joy took over. But then Paul died in 1982.
Tonya F: Mmm.
Brennen M: He was only 65 and then left Joy to take care of it. Joy died in 2008 but she was 91. And then that whole place fell into and disrepair as well as these things for some reason are apt to do.
Brennen M: But then several years ago, the Kansas Grassroots Arts Association and the Rogers County Historical Society took up the project and really just repainted everything and just brought life back to it. Now it’s just a serene, peaceful place to just go sit on the grass amongst all the totems and just reflect.
Brennen M: Last time we were there, we were sitting having a picnic. We are all by ourselves. It was a quiet Oklahoma day and a road runner jumped down on our blanket and started running around.
Tonya F: Oh, my.
Brennen M: Introduced himself. It’s just a lovely place.
Tonya F: It’s a good segue because I wanted to ask you about the intersection between Route 66 and Native American communities and cultures. And the Tent Pole Park, which I had read about, I knew that existed that I didn’t know if there were any other intersections between the historic road and Native American communities.
Brennen M: Well, in today’s times it comes slightly, depending on which person you speak with, which audience you engage with, a little contentious.
Tonya F: Mmm.
Brennen M: Because there is a feeling that a lot of the carvings and a lot of the motels and a lot of the signs and billboards and just a lot of things that promote and seek to attract visitors passing by on the highway or down 66 may be interested in Native American history and culture. But they don’t really represent accuracy and that they might be exploiting.
Brennen M: Personally, I’m not for that at all. I think that it’s amazing. I think that it represents the times. These are the ’40s and ’50s, the ’60s. We lived in a different world back then. I think that whether you’re sleeping in a teepee or a wigwam in Rialto, California or Holbrook, Arizona, there’s only three Wigwam Villages left in the entire country now. And two of them are on Route 66.
Brennen M: Or whether it’s, a lot in New Mexico will have a lot of little trading posts or curio shops, Arizona will too, that are really Native American focused. Come and get your turquoise jewelry or your moccasins or … The history that surrounds it will be, I don’t want to say exploited, but it’ll certainly be promoted, maybe not always accurate.
Brennen M: But it’s fun. It’s reminiscent of a time when tourism was more unique and quirky and they would do anything to get you off the roads. The bigger, the better, the brighter the neon, the bigger the giants. The 50 billboards, all advertising the Meramec Caverns, all in a row. Jack Rabbit Trading Post all in a row hundreds of miles before you ever get to Holbrook or Joseph City, I should say.
Brennen M: So I love it and I think a lot of people love it. The international community really love it too. They come over and they love New Mexico and Arizona, parts of California. It really resonates with them. They’re not looking for accuracy. They’re looking for a good time.
Tonya F: Yeah. As an aside, we’ve actually been to the Cadillac Park or the Cadillac monument.
Brennen M: Ranch.
Tonya F: Yeah. The Cadillac Ranch.
Brennen M: The Cadillac Ranch.
Tonya F: Oh, and it was amazing, amazing works of art, actually. I mean, just to get the Cadillacs planted in the soil is a feat.
Tonya F: But I was curious. In our last minute or so, you have interviewed a lot of celebrities for your magazine, Route. I’m wondering if there’s been a memorable Route 66 story to come out of any of your interviews.
Brennen M: Yeah, yeah, for sure. One of my favorite fellows, Bryan Cranston.
Ian Fitzpatrick: The actor known for his role in Breaking Bad.
Brennen M: Bryan was on a motorcycle and he’s done 66 a few times. But him and his brother were traveling and they stopped in, I believe it was South Dakota. They were really tired. And they just had a habit of sort of throwing down their tent somewhere where they thought that they wouldn’t bother anyone. Parking the motorbikes beside it and making their dinner and going to sleep.
Brennen M: They were so tired this time that they thought they parked at a church and then they just went to sleep. In the middle of the night, they heard a vehicle pull in and the gravel’s crunching. They sort of peep out of the tents. They’re a little bit nervous. Then they see the people in the vehicle get out with a coffin, and they’re like, “What?”
Tonya F: Oh. Hmm.
Brennen M: So they’re a bit nervous about this and they don’t really understand what’s happening. But they don’t want to be seen, because what if these guys are dubious and now they’re witnesses? So they wait till the guys go into this building with the coffins, then they quickly start packing up. And they’re moving quickly now. They want to get out of there before anybody comes back.
Brennen M: The door opens and several men come back out, and they stopped them. Went, “Hey, how are you guys doing?” They’re like, “Oh, fine. Like yeah”. It turned out to be a funeral home, and the guys didn’t want to wake them up, so they were trying to walk very quietly on the gravel so that they weren’t waking them up.
Brennen M: Brian and his brother thought they were actually sneaking in to try not to get caught. These guys were actually just trying not to wake them up.
Tonya F: We will have a link to Route magazine and additional information about Route 66 on this show page on our website at worldfootprints.com.
Ian Fitzpatrick: You’re listening to the award-winning World Footprints podcast with Ian and Tonya Fitzpatrick. World Footprints connects you to a world one story at a time. We invite you to travel deeper by visiting our website, worldfootprints.com and make sure you sign up for our newsletter and receive a special gift.
Tonya F: Can you imagine that a night spent gazing at the Milky Way would inspire you to leave your job and your home for a life traveling across Europe in an RV? Well, that’s exactly what happened with Kat Bird and her husband, the founders of the Wandering Bird blog.
Tonya F: You and your husband have been crisscrossing Europe in a motor home for the last two years or so. What inspired you two to embark on this whole time adventure?
Kat Bird: I would love to say it was this brilliant plan that we had from the outset, but it didn’t come onto our radar. It was something that happened step-by-step. We started off two years ago.
Kat Bird: We bought a motor home and we started exploring Europe around our daughter’s schoolwork and around our work. So we had maybe two to three weeks of the first year we could actually go away in the motor home and go to Europe.
Kat Bird: We found ourselves on top of a mountain in Switzerland, in the motorhome in the middle of nowhere. It was absolutely beautiful. I walked outside the motor home door at about, I don’t know, midnight and just looked up and there was the Milky Way.
Kat Bird: I remember just feeling so awestruck that this thing was there all the time and I had never seen it before, ever, not in real life. I turned to my husband. I was like, “This is incredible. How do we get more moments like this in our life?”
Ian Fitzpatrick: That time on the mountain set the wheels in motion for planning Kat and her husband’s new adventure.
Kat Bird: We were just trying to find ways of cutting back our work time so we could have more fun time. The biggest thing that was keeping us in UK was my job. I used to be an air traffic controller in London.
Kat Bird: It was a great job, but I got some sort of free time because we worked shifts, but you didn’t get big chunks of time together. So you would kind of work six days and then have four days off, but that wasn’t really enough time to go across to Europe. So we tried to work on cutting down my hours at work. Actually, that was the first bit we had a little bit more time.
Kat Bird: Then from there we were like, “Well, okay. Well, I work off of sabbatical and you can only get one in your entire career and you can either do three months or a year.” Or I guess you could do any time in the middle. But we were like, “Well, if you’re going to do it, let’s go for a year.”
Kat Bird: So our next step in his plan was, okay, we need to reduce our dependency on my income so that we could basically just live off my husband. And he could try and streamline his work to be able to work from the road as we traveled as much as possible. That was our next phase in the big plan.
Kat Bird: Then we were like, “How on earth do we do that?” Because obviously like most people, our bills kind of match our lifestyle and match our income.
Tonya F: Mmm.
Kat Bird: We’re looking at this saying, “This is never going to happen. How are we going to downsize enough to be able to just survive off one wage and save some money for our daughter’s further education if she went to university or anything like that?” I am amazed that we managed to do it in three months. I’m still thinking about it now. How did we do that?
Kat Bird: So within three months of this initial crazy plan on top of a mountain in Switzerland, we were entirely living off his income and banking my wage every month. I turned to him and I was like, “Why did we not do this years ago? We’d have been rich.” But we weren’t that smart.
Kat Bird: So then we look at each other. The next stage on this plan was, well, all right, we’re doing this. Do I even need to go back to work? So we decided that actually it would be nice to have the freedom of not having that year sort of ticking down over our heads.
Kat Bird: I was probably feeling a bit burnt out with it anyway. I’ve been doing it for 13-odd years. We just went a bit crazy and I handed in my notice. Then we had all the time in the world that we wanted to go off and explore. So it wasn’t this big, let’s do this, let’s change our life. It was a lot of little steps that made sense to us.
Ian Fitzpatrick: Kat told us her husband still works and that he found a creative outlet that helps them maintain their old nomadic lifestyle.
Kat Bird: People think that when you’re on the road or you’re traveling, you are traveling every single day. That’s not what we do. Most people that we have spoken to who do something similar, that’s not what they do either because it’s exhausting.
Kat Bird: So we travel a little way or we go to a different country and we stop for a few days. Or not always, but most of the time, we will stop for three or four days and sometimes he will fly to a client or he’ll do some work.
Kat Bird: I lasted about two months after I quit my job, and my brain was like, “This is amazing. I am so calm. I don’t have to do anything.” Then it went, “Okay, give me something to do.”
Tonya F: Hmm.
Kat Bird: So I started a blog about our adventures and about our travels and things. That has grown, so we get some income from that now as well, so that helps. Which is a really nice side effect, because I didn’t know you could make money off a blog when I started. It was literally just a diary to keep my brain engaged.
Tonya F: I want to talk about some of the countries you’ve traveled. I know you’ve traveled within the two years to about 19 different countries.
Kat Bird: Yeah.
Tonya F: I understand that there is one particular country that you were not too keen on traveling to. Talk about that.
Kat Bird: Oh, God. This is one of the really embarrassing stories where you know that you’re wrong and admitting that you’re wrong is never nice and never easy. But other thing I mentioned, just if it can help one person overcome their preconceptions of a place or an idea, that it’s worth embarrassing myself entirely.
Kat Bird: So the country that you’re talking about is Germany. I don’t even know why I didn’t wanted to go to Germany. I just didn’t. My husband had actually lived there for a little bit when he was a kid. He loved it and he was like, “Let’s go, let’s go. It’s amazing.” And I’m like, “Ah, really?”
Kat Bird: The problem is I’m having just been to several places that I wanted to go to, which something you have to really work out when you’re traveling. Because if you have different plans, you’ve got to kind of pull in different directions. But it was like one of those sort of quid pro quo things and I just couldn’t get enthusiastic about going at all.
Kat Bird: We’d been there maybe three hours and I was in love with the place. It’s beautiful. And there was so many castles and historical buildings and food was amazing. But the people made the trip incredible more than anything else. The people were so welcoming and so friendly and so pleased that you’d be visiting the country. It was just magic. It’s now one of my favorite countries in Europe. We go back there as often as we can.
Ian Fitzpatrick: Having geographic freedom and the ability to experience natural beauty from the road is captivating. But Kat found something else that’s just as magical.
Kat Bird: It’s the biggest thing that we love about being on the road, is the people that we meet. Because A, you meet the people in the places that you visit who are living there and living their lives. But we also meet other people who are traveling by road or they’re backpacking or they’re getting out and seeing the world. And those types of people have so many great stories.
Kat Bird: One of our favorite nights that we’ve had on the road was actually in Denmark. And, me being me, I went over and started chatting to the guys in the van next to us who were from Holland. They had been chatting to the guys across the way in another van who were from Norway. And then a German couple pulled up.
Kat Bird: We sat out under the stars around this campfire drinking each other’s beer and just sharing stories. Lucky, they all spoke English and they were very kind to us to actually all speak English.
Kat Bird: But it was just one of these incredible nights and totally different cultures and backgrounds. But we all had a very similar attitude to the world and attitude to traveling and being inclusive with the world as opposed to your own country. That was so lovely to be part of that.
Tonya F: We asked Kat about some of the biggest changes she’s experienced over the last few years. Surprisingly, it wasn’t adjusting to their small living quarters.
Kat Bird: Well, I mean, we’ve lived on boats for 14 years, so we already got the living in a small little space down quite well before we started on a motorhome. I think I’ve got braver, which probably sounds silly. But I’ve got rid of a lot of the trappings of having a good job, having a good income, having the nice things that come with that. And been able to walk away from all of that and find out the question that everyone asked when you meet someone, what do you do for a living?
Kat Bird: Honestly, for six months I was like, “I don’t know.” And that’s really hard, like a piece of your identity. I’ve been able to move through that and learn a lot more about myself without that sort of external shell of the job and everything else. That’s been quite freeing.
Ian Fitzpatrick: We have a link to Kat’s website, Wandering Bird, on the show page of our website, worldfootprints.com.
Tonya F: This is a bit unusual for us to be providing a show from another country, as we are today from Iceland. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Route 66, a route that we traveled along and saw some really iconic things like Cadillac Ranch and others, it is reminiscent a little bit of some of the roads that we’ve taken throughout Iceland where we’ve come across very unique things.
Tonya F: But I see the correlation. And just as Kat and her husband have been traversing through Europe on an RV, we’ve been traversing Iceland in a vehicle.
Ian Fitzpatrick: This is a country with remarkable natural beauty and just the multitude and diversity of the landscapes here is breathtaking. From fjords to volcanic fields to the hot springs. So this is a country that really impresses with its diversity.
Tonya F: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And just like America has its folklore, Iceland does too with trolls and the dark castles that we’ve gone through.
Tonya F: Well, I hope you guys have been inspired to travel through this show. So we want to wish you a happy journeys and as Chris Humphrey said, the road is there. It will always be there. You just have to decide when to take it.
Tonya F: Thank you for traveling with us today and please invite your family and friends to join us on these journeys. We’re Tonya and Ian Fitzpatrick and we always enjoy connecting you to the world, one story at a time on World Footprints.
Closing: This World Footprints podcast with Ian and Tonya Fitzpatrick is a production of World Footprints, LLC, Silver Spring, Maryland. The multi-award-winning podcast is available on worldfootprints.com and on audio platforms worldwide, including iHeartRadio, Public Radio Exchange, iTunes and Stitcher.
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