Outdoor Connection

Route 66, more than just a road for Sandi Wheaton

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Original stretch of Route 66 with café by the side of the road

There are few places in the world like Route 66. This 2,448 mile stretch represents the quintessential road trip. It is the "Mother Road" - a road that symbolizes the optimism of a bygone era and captures the imagination of young and old alike. Route 66 embodies the freedom and unshakable spirit of the road traveler, and Sandi Wheaton has captured this journey from Chicago to Los Angeles in a Jeep, an Aliner trailer, photographing it from end to end.

Losing her job with GM, as a video producer, was the start of a journey for Sandi. This was finally the opportunity to take the trip she'd dreamed about for years. Her road trip along Route 66 has been the inspiration for her popular blog - pictureRoute66.com; a time lapse digital camera experiment, with a soon to be launched DVD, and the subject of iconic photographs taken with rare infra-red film. "It's my very favorite film in the whole world but Kodak stopped making it, so I had about 35 rolls left in the freezer and I thought it would be a really good use for the film for this particular project, because Route 66 is an obsolete stretch of road and this is an obsolete medium now." We speak with Sandi to learn more about her passion for photography, Route 66 and her road trip camping experiences:

CampingRoadTrip.com: As a renowned photographer you would have captured many amazing places, why Route 66?

SANDI WHEATON: I seem to be very drawn to the notion of reclamation (by the land). I've always been interested in the ruins of places left behind by people, particularly recent ruins that are in the process of being overtaken by their natural environments. Not only does it pique my curiosity about the past of the place, but sometimes decay can be surprisingly beautiful. I just love finding the beauty in a dead location and documenting that photographically. A fellow artist once looked at my Salton Sea work and said, "you must be a very optimistic person". I was shocked that he got that from looking at a photo of a totally devastated, peeling, burnt building I had photographed. But upon further reflection I think he may be onto something. I am optimistic, and I do find beauty everywhere.

Route 66 has many locations like that, so naturally that appealed to me. But just on a historical, practical level too - I was interested to see what is happening along this famous highway that symbolizes the freedom of the great American road trip. I was curious how the experience of driving it today would be compared to how I imagined it was in its heyday.

Your first blog starts out as "undecidedly unglamorous" at a Flying J in Gary IN, and finishes to a wonderful "I made it!" on November 1st 2009. Were there any points where you thought that you weren't going to go the full distance?

Not really. I'm pretty persistent when I want to accomplish something so I never thought I would give up - but it did take me a lot longer than I thought it would. And of course, there is always the idea in my head of some catastrophe happening, like an accident or something. (...turns out the accident happened post Route 66, on the way home to take care of some personal business!!)

What made you choose an Aliner? How did it work out for you?

Oh man, the Aliner was an awesome thing for me to discover. It started with my falling in love with the T@B trailers. The moment I saw a photo of a T@B in a magazine, I wanted one but they were a little "spendy" and hard to find used. More importantly, my Jeep couldn't tow anything like that.

My tow vehicle limited my choices as I couldn't tow anything that wasn't a low-profile pop-up. In fact, I was all lined up to borrow a friend's pop-up tent trailer that she had been trying to sell for ages, but at the very last minute a buyer showed up with cash in hand. I was bummed when I lost the use of that trailer but I tried to take the attitude that something else even more suitable would appear...and it did.

I came across the Aliner online and I realized that it was perfect for me: my Jeep could tow it, I can pop it up easily myself in mere minutes, and I don't need to unhitch it to put it up as I would a tent trailer! It took some searching online to find a used one I could afford, but I found one near Toronto that was a little beat up so I got a good price on it. It needed some work, and I can't thank my friends enough for the help with that. In the end, it's been a dream. Exactly what I needed. It has everything except a bathroom. It's got a 3-burner stove, a fridge, a sink and a furnace (which has been invaluable). I was never a camper so this was all new to me. The Aliner being so easy to tow and set up made it all a lot easier than it would have been otherwise for me. And it's surprisingly roomy in there as well! I love my Aliner.

Can you tell us a little about your "camping" routine?

For this Route 66 trip, I would basically drive until it got dark, then find someplace to park for the night. This took some time, as I never really knew where I would be each day so planning tended to happen at the end of the day. I would often pull over and just stand next to the Aliner with my laptop on it, using my wireless air card to check websites for somewhere to park for free if at all possible. I parked at Wal-Marts, truck stops, friend's driveways, and occasionally at an actual RV park or campground. In the west, I started getting into the whole Bureau of Land Management (BLM) thing, and finding dispersed camping for free in lovely natural settings. I loved that!

Once I figured out where I would park, I drove there and looked for other RVs to park next to (safety in numbers). I usually tried to stay away, if at all possible, from truck stops just because of the noise. It can be hard to avoid if you're parking where trucks park because they sometimes need to keep running even when they're pulled over for the night. (Be sure to pack earplugs!) Then it was pop up the trailer, crank the stabilizing jacks down, plug in water and electricity where possible, move my gear from the Jeep into the trailer with me, make something to eat... and then spend the rest of the night backing up the thousands of photos I took all day for the time-lapse document I was shooting of Route 66, writing blog entries, and answering emails.

It was actually incredibly busy and I'm looking forward to a bit of a rest from that grind on the way home! But it was fantastic. Especially when I camped someplace where I could use my Campfire in a Can. The campfire runs right off my propane tanks that are attached to the Aliner, so I had a great fire in minutes if I wanted. The few times I got to work next to the fire, under the stars, were pretty awesome. Best office ever! I really urge campers who like a fire to check out Campfire in a Can. Great product.

What practical advice would you give someone considering heading out on a long road trip journey?

Research! I didn't have the time to do it before I left, but if I could do it again, I would look at the whole route I planned to drive, and spend the time to list all of the free/cheap campsites all the way along the route. I would make lists with maps, notes and phone numbers where possible. That way I wouldn't be spending an hour every night on my laptop trying to figure out where in the heck I'll park. (This applies mostly if you want to do it as cheaply as possible, which I needed to do.) Also, seriously look into BLM land and dispersed camping areas. I was amazed at how nice some places were where I could camp for free! (No amenities, but that was fine - just plan accordingly and be sure you have enough food and water.)

Another tip is to spend a lot of time in whatever you are planning to camp in before you leave (which I did not do). Sleep in it, cook in it, clean up in it, see how comfortable it is, and see what works. You may find a better way to organize your stuff in the thing before you leave, which is easier to do before you leave than after you're already on the road. Also subtract a good portion of what you think you'll need... I always over pack and brought more stuff than I needed, for sure.

Other misc advice includes bringing a variety of maps, a campsite guide or two [CRT: you can also register at CampingRoadTrip.com to use the Campground and RV Park Smart Search to do your planning before you go!], and a GPS is also so helpful to have. Be sure to load up your iPod (or whatever you use to listen to music) with a lot of music, and a good range of music. I wished I had more of a range of tunes for this trip. Wet wipes were invaluable to me for cleaning up, since I didn't have a large sink or large fresh water holding tank. A flashlight that you wear on your head is a great thing after dark (another thing I did not invest in but would have liked).

What "emotional advice" would you give?

Good question. In my case, since I wasn't a camper, I really felt uncomfortable for the first while. I seriously felt like a fish out of water, and I was sure it was obvious to anyone around me that I had no idea what the heck I was doing. As I said before, spend time with what you'll be staying in, so that you're comfortable with it as much as possible. Prepare yourself to feel out of sorts for the first while, and trust that you will get used to the new rhythms soon enough.

Be smart, but don't be paranoid. I heard a lot of bad stories and was so scared to be out on the road at first... but my experience so far has been that people are generally good and want to help and want to connect. Use your common sense, be discreet, and use your instincts about people - your instincts are usually right! And try to get used to talking to strangers - be curious, be open, ask questions when you're exploring a place. The more you put yourself out there, the more great people you'll meet and the more interesting things you'll learn - and the more will people help you! If you keep to yourself the whole time, you're really depriving yourself of an enriching experience on the road. But of course, be aware of your surroundings and stay safe, especially when traveling alone.

What would be the five words that you would choose to describe your journey?

Enlightening, Enriching, Reassuring, Surprising, Challenging. But in one word...Amazing.

It sounds like you made many friends on the road - can you share a memorable moment that comes to mind?

Geez, just one? There were so many people on the road who were so wonderful and open and supportive. I mean, everything from getting drunk at a biker bar to staying with a very Christian family, to going behind the scenes at a TV station with the reporters and on and on... but there was one time where my meeting someone was unique in that it was very brief, but epitomized the random nature of connections on the road. I stopped at a diner in El Reno, OK to try the fried onion burgers and hopefully watch the news on their TV, since the story KFOR did about me was airing that night. The man on the stool next to me started chatting and he got interested in what I was up to. I called the reporter and found out that the story wasn't going to be on for another hour and a half, so the guy next to me paid for the burgers and we went out to the Jeep and stood over my laptop to watch the story on KFOR's website.

I was alone on the road and I had this great, exciting moment for me (seeing myself on American television for the first time), but I had no one to share it with - but here I ended up sharing it with a total stranger, and it was great. I gave him my card so that he could follow the blog and everything, and we went on our separate ways. He was so concerned about my traveling alone, he ended up calling me later that night just to check up on me to make sure I was okay and had found somewhere to camp. I thought that was so sweet. I never heard from him again. That brief encounter just encapsulates for me how I find people can connect on the road in ways they don't in their lives otherwise. It's like there is this freedom to be really open and free with strangers, because you know you'll never see them again - there's nothing at stake in the relationship! I love that, it feels so pure.


Sandi Wheaton has driven Route 66, the road trip dream. Although she still doesn't own a flashlight you can wear on your head, her projects - blog, DVD, photos, book - are a shining light to many.

Visit Sandi Wheaton's website to view her portfolio of iconic Route 66 photos, Joshua Tree National Park, Monument Valley and more - and visit her blog to read about her Route 66 trip. Sandi also expects to publish a book based on this trip, and is in the planning stages with publishers. Sandi is showing at the Art Gallery of Windsor - "Here in My Car" which includes 37 prints from the Route 66 time-lapse series; and at Artcite with "Here in My Car - Beyond Autopia and Autogeddon" which exhibits the entire Route 66 time-lapse sequence in video format. Sandi's photos can be purchased directly from her website.

Special thanks to Sandi Wheaton for sharing her experiences and her wonderful photographs. Photograph source: SandiWheaton.com



Bus parked next to Roy's motel café sign
Town for sale
Abandoned '62 Chrysler with doors open
'62 Chrysler
Abandoned cars buried in the sand
Cadillac Ranch Route 66
Sandi Wheaton in Pop's bar
Well earned rest at Pops on Route 66
Sandi sitting next to campfire in a can with Aliner
Camp site blogging
Long stretch of Route 66 original highway
Abandoned Route 66
Old red gas pump in station
Red gas pump
Abandoned Airstream trailer by side of road
Trailer of days gone by
Old green truck parked on side of road with mountains in the background
Cool Springs truck
Sandi standing next to man
Friendly strangers, Sandi and Ron "Tattoo Man" Jones
Sandi next to west end of Route 66 Santa Monica California sign
End of the road, Route 66

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