Brennen Matthews wasn’t always a Route 66 fan. Growing up in Africa and living in North America for only a few years, he packed a Volkswagen SUV with his wife and 8-year-old son to explore Mother’s Way. The family now takes Route 66 twice a year, and Matthews is known for covering the highway’s history.
In mid-October, Matthews published his book, “Miles to Go: An African Family’s Route 66 Search for America.” The 285-page book documents the family’s first trip along Route 66 in 2016 . Matthews, his wife Kate, and son Thembi spent two and a half months traveling, starting in Wilmington, Illinois, and ending in Los Angeles.
When Brennen and Kate began planning their trip, Brennen didn’t intend to write a book about their experience. It was only later, on follow-up travel, that Brennan became aware of this need. There are plenty of guidebooks out there for traveling along Route 66, but Brennen felt the lack of a personal narrative.
Formatted like a travel journal, Miles to Go takes readers through every big city and small town the family has explored. Matthews also interweaves the history of Route 66 with his personal narrative, fleshing out details of the iconic restaurants and motels they visit.
“I have this little tape recorder and I record everything when I’m traveling; that’s my style,” Matthews said. “Even without any writing expectations, I documented everything we (went to).”
A common theme throughout the book is the comparison of American culture to Kenyan culture. Brennen and Kate met at Morning Star University in Kenya, where Thembi was born. Time and time again, the family encountered visitor center attendants, restaurant workers and other tourists appalled by the places they had visited.
Matthews often contrasts food portion sizes in the U.S. with those in Kenya, where they are much smaller. In another part of the book, he compares the respect Americans have for truckers with the dislike they have in Africa.
“There is a romanticized notion of truckers in the United States, and truckers are treated with far less respect than their African counterparts,” Matthews wrote. “There are no country songs about African truck drivers, despite the fact that they are the backbone of many African economies. Instead, they are often perceived as a nuisance and menace on the highways.”
The foreword to this book is by Michael Wallis, author of Route 66: The Mother Road (1990). Wallis is considered an expert on the history of Route 66, best known for his collaboration with Pixar Animation Studios on “Cars.” He was the voice actor for the sheriff in the film.
“Let the people of Springfield celebrate themselves”
Chapter 11 of the book outlines Matthews’ time in Springfield. The three stayed at the Best Western Route 66 Rail Haven on Glenstone Avenue and explored the Steak ‘n Shake along the road, the central square of the park and the historical museum on the square.
“Our goal is usually to avoid the larger towns as much as possible, but Springfield was one we couldn’t miss,” Matthews wrote.
Matthews’ most recent Route 66 trip was this summer. They spent about three months on the road, exploring new spots and revisiting old favorites. While in Springfield this year, the family visited Mansfield’s Cave of Enchantment and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum.
Matthews said Springfield remains one of his family’s favorite cities for its diverse culture and collective celebrations as the birthplace of Route 66. On a typical visit, they stay for about four or five nights.
“Let the people of Springfield celebrate themselves; they should,” Matthews said, recalling his time in the city.
Now, as a Route 66 aficionado, Matthews has one piece of advice for people: Slow down. Matthews said most of the tourists he encounters along Route 66 are eager to get out west. While Matthews loves that part of the country, he stresses the importance of taking time to enjoy all that the Midwest has to offer.
“Illinois, Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma … the first four states (in the book), we think people need to slow down,” Matthews said. “If people don’t have the time to do what we do — and most don’t, then do it in phases, but with due attention to the first four states.”
In the end, Matthews hopes “Miles to Go” will inspire readers to experience what makes Route 66 unique.
“For too many people, Route 66 is like an amusement park, like a trip to Disneyland,” Matthews said. “That’s not what Route 66 is really about. It’s a living, breathing artery running through the country, representing Americans of all cultures, classes, racial backgrounds, economic backgrounds and interests. It shows who and what America is many different aspects”
“Miles to Go” is available on Amazon at amzn.to/3FpX0a2. Paperback is $24.95 and Kindle is $8.99.
Today, Brennen, Kate and Thembi live in Toronto, Canada. Brennen is “Route Magazine” Bimonthly publication dedicated to documenting the history of living culture along Route 66.