Get To Know USA Guide Jim Conkle

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With 15 years of guiding experience under his belt, Jim Conkle has travelled Route 66 more than 260 times. As the owner of Mother Road Enterprises, Jim not only guides clients along the Mother Road but also around the USA’s national parks, wine tours and more. He can tell clients about the “secret” Mother Road handshake, introduce them to Route 66′s own celebrities, and he always has an alternative option for sightseeing should any unforeseen circumstances occur.
How did you get into your field? How did you make the transition to becoming a tour guide?

I’ve done so many things, and people have said, “Why don’t you do tours?” and I just didn’t want to do them. So a friend said, “Look, we’ll pay you to show us what you know because you know so much of Route 66 and the national parks.” I found that I enjoyed it tremendously, sharing with other people what I knew and my passions. One day just got to where I was doing a little bit for a few people and then some major tour companies found out I was doing tours. I was on LinkedIn with a fellow, who said, “I’m in need of a tour director next week, do you know anyone?” I asked for the particulars and I said, “Well, I’m open during that period of time, I’ll lead your tour for you.” I guess I did a good enough job that they offered me many of them. I’ve done some corporate tours, and for Shanghai General Motors. I still do tours for one of the largest and best tour companies in England, Page & Moy.

Knowing there was more to being a tour guide than just leading a group of people down the road, I have invested time into learning the business. I have worn many hats and have many areas of expertise, being a tour guide was an easy transition.

Have you got a certain style of guiding, or do you just run with it on the day?

I get to know each member of the group and find out what they are looking for on each tour. Some are photographers, or historians or collectors/shoppers and the list is endless. My style is to share, teach and give them as many ‘awe’ moments as possible.

What is the best part of your job?

Meeting and making new friends, learning about where they are from, their history and culture, and introducing them to the people and places that I know.

How did you end up knowing so much about Route 66?

For about six years, I did a newspaper called the ‘Route 66 Pulse’, so I was always out there, getting stories, learning the ins and outs of the road, and I got to meet so many people. It just felt so natural, and the same thing with the national parks, I enjoy them so much. You don’t know everything, I learn as much on a tour as people I give the tour to: I meet new people, I learn new things and of things I wasn’t totally aware of.

What’s the most bizarre experience you’ve had on a guided tour? 

When our government shut down a few years ago, I was leading a tour that had many of our national parks on the agenda. They were closed so we had to find alternative sights to see in state parks such as in Arizona, New Mexico, Southern Nevada and Utah instead. The people on the tour were very understanding. Sure, they missed seeing the things they’d like to see and that they had paid for, but none of them asked for their money back. I actually always have some alternatives, something to do. A good tour guide director always looks at alternatives as to where they can go or what they may have to do.

Route 66 is a highway – what makes it such a special road to tour? Can you tell us one interesting fact about this route?

Route 66 goes from Chicago to Santa Monica and it’s one of our national icons, it’s an amazing thing. To the world, it’s an expression of the freedom of the road, which they don’t always have. Route 66 isn’t just a road, it’s the culture of that road and some of the sights are amazing and have been designed just for that, such as the Cadillac Ranch outside of Amarillo, Texas. A guy took 10 Cadillacs and planted them in the ground and it’s become an international attraction and it’s nothing, it’s just 10 cars upside down, but everybody wants to get their picture taken with it. Route 66, it’s a feeling. I like to say, “There’re nine states on Route 66,” Geographically, there are only eight states, but the biggest is the state of mind. It’s something about Route 66 that, of all the roads in the world, it draws the most people.

Why is Route 66 called “the Mother Road”? How long is it, and how many times would you say you’ve travelled its entire length in your lifetime? What is the “secret” Route 66 handshake and who can give it?

John Steinbeck, when he wrote his book ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, called it the Mother Road, where all the side roads came to the mother road. It’s also called Main Street America, it’s had lots of names. It is 2,448 miles long and after this year, the times I have travelled it will probably approach 280.

Everybody asks me that, they want to know the secret Route 66 handshake: it’s a hug. We hope everybody gives it, we hope once you learn it, you share it with everyone.

Ever seen any celebrities when doing tours of Beverley Hills? What’s your best star spotting story?

I had a tour out and Arnold Schwarzenegger was riding his motorcycle in Santa Monica, and I pointed him out and we waved at him. The road itself is the star and on Route 66, we have our own stars. We have a fellow that has over 120 tattoos, all of them of Route 66, we have a fellow that could put his seat backwards, which was an inspiration for Mater in the movie ‘Cars’ to drive backwards, and I was involved with Disney in the first Cars movie. We have our own celebrities, so to speak.

Every job has its ups and downs. Are there any aspects of your job that you don’t like or aren’t that keen on?

Each and every tour is made up of different people, some you can never please no matter how hard you try. Some can cause problems to the point that the mood of the group becomes an issue. It bothers me when the tour, or one of the locations, or I, do not live up to the guests’ standards.

As an experienced guide yourself, can you explain to our readers what the benefits of hiring a guide are?

Even on guided tours, there can be people that want to do their own thing to whatever degree is possible. Yet a guided tour has more pluses than going it alone. We, tour guides, do more than just share our knowledge of a place, we also provide the safety, experience and time-saving ways to enjoy the tour.

In your view, what makes a good tour guide?

The tour is NOT about us. A good tour guide should be aware of the safety, comfort and special needs of their guests, making sure they take home with them many wonderful memories, many new friends and a desire to come back.

If you enjoyed this, you might also like Explore California and Explore Chicago.

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