What is Route 66? Most of us have an awareness of the image of Route 66 in popular culture, but fewer would be able to describe the origins of this iconic road. Hopefully this article will provide a bit of background on the history and resurgence of the “mother road”…
Origins of Route 66
Route 66 was the 2448 mile stretch of highway linking Chicago, Illinois with Los Angeles, California via Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Established in 1926, Route 66 underwent many changes to the original alignment before being officially removed from the US highway system in 1985.
US Route 66 was founded on a pre-existing network of roads, passing through both rural and urban areas, and has become known as “the main street of America”, Will Rogers Highway, and “the mother road” (based on a quotation from the John Steinbeck novel “The Grapes of Wrath”).
During the depression of the 1930’s Route 66 was a major path for migrants heading west to escape the dust bowl. It came to be seen as the pathway to opportunity and prosperity, with small-town businesses thriving on the passing trade. This was given a further boost during World War II due to further migration west to the war-related industries of California. Over the following few decades, as Route 66 was celebrated in popular culture, it became embedded in the public consciousness as a symbol of free spirit, independence and adventure. The Route became lined with neon-signed motels, giant statues and an array of iconic roadside attractions.
End of an Era
Beginning in the late 1950’s large portions of Route 66 were bypassed by completed sections of what was to be the new Interstate Highway system. In 1985 Route 66 was eventually decommissioned, with no single interstate highway designated to replace it. This period was linked with a huge reduction in traffic, which in turn led ultimately to the demise of many businesses. This economic hit was catastrophic for some communities and whole towns of people were forced to move elsewhere forming the many “ghost towns” now seen along Route 66.
Fortunately non-profit organisations such as The National Historic Route 66 Association and The Route 66 Chamber of Commerce were founded and continue to fight for the preservation of the old road. Parts of the old road are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and some are even considered National Scenic Byways.
These days, for many people, driving Route 66 is an opportunity to pull off the interstate, take your foot off the gas and embrace an endangered American experience. It’s an opportunity to meet like-minded travelers, share experiences, sample new food and drink and embrace new experiences; a chance to be immersed in the nostalgia and kitschy Americana so prevalent along the Route. These days, route 66 road trippers take great pleasure in immersing themselves in the romanticism of what the road once stood for, passing vintage motels, original diners, restored gas stations and towns that have been preserved in time.
For these people, route 66 is all about the journey, not the destination.