The Route 66 represented by neon signs, wholesome small town America and kitschy roadside attractions is pretty well-established in the common psyche. Over the years numerous pop-culture references have ensured that the romantic notion of the American open road - complete with fifties-era diners, vintage convertibles and a classic rock soundtrack - has endured long after the asphalt has cracked.
As far back as 1946 Bobby Troup was encouraging people to get their "kicks on Route 66" in a rhythm and blues track that's since been covered hundreds of times by artists including The Rolling Stones, Nat King Cole, Perry Como, Chuck Berry, Eva Cassidy, Glenn Frey and John Mayer.
On the big screen Route 66 has served as a significant backdrop to classic films such as 'Easy Rider', 'Rain Man', 'Grapes of Wrath' and 'Thelma and Louise', whereas in more recent years it was pretty much integral to the entire plot of the (rather excellent) Pixar movie 'Cars'.
Despite this rather nebulous understanding, how many people could accurately answer the question "what is Route 66?". Hopefully this article will provide a little background on the history and resurgence of the "Mother Road"...
Established in 1926, Route 66 was actually founded on a pre-existing network of roads, passing through both rural and urban areas, that connected Chicago, Illinois with Los Angeles, California. A common misconception is that Route 66 was a single road constructed with intention whereas in fact it was very much true to its name – it was a route, not an Interstate.
Route 66 was the 2448 mile stretch of continuous road linking Chicago, Illinois with Los Angeles, California via Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.
Often referred to 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”), Route 66 underwent many changes to the original 1926 alignment before being officially removed from the US highway system in 1985.
During the 1930’s Route 66 was a major path for migrants seeking a better life, heading west to escape the hardships of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. It came to be seen as the pathway to opportunity and prosperity, with small-town businesses thriving on the passing trade. It was around this time that the romance and myth of US Route 66 began to form. This was given an even greater boost during World War II due to further westward migration to the war-related industries of California.
Over the following decades, as Route 66 was celebrated and mythologised 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.
Beginning in the late 1950’s, large portions of US Route 66 were bypassed by completed sections of what was to be the new Interstate Highway system. This was to be the beginning of the end for Route 66 as it once was.
In 1985 Route 66, considered no longer necessary in light of the new Interstate network, was eventually decommissioned, with no single interstate highway designated to replace it. This led to a huge reduction in traffic, which in turn led ultimately to the demise of many businesses that had relied on the continuous traffic of previous decades. 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, in recognition of Route 66’s cultural significance and the negative economic impact it's decommisioning had on many communities, a number of non-profit Route 66 Associations 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 the 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 in its heyday.
These days, route 66 road trippers take great pleasure in immersing themselves in the romanticism of what the road once stood for: lodging at vintage motels, eating at original diners, marvelling at the numerous roadside oddities, and filling up at restored gas stations in towns that have been preserved in time.
For these people, route 66 is all about the journey, not the destination.
In the 1930's, particularly during the dry, arid years of the "dustbowl", Route 66 was the primary thoroughfare for those who migrated west in search of agricultural work, and the volume of traffic was sufficient to support the economy of the many small towns through which it passed. By the time the 1950's hit, and the United States had recovered from the Great Depression, Route 66 had evolved into the main highway for vacationers heading towards the sunny, sandy promise of California.
It was a natural pathway for road-tripping families as it passed near such beautiful natural attractions as the Painted Desert, Meteor Crater, Meramec Caverns, Petrified Forest and the Grand Canyon. The increased tourism brought new prosperity and innovation to the many towns that lined it's path, and all manner of roadside attractions started popping up to compete for the trade of the renewed interest in the road - motels in the shape of tee-pees, reptile farms, "giant" roadside objects, and Indian curio shops!
Meramec Caverns, the “Jesse James hideout” was now advertising itself on the side of huge barns, whilst The Big Texan Steak Ranch boasted a 72oz steak dinner (free to those who can polish it off in under an hour!)
These were exciting times and also birthed the idea of "fast food" as we know it. In Springfield, Missouri, Red's Giant Hamburgers became the first drive-though restaurant, and San Bernadino, California, was home to a small restaurant called McDonalds that had their eye on the bigger picture (they're doing okay for themselves now!) Route 66 came to epitomise American culture at the time, and to this day is still viewed through a romantic lens of nostalgia and the promise of the American dream - all you needed was an automobile to explore it! These days, many of these vintage attractions have been saved and restored by Route 66 preservation groups.
A lot of what Route 66 has to offer you will simply encounter as you travel - you really won't have to look too far. Something to bear in mind of course is that a lot of the roadside attractions are just that – attractions at the side of the road! Therefore the chances of missing The Gemini Giant, Tow Tater, The Blue Whale or The Big Texan are slim so long as you’re not driving with your eyes closed! Of course it helps to have an up-to-date map and guide book (I’d recommend the EZ66 Guidebook as an essential purchase) to make sure you are actually sticking to Route 66 and therefore have advance warning of an upcoming attraction.
There are a wealth of sights and attractions gracing the old road from the historic and informative - Coleman Theatre, Acoma Pueblo - to the weird and wonderful - Cadillac Ranch, the Blue Whale, Tow Tater. Route 66 is now an icon of vintage Americana and every year thousands of people from all over the globe travel it's 2,448 miles.
There’s never a dull moment driving Route 66!