“If you ever plan to motor west
It winds from Chicago to L. A.
– words & music by Bobby Troup
Route 66 has a special place in the American consciousness. In its day, it the main east-west artery for the American continent and was known as the Mother Road of the United States, America’s Main Street and the American Dream Road.
It was never just a road; it was a symbol of American independence and mobility, the yellow brick road to opportunity and a better life. Although eclipsed today by the smoother, safer interstate highway system, it now preserved as a historic route and thousands drive along its dusty tarmac each year as they explore beauty and history of the United States.
The start of the famous trail
Route 66 begins at Grant Park on the shore of Lake Michigan in downtown Chicago, Illinois and ends almost 2400 miles to the west at the Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles, California. Along the way it passes through the three times zones and eight states: Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico. Its creation is entirely due to the efforts of entrepreneurs Cyrus Avery of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and John Woodruff of Springfield, Missouri.
At the time, there was no such thing as a national highway program and Route 66 was the first transcontinental route. Unlike many of the roads at the time, it was not a linear east-west alignment, but curved diagonally down through the south. For the first time, it directly connected many of the small rural towns in these remote and under populated states to a major thoroughfare, linking them with two vibrant cities: Chicago and Los Angeles. Route 66 actually served as the main street for many of these towns and was a vital lifeline to the isolated communities, bringing in much needed traffic and money. The shipping industry was also grateful, as it was easier and more comfortable for the truckers to use this southern route, rather than the longer, much colder northern roads.
More than just goods and produce travelled along this highway. During the Great Depression, more than 200,000 people travelled to California to escape the despair of the Dust Bowl. This was one of the first great movements along the road. This epic journey was immortalized in John Steinbeck’s classic 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, in which he was the first to call Route 66 the “Mother Road“. During the Second World War, army trucks rumbled unceasingly along its length, bringing armaments from nationwide factories to support the war effort. After the trauma of the War, thousands returning servicemen fled frigid Atlantic seaboard for the warmth of the southern states. In years to come, Route 66 would symbolize the spirit of freedom and optimism of this era, when everything seemed bright and everyone was on their way to better things.
Rebirth of the Mother Road
Unfortunately, the same drive to increased mobility also brought about Route 66’s abandonment. In the 1950s, Congress called for better, straighter, safer divided lane highways and by 1970, nearly all segments of original Route 66 were bypassed by the modern four-lane interstate system.
As sections of Route 66 were decommissioned, its signs were removed and the Mother Road quickly lost its continuity. The final section of the original road was bypassed at Williams, Arizona by Interstate Highway 40 in October 1984. The safer but less colourful interstate highway system prompted commentator Charles Kurault remark: “Thanks to the interstate highway system, it is now possible to travel across the country from coast to coast without seeing anything.”
Fortunately, interested parties mainly composed of dedicated volunteers in the small towns along the route recognized the value of Route 66 preservation and began pulling together the resources needed to maintain much of the magic of the route. Many towns and Route 66 Associationswork towards preserving the highway and even have ‘Adopt-a-100 mile section of Route 66’ programs. One of the more entertaining actions involved the restoration of the legendary Historic Route 66 signs, which unfortunately have a tendency to disappear as souvenirs. Despite the setbacks and the vast scope of their efforts, all the work has paid off and today, much of the Mother Route has been preserved and protected as a historical route, tempting adventurous drivers from the United States and overseas into a transcontinental adventure.
Today, driving along Route 66 has become a fantasy for many visitors looking for the ‘real America’, as well as a rite of passage for young Americans searching for their roots. The drive along the Mother Road is in many ways a drive through everything the United States has to offer: it runs through almost every kind of landscape imaginable on the continent, from thick pine forests to scorching desert, and passes through the most quintessentially American small town as well as some of the most vibrant, cosmopolitan cities.
Fortunately, the road is still in fairly good condition: 85% of the road is still drivable and in Texas, 91% of the original Route 66 is still in use. Navigating Route 66 can be baffling however, as it doesn’t appear on any current maps. Also, there are many dead ends and sections that have been taken over by city roads or the interstates, which makes matters more confusing. Historically, travellers travelled east to west: not only is travelling in the reverse direction historically wrong, it is also more difficult because almost all documentation goes the other way.
Sight to be seen along Route 66
There’s plenty to see along the drive: the landscape constantly changes and many of the towns hold their own attractions. There are also some sights intimately linked with the history of Route 66. As the highway developed and Americans began to travel more and more, mom-and-pop motels, hamburger stands, gas pumps and other classic pieces of Americana sprang up to meet the needs of these travellers, and they became symbols of the American way of life. Though time and the vagaries of life have been behind the disappearance of many of these icons, a number still remain.
One such icon is the Cozy Dog Drive in Springfield, Illinois. This was the first fast food joint of the road, introduced by Ed Waldmire at the 1946 Illinois State Fair. Another Springfield attraction is Shea’s Gas Station Museum, a charming and eclectic collection of over half a century of gas station memorabilia.
The first town that Route 66 passes in Oklahoma is Quapaw and it is famous for “spooklights”, bouncing bright balls of white fire that have been reported as far back as the 1700s. Further along the road in Arcadia is an old red round barn that is the most famous and most photographed barn along the highway. It’s not the only photographed sight in Oklahoma. Route 66 travellers also delight in capturing images of the Blue Whale, the Coleman Theatre Beautiful, the Warehouse Market, the Meramec Caverns Barn, the Milk Bottle Building, Totem Pole Park and other attractions.
Further down the road, travellers passing through Missouri can stop at the St Louis Car Museum, a great place to see some of the vintage models that once made the trek along the Mother Road. With the largest car collection in Missouri and perhaps the whole Midwest, the biggest attraction of the museum is that the cars on display are also for sale.
In New Mexico, the highway is its own attraction: a change in alignment of Route 66 in 1937 meant that there is now an intersection where Route 66 crosses itself at Central Avenue and 4th Street in downtown Albuquerque. Here, travellers can stand on the corner of Route 66 and Route 66. There is also a Route 66 Auto Museum near Santa Rosa.
McDonald’s opened the doors to its first restaurant on the Mother Road in 1945. It was located in San Bernardino, California and today, it is the home of McDonald’s Route 66 Museum, covering the history and of course, the locations of all the Golden Arches along the historic route.
All these sights and more can be seen along the historic Route 66. For those less inclined to embark on a transcontinental journey however, there is a far easier way to journey along its length. In Elk city, Oklahoma there is the Route 66 Museum, which has murals, vignettes and other displays to take the traveller on a tour of the country along the Mother Road, without ever having to sit in a car.