Route 66, the first cross-country (actually, Chicago to Los Angeles) motor route and which sped America’s migration west, embodies a kind of cool that spans generations. A two-lane ribbon of asphalt, concrete and an occasional pothole that stretched for more than 2400 miles, Route 66 is a road from the past that shows us everything we need to know about travel in the future.
In fact, Route 66 is the journey that never ends, even if the original road is largely dismantled and bypassed at this point. The pre-interstate highway lives on through preservation, populations (mostly on the West Coast) and pop culture.
Route 66 is how a lot of Californians’ grandparents arrived in the Golden State, and it enabled agricultural goods from each end of the country to reach the other. And in a way, it was a precursor to watching water-skiing squirrels today on YouTube. Who wouldn’t stop to see a giant roadside blue whale in Oklahoma?
Books, magazines, collector’s maps and music CDs featuring something to do with Route 66 number more than 150 items for sale on Amazon.com.
In music, “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” was sung first by Nat King Cole, then covered by everyone from daughter Natalie Cole to Perry Como, The Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Mel Tormé, The Brian Setzer Orchestra, The Manhattan Transfer, Buckwheat Zydeco, Jerry Lee Lewis, Tom Petty, Brad Paisley and John Mayer. You know the tune if not the exact lyrics (and it might stay in your head the rest of today). When you snap your fingers to the line, “more than two-thousand miles away,” you embrace the hipness this road held for decades. Kerouac didn’t go On the Road to satisfy social convention.
The tune was the theme song for the TV Series, “Route 66,” which sealed its reputation with a Corvette convertible that carried protagonists Tod Stiles and Buz Murdock through film noire dramas. On air for four seasons (1960-1964, but forever in DVDs), the show wasn’t quite so literal about geography.
Which is kind of the point. Route 66 transcended geography – it was a state of mind.
Politics, promotion, flat land and Steinbeck
The Route 66 we associate with Corvettes really started out with camels. Or so was the plan. Way back in 1857, the U.S. War Department ordered the construction of a wagon road across the 35th Parallel, where camels were to be tested as pack animals that could cross the deserts of the American Southwest. The test apparently wasn’t successful because the dromedaries never took off. A few decades later, with the arrival of cars in the early 20th Century, three separate highways – The Lone Star Route, the National Old Trails Road and the Ozark Trails system – enabled drivers to cross the country, but with difficulty. These routes were indirect and irregularly funded and maintained. It took an act of Congress in 1925 to initiate development of a national highway system.
The terrain the road covered was the flattest way to traverse the U.S. A nascent trucking industry preferred this southern route, versus something a few parallels north, to avoid navigating the steeper Rocky Mountains. Still, the various roads were a patchwork.
Entrepreneurs in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Springfield, Missouri – Cyrus Avery and John Woodruff, respectively – promoted the idea of a national road. After all, hordes of easterners coming their way had to be good for business. They formed the U.S. Highway 66 Association in 1927 – determining the number 66 was easy to say and hear. They decided a publicity campaign would capture the imagination and demonstrate that cross-continental travel by road would be possible. Their stroke of genius: the 1928 “Bunion Derby,” a 3,455-mile run from LA through Chicago to New York.
The Bunion Derby was itself ahead of its time. A $25,000 prize purse drew 199 entrants, although half dropped out by the time they reached eastern New Mexico. Fifty-five runners finished at Madison Square Garden in New York, 84 days after it started, three of whom were of African descent. One black runner took third place and the winner was part Cherokee – all big news, as this was 19 years before Jackie Robinson was admitted to Major League Baseball. Route 66 winds through parts of Texas and Oklahoma, the Jim Crow south where near acts of racial violence dogged the black runners. One farmer in western Oklahoma rode in his truck alongside black runner Eddie Gardner with a gun trained him, daring Gardner to pass any of the white runners. Gardner persevered and ultimately finished in 8th place.
The drama made good newspaper copy, and ultimately prompted government funding to establish this particular cross-continental route. The gravel-and-graded-dirt road was transformed into the nation’s first completely paved highway within ten years, by 1938.
The Dust Bowl and Depression conditions of the 1930s led displaced farm families to follow the road west to California.
But the road was in heavy use even before the asphalt was complete, as novelist John Steinbeck described in The Grapes of Wrath. The Dust Bowl and Depression conditions of the 1930s led displaced farm families to follow the road west to California. Woody Guthrie wrote his own song, “Blowin’ Down This Road (I Ain’t Going to Be Treated This Way)” in a collection known as “Dust Bowl Ballads.”
It was a road away from loss, off to something, anything, better. Steinbeck coined it The Mother Road.
Flat most of the way, an early Route 66 included a treacherous section knows as La Bajada (in Spanish, “the descent”) near Santa Fe, New Mexico. It had 23 steep switchback curves winding up a plateau, traversing so steep a grade that cars of the day, with gravity-fed gas lines, had to handle this section in reverse. The course was changed by 1933 because it did not serve trucks, carrying Midwestern grain west and California produce east, very well.
The actual course of Route 66 differs from modern highways in that it followed natural contours, much of it on existing trails established by preceding horse travel and to some extent by transcontinental railways established in the 19th century. Some sections of the original route were in mud, others ran across rough bedrock – much of it unsuitable for auto travel until the entire length of the route was paved by 1938. Modern roads blast through outcroppings and hillsides, but this route instead skirted them.
The Coral Courts, Wigwams and the Big Blue Whale
Before everyday plane travel, but in an age where the independence and affordability of the automobile was significantly liberating, Route 66 proved that travel is much more than transport. It was a visual feast, a way to sample an America in all its heartland creativity, an aesthetic not from franchise operation designers but local restaurateurs’ creativity. There were no McDonald’s and Denny’s or Red Roof Inns yet.
Which gave motorists the Coral Court Motel, a modern-art deco gem outside of St. Louis (recently demolished). Wigwam-themed motels dotted the route, including those in Holbrook, Arizona and Rialto, California (each unit shaped like a teepee, but with standard doors where the flap should be). Notable motels were the Blue Swallow Motor Court, the El Rancho and La Posada.
Indian jewelry, petrified rocks, dinosaur statues and a big blue whale, made of concrete and perched at the edge of a pond in Catoosa, Oklahoma, provided entertainment to weary travelers. Recently, some 21st century British tourists posted this YouTube video of lads diving off the landlocked leviathan.
Large was the theme along Route 66. Purportedly the world’s largest ketchup bottle, milk bottle, cola bottle, Katchina Doll and concrete dinosaurs attracted attention and visitors. There is also a leaning water tower (Britten, Texas), the famous Cadillac Ranch (Amarillo, Texas) and a gorgeously restored art moderne Conoco gas station and café (Shamrock, Texas).
Pre-franchised fast food, this was the golden era of the mom-and-pop restaurant. Several recently-published books chronicle the locations, menus and ambiance of these rest stops for hungry travelers, including The Route 66 Cookbook: Comfort Food from the Mother Road Deluxe 75th Anniversary Edition, by Marian Clark, and The Route 66 St. Louis Cookbook, by Norma Maret Bolin.
Just the names evoke an image of what restaurateurs in eight Midwestern plains and Southwestern states had in mind when they opened their doors: Bagdad Café, Blueberry Hills Cafe, Bun Burner Chili Shack, Copper Cart Restaurant, Cozy Dog Drive in, Earl’s Family Restaurant, Golden Spread Grill, Hemingway’s Blue Water Café, Hungry Bear Restaurant, Iron Hog Saloon, Jiggs Smoke House, Last in Texas Motel and Café, Little Juarez Diner, Midpoint Café, Neon Soda Saloon, Old Keg Restaurant, Pancake Corner, Pancake Hut, Pig-Hip Restaurant, Pop Hicks Restaurant, Rock Café, Sidewinder Café, Top Hat Dairy Bar, U Drop Inn and the not-to-be-missed Yippee-Yi-Yo Café.
None served a “grand slam breakfast,” Big Mac or chalupa at every exchange, as highway rest stops do today. Motorists instead got a surprise – and savored every morsel.
Decline and renewal
The success of Route 66 led to its demise. By the 1950s, the west was populated and still growing, along with the cities and towns along the way. Particularly after World War II (1941-1945), when General Eisenhower became President Eisenhower, the idea of creating something like the German Autobahn appealed to the restless, victorious nation. The Interstate Highway Act of 1956 provided federal funding to build what was ostensibly a means for mobilizing troops quickly, cross-country, for future conflicts. But in reality, more highways were in demand by a population that invented the car culture – you weren’t anybody if you didn’t have four wheels, and with those wheels you just had to go. Even working class families could travel across several states for vacations, often in recreational vehicles.
Notably, with progress came something called the bypass. The Turner Turnpike, a 88-mile stretch constructed already in 1953 (it was a toll road, pre-Federal funding) between Tulsa, Oklahoma and Oklahoma City, simply paralleled Route 66 but ran outside smaller burgs along the way. By then, people were too busy, in too much a hurry to stop in smaller towns for their food, lodging, gas and entertainment. Cars were faster, perhaps more reliable, and a go-go world was unfolding. Two lanes weren’t enough, as four, six, eight, ten and twelve lane superhighways began to spread out across the country. Bypasses meant economic death for many businesses and towns, spawning instead a franchised business culture at exchanges, with most of the same products available in Illinois as in California and everywhere else in between.
As more and more superhighways were constructed, Route 66 was either subsumed by them, served as frontage roads, or simply became the main streets through hundreds of bypassed towns in the eight states where it ran. The road was decommissioned in 1984, and ever since has been the subject of preservation and historical designation projects, including a patchwork of preservationist organizations largely organized by state.
Why save it? “The appearance of Route 66 came at a time of unparalleled social, economic, and political disruption and global conflict, and it enabled the most comprehensive movement of people in the history of the United States,” says the National Parks Service, which favors federal preservation funding.
Millions of the descendants of those who traveled Route 66 to California might agree. They and future generations should know that the two-lane strip of asphalt, nearly 2500 miles long, was about more than wigwam motels, huge blue whales and getting to a destination. It was a route of complete transformation, a trip that never ended.