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U.S. Route 66: Historic Road Is Time Line of America

Amy Wilson
The Orange County (California) Register
January 18, 2002
 
The ad man knew what he was doing. He was hired to write copy about a
road that didn't yet exist—a Chicago-to-Los Angeles highway that
would be quilted together from dozens of variously named and sometimes
unconnected roads. He decided he'd call it "America's Main Street."

In one fell swoop, he made an alternative reality for a road that would take ten more years to be completely paved—an alternative reality that we bought and have never, as a culture, given up.


Because for all the things that Route 66 is, it is also this: a repository of all the baggage that one culture can foist upon an inanimate thing, revealing more about us than it ever could about 2,448 miles (3,939 kilometers) of asphalt.

The story of Route 66 is the story of two roads. The first is the one that existed, the one that brought a lot of America west, for whatever reasons.

Then there is the emblematic road, the one we have experienced through an important novel, a ditty of a song, a beat poet, a TV show, good press, well-meaning cultural historians, and endless nostalgia.

The asphalt itself is a bona-fide timeline of America. Still, somewhere along the way, Route 66 also became our collective highway experience. And in the 20th century, we were looking for one. We were about to become a culture that would discover not just the car but with it the knowledge that we didn't have to live forever in the place we started.

"The Mother Road"

John Steinbeck called it "The Mother Road, the road of flight." By the time The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939, the road had indeed been a road of flight for 250,000 refugees escaping their barren lands wrought by drought in the mid-1930s in Oklahoma. It was Steinbeck who framed the road's capacity for pathos and redemption.

Susan Shillinglaw, director of the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University in California, says she believes Steinbeck was the first to set the road apart as a cultural icon.

The road was significant enough a part of the story of the Joad family to merit its own chapter, Chapter 12, and to appear on the initial book cover. "The view of the migrants is reminiscent of wagon trains, looking toward paradise," Shillinglaw says, "toward an idyllic existence."

Yet, what most readers remember is Steinbeck's portrayal of the road being the setting for moments of miraculous humanity.

Wrote Steinbeck: "There was a family of 12, and they were forced off the land. They had no car. They built a trailer out of junk and loaded it with their possessions. They pulled it to the side of 66 and waited. And pretty soon a sedan picked them up. Five of them rode in the sedan and seven on the trailer, and a dog on the trailer. They got to California in two jumps. The man who pulled them fed them. And that's true. But how can such courage be, and such faith in their own species? Very few things would teach such faith."

The road thus became emblematic of the path to the American Dream, the one that came out of despair.

American Chronicle

Then there was the song. In 1946, ex-Marine Bobby Troup and his wife left Pennsylvania, found Route 66 in St. Louis, and began rhyming their way across America. By the time they got to Los Angeles, they had a song and, soon after that, some luck. Nat King Cole gave a listen and recorded "Get Your Kicks on Route 66."

The story is that within two weeks of the song's release, the Troups could afford a house. The song has been recorded 200 times since.

"More people know about the Route from Bobby Troup's song than from John Steinbeck's moving Chapter 12," says Route 66 aficionado Dan Harlow. He adds, "As an English teacher, I'm sorry to say that."

Harlow teaches seventh-grade English at Sycamore Junior High in Anaheim, California. He never meant to be a Route 66 aficionado; it just kind of happened. Ask him why he reveres the road: "It's the last trail west."

Harlow's first trip on it was east. He had been discharged from his tour in Vietnam, and he found himself burning alive in Kingman, Arizona, and he started to hitch. He could actually get a ride and a nice conversation on Route 66. He found this deaf guy who was hitching, too, and they spent one night camping on the rim of the Grand Canyon.

Harlow, now 51, was trying to get home to Kansas. At some point in the trip, he got on a bus—he had money—and he rode it home.

Harlow thinks the route is the true American chronicle. It was part of the Oregon Trail, then the Mormon Trail, then a rail line, then the road of despair and exodus. In the 1940s, soldiers traveled on it to get to western duty stations, and they, like Harlow, took it home again.

Motor Dreams

The golden age of the automobile dawned, and Airstream trailers made their way down the route. Merchants and cafe owners made the route colorful enough and diverting enough to change the notion that the route was a road to someplace else; it was a destination in itself.

Author Michael Wallis says the road was always about gimmicks. "Every town had one or was busy trying to find it, to ferret it out, feast on it," he says.

The gas station was born here. Even Phillips 66 gasoline was so dubbed because a company official was testing the gas in a car in Oklahoma. Someone remarked that the car "goes like 60." The official looked at the speedometer and said, "We're doing 66." The car was, by the way, doing 66 on Route 66 near Tulsa. The company took the hint at their next board meeting and so named the company. They also created a distribution plan that used the route as its core.

In New Mexico, historian David Kammer says, it was about this time that someone figured that motorists spent $19.02 a day on the road. If merchants could contrive ways to get motorists to stay just one more day in New Mexico—before they pressed on to California—it was $20 more than they had yesterday. At one point in a 17-mile stretch in and around Albuquerque, New Mexico, 110 motor courts thrived.

President Dwight Eisenhower, who had been to Germany and seen the efficiency of its roads, decided in 1956 that we needed a quick way to get troops and materiel and people to where they were going. The Interstate Highway Act was passed and the long, slow death of Route 66 began, replaced by something called Interstate 40.

The interstate went around towns, not through them. Limited access to the roads also meant limited egress, and side trips become less convenient.

All of which prompted commentator Charles Kuralt to remark once: "Thanks to the interstate highway system, it is now possible to travel across the country from coast to coast without seeing anything."

Recapturing the Past

In 1957, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady took the road—although they never called it 66—and implied in On the Road that the adventure was intellectual and clever and drug-ridden. The joy wasn't in the road; it was in being you.

Then along came the TV show called Route 66 to cement images in our memories that had nothing to do with the road. "We weren't trying to do anything but make the best show we could," says Martin Milner, who along with George Maharis starred in the show.

He read some Steinbeck before he took the job. But he can't remember a single time when anybody on the set mentioned the author's name.

The little town of Williams, Arizona, tried to say no to the interstate, but in 1985, the last official Route 66 signs came down. The road was decommissioned. That is, federal highway system officials said it wasn't their road anymore and they weren't going to maintain it. They had the I-40 to throw money into. But 80 percent of it was still drivable.

At the Old Trails Museum in Winslow, Arizona, Tina Mion says people are looking for what's left of America. "I find it very reassuring. At least they have a sense of what they want and how and where to go to find it."

Winslow was bypassed in 1979, and, Mion says, "All the downtown energy drained out a year or so later."

"We recognized we were losing our soul," she says. "The best thing that happened to us was the Eagles song ['I'm standing on the corner in Winslow, Arizona, and it's such a fine sight to see']…some Baby Boomers got together and made Standing on the Corner Park. It has this mural of a girl in a flatbed Ford. People come from all over to stand in the park and have their picture made with us. The museum is right across the street."

Lost Connections

In 1992, the 66th anniversary put car clubs on the road. Harlow led a tour down the road in a 1992 Mustang, and Time magazine wrote about it. State Route 66 associations got rolling, starting in Illinois.

Route 66, says Wallis, "was America before we became generic, before we worried about our cholesterol and thought billboards were blight and before waitresses stopped caring if you got served hot coffee when you just came off the road."

Patrick Jennings, a Canadian, took a five-week long trek along the Route in 1997 and wrote an e-journal along the way. He says he found "the way America looks at itself."

The road hearkens to a time when we had time, he says. "As a culture, it takes us a long time to figure out we've lost something."

What we lost, Jennings maintains, is the connection with people. While on his trip, he says, if his car broke down, people stopped to see if he needed help. If he made an unexpected U-turn, people stopped to ask if he was lost. He remembers a note in a New Mexico hotel room that said, "We are here for you, not the business."

He says the return to the road is a return to spirituality. A lot of people are making the secular pilgrimage.

Many of the visitors at the route's museums and in its cottages are from Western Europe, Japan, and Asia. French public radio did a ten-hour documentary on its anniversary. Some Route 66 books are printed only in foreign languages. Web sites are multilingual. There's a Route 66 bar in Ireland, a Route 66 shop in Pakistan.

But what was once an odyssey to the exotic is an odyssey back to some sense of ordinariness.

And a lot of people believe that if cultural redemption is possible, it is also the road back.

Copyright 2001, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, California)
 

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