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."

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