“Go West!” was the old pioneer clarion call of Manifest Destiny, and Route 66 took 20th century Americans farther and faster than ever before. Not just a highway or a road, Route 66 connected 2,448 miles of the United States. It wasn’t only a luxury — it was a necessity of transportation to accommodate the country’s new vehicle of choice, the automobile. Starting in Chicago, it winded across the Midwest through Missouri and Kansas, and into the red dirt of Oklahoma. It twisted into the Southwest through Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, and finally ended in Santa Monica California at the Pacific Ocean. Even though it was replaced as the road of choice in 1956 by the Interstate Highway Act and has since been regulated to historical status, Route 66 remains a connection to our past and remains something distinctly American.
From 1926 to 1956, Route 66 was used by roadsters to tour the country — the last frontier adventure when towns and states still had their own distinct cultural diversity. It was a time before commercial freeways, fast food chains and corporate advertising homogenized the nation and smothered the personality and unique vision of the “Old America.” The open road was an inspiration to the beat generation — On the Road with Jack Kerouac and the “mad ones” who burned like “roman candles.” The wagons and horses of cowboys and settlers were replaced by 1946 Super DeLuxe Fords, the open prairie with endless highway. Route 66 was called “Main Street America” and it rolled and rumbled through cities and small towns whose economic survival depended on the travelers passing through. Route 66 was also an escape route during the Dust Bowl of the ‘30s. Hundreds of thousands of Oklahoma refugees took to the open road and moved west to California looking for work during the Great Depression. Route 66 is the road of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and the ghost of Tom Joad still blows across its blacktop. Steinbeck called it the “Mother Road” and the name has stuck ever since. The mother of all roads — a journey for not only adventure and but also salvation for 2.5 million “Okies” looking for a better life.
During World War II it was the road for moving artillery and troops from base to base. In the ‘50s it became the vacation road en route to California and everywhere in between. “Get your kicks on Route 66!” first sang Nat King Cole, and later Chuck Berry whose chugging electric guitar evoked the sound of thousands of engines racing along the Mother Road.
It ran past Chicago’s Grant Park to the St. Louis Arch. Travelers could see the Grand Canyon and follow it all the way to Chinatown in Los Angeles. You could travel the country without leaving a single stretch of highway and have diverse culture experiences from town to town. The iconic journey of Route 66 has been the inspiration for every “road trip” from Easy Rider to PIXAR’s Cars.
Over time Route 66 saw many realignments but after 30 years it all came to a halt. During his experiences in Europe as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in World War II, President Dwight D. Eisenhower witnessed the modern efficiency of the German highway the Autobahn. He now wanted the same hi-tech system for the United States. In 1956, the Interstate Highway Act was passed. The result is the commercial highway system we have today. Parts of Route 66 were re-routed or dismantled completely to make room for the ambitions new super highway. The country was moving forward and there was little time for sentimentality for an old stretch of road.
With the death of Route 66 came the death of many of the towns that depended on travelers for economic survival. Some were abandoned completely while others survive to this day only to have the shadows of the past haunt its current residents. The haunted town of Jerome, AZ is an old mining town angled among the steep rocks overlooking the open desert. Eating a burger at the Haunted Hamburger is pure kitsch, but driving through the town at night is an eerie experience. At dusk, the sky turns purple while pink clouds envelop a silver moon. Darkness plays tricks on a traveler’s mind as shadows dance among abandoned buildings and jagged rocks.
Restoration campaigns started in 1987, which set aside sections of Route 66 for preservation as an historic highway. There are countless destinations that still celebrate the vintage legacy of Route 66. Lou Mitchell’s Restaurant of Chicago was founded in 1923 and is famous for serving fresh donut holes to waiting customers. The Oklahoma Route 66 Museum in Clinton, OK is one of the best museums dedicated to Route 66. It features a museum of vintage cars, an indoor drive-in theatre, and retro exhibits that capture the experience of the Mother Road. The U-Drop Inn in Shamrock, TX is home to perhaps the most famous iconic structure on the Route and showcases a restored green gas station and restaurant that was founded in 1936. The town of Tucumcari, NM is one of the best preserved of the vintage Route 66 towns. Featuring the iconic “Tucumcari Tonight!” roadside signs and neon-lit hotels such as the Motel Safari and Blue Swallow, Tucumcari maintains several vintage diners that were founded in the ‘30s and ‘50s during the Route’s hey-day. The Santa Monica Pier in California marks the end of the road, or as the sign says, “Santa Monica 66 End of the Trail.”
Route 66 changed the landscape of the United States and allowed society to expand its boundaries by taking advantage of the innovations of the new car culture. It remains a link to our colorful and diversified past — one that should be remembered and celebrated. The pavement is calling so take a ride on the Mother Road and get your kicks on Route 66!