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The Main Street of America - Route 66

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The Main Street of America: Route 66 | Illinois | Missouri | Kansas | Oklahoma | Texas | New Mexico | Arizona | California

Route 66 roadsign.
If you ever plan to motor west
Travel my way, take the highway that's the best
Get your kicks on Route 66

-Route 66 by Bobby Troup

The Main Street of America. The Mother Road. The Will Rogers Highway. Immortalised in song, glamourised on television, one of the most celebrated roads in the world, Route 66 was the American highway. Not merely a means of reaching a destination, Route 66 was a destination in itself.

From its starting point in Chicago, Route 66 covered 2,488 miles (about 4,000 kilometres) through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, across three time zones, to Santa Monica. About 80 percent of the original road is still intact although decommissioned; it has been fractured by the dominance of the interstate highways and renamed virtually all across the US. These days, while you won't find Route 66 on any map, it is always there, just waiting to be rediscovered by ever more adventurous travellers.

Evolution of the American Highway

Early in the 20th Century, as cars became more accessible to the average American, there grew a demand for more navigable roadways. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1921 demonstrated an intention to create a system of decent, two-lane interstate highways, but it wasn't until a meeting of the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) in 1924 that any solid, uniform system was suggested.

The AASHO agreed on a plan to identify a system of interstate routes and assign them numeric designations. This plan would override the existing series of named trail associations that criss-crossed the nation. These trails were laid out at the whim of the the associations for the purpose of promoting the businesses along the routes, resulting in meandering roads that followed sometimes indirect and sometimes coinciding routes, thus confusing to motorists.

A Joint Board of Interstate Highways was created with representatives of the state highway agencies to accomplish the intentions of the AASHO. The board held a series of meetings in 1925 to establish the US Highway system, primarily linking together the most direct existing inter-city routes. The accompanying number system was rather simple in its layout. All east-west routes would be given even numbers, with major routes being numbered x0 (10, 20, 30...) while lesser roads took the even numbers in between. Numbers progressed from north to south, with 10 being an east-west route in the north and 90 being a route in the south. North-South routes were assigned odd numbers, with major routes being numbered x1 (41, 51, 61...) while others were designated odd numbers in between, and route numbers increased progressively from east to west.

Get Your Kicks on Route 60?

By this proposed system, the route from Chicago to Los Angeles was originally designated US 601. William Fields, Governor of Kentucky, rejected this, as it bypassed his state and didn't provide a thoroughfare to the southeastern states2. The board proposed an additional route from Newport News, Virginia to Springfield, Missouri, that would pass through Kentucky. Designating this new route US 60 would mean that the whole of the Chicago-Los Angeles route could not also be called US 60.

Board members from Missouri (B Piepmeier) and Oklahoma (Cyrus Avery) objected to having to give up Route 60, as both states had already made up signs to post along the route. Avery in particular was adamant about having one highway designation between Chicago and LA and balked at the prospect of re-designating the northern leg of the route. After coming very close to numbering the route 62, it was discovered that 66 had not been assigned yet. Avery preferred this to 62 and agreed. He is often referred to as the 'Father of Route 66'. He is also largely credited for the phrase 'Main Street of America', used in promoting the new highway.

The system created by the Joint Board of Interstate Highways was officially adopted nation-wide in 1926.

It winds from Chicago to LA
More than 2000 miles all the way
Get your kicks on Route 66

The Mother Road

When the highway system was developed it was made up of intermittently and marginally paved segments of existing road. During the Great Depression the government created several road projects aimed at completing the paving. Although fully paved in some states like Illinois, where the entire length between Chicago and St Louis was paved before it became part of 66, the whole route from end to end was not completely paved until 1937.

Traffic along Route 66 was particularly heavy during the Depression as it carried the bulk of farmers escaping the morbid poverty that resulted from the Dust Bowl3. Route 66 was first named 'the Mother Road' by John Steinbeck in his 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, which chronicled the journey of the fictional Joads, one of thousands of families to make the migration. Most were bound for chances of a better life in California, but some stopped and began their new lives on the legendary road, providing services to other travellers.

In the time leading to the US involvement in World War II, the military saw the opportunity to train troops in the more remote areas of the west and used Route 66 as a much faster means of transporting soldiers to these locations. After the war, soldiers returning home remembered the pleasant climate out west, and began moving their families to the western states. The postwar migration was even larger than that of the Great Depression; the two together are responsible for Los Angeles being the second-largest city in the US. Bobby Troup was one such soldier, travelling US 66 on his move from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to California, inspiring him to write his famous song (originally recorded by Nat King Cole).

Highway 66 was so orientated to westward travel that many of the original highway markers were erected only for the westbound traveller.

American Road Culture

If heavy wartime use and the emigration following the war spawned hundreds of roadside businesses, the postwar boom in the automotive and travel industries served to sustain them. Motels, eateries, service stations and oddities of all sorts sprang into existence all along the route.

Spending the Night on the Road

Lodgings along 66 experienced evolution from simple auto camps to luxurious motels and motor courts. While many legendary establishments have been lost to the rise of impersonal branded chain hotels, several vintage motels continue to operate into the 21st century. For the traveller wishing to fully experience the Mother Road it is imperative to search out gems like the Blue Swallow in New Mexico, the Munger Moss in Missouri or the the Wigwam Village in California.

Keeping the Car on the Road

Gas stations along the highway quickly saw the benefit (and profit) in providing motorists with needs other than gasoline and became service stations. Window washing, topping off the oil, checking the tyres all became routine at a service station stop, on-site mechanics in service bays could perform maintenance needs and repairs. Soon enough independent owners were taking on petroleum company affiliations and selling exclusive product, resulting in popular stations like Soulsby's Shell in Illinois and the Tower Fina Station in Texas. Several examples of these unique stations have been restored (or are in various states of restoration) along Route 66; many now contain museums or gift shops. One such station in Oklahoma strives to become a fully operational vintage Phillips 66 station. Any of these should be included on a tour of the Old Road.

Some service stations included lunch counters, which became successful cafes in their own rights overshadowing the incidental sale of gasoline at the same locations. A few even went so far as to build cabins on their property, so travellers could stop for the night, start off with a sturdy breakfast and fill up the car before setting off again.

Road Eats

The successful lunch-counters-turned-cafes inspired a whole new industry: the roadside diner. From Steak 'n Shake in Illinois to McDonald's in California, all manner of road food was first conceived on Highway 66. An abundance of regional fare added a new aspect of adventure to the standard road trip. Fried chicken was a common find, along with hamburgers, sandwiches and blue plate specials. As eateries conformed to the motorist culture drive-ins began to appear, offering customers the convenience of driving up, ordering and eating without ever having to leave their cars while their food was delivered to them by carhops on roller skates.

Some traditional Route 66 fare that can still be experienced today include the Steakburger (at Steak 'n Shakes all along the route), the Cozy Dog in Illinois, and Chicken in the Rough - half a fried chicken with shoestring potatoes, rolls and honey. Several original cafes and diners have survived as well, like the Ariston in Illinois, The Oklahoma County Line Restaurant (an old haunt of gangster Pretty Boy Floyd's), and the Midpoint Cafe at the exact midpoint of the route in Texas.

Roadside Oddities

Lest the average motorist become bored with the constant monotony of concrete, motels and food, roadside attractions of nearly every imaginable variety were common sights, beckoning travellers to stop by, relax, be entertained, stay a bit (and spend some money). Some of these oddities have survived the years, many exist only in memories and memorabilia, commemorated in the dozens of Route 66 museums along the way.

Animal attractions were very popular; in an era not too concerned with the treatment of animals, curiosity shows and roadside zoos were common. More ethical remaining attractions worthy of a visit include such spots as Meramec Caverns (a famous hideout of the James Gang) in Missouri, the Blue Whale of Catoosa and Totem Pole Park in Oklahoma, the Cadillac Ranch in Texas. A few drive-in movie theatres are still in operation along 66 as well, usually only during the summer months, for a good, old-fashioned cinematic experience.

The Big, The Bright and The Beautiful

As traffic increased and roadside businesses multiplied, advertising became the key to success. Simple signs in front of a business were quickly obscured by bigger signs in front of the business next door, which were in turn overshadowed by the even bigger neon sign in front of the business across the street. Many original Route 66 businesses still maintain their old-style neon signs, providing one way to be sure you're getting an authentic Mother Road experience.

Giant statues were another way of grabbing attention; huge men taller than buildings, painted in bright colours, and holding a business sign or themed item. The 'Gemini Giant' outside the Launching Pad restaurant in Illinois holds a rocket, another similar giant outside a repair shop in Missouri holds an axe. All along Route 66 giant men, dinosaurs, rabbits, cows and more are still vying for motorists' dollars.

A trend that began in California and worked its way east was to erect buildings designed to advertise the kind of business inside. Popular primarily on the western half of the route, one could find orange-shaped juice stands, hamburger-shaped hamburger stands, even sombrero-shaped Mexican diners. Buildings took on many other eye-catching forms as well, one restaurant was even shaped like a shoe. The southern states banked on their vast Indian heritage, offering 'authentic' Indian goods in Indian-motif shops, even standard businesses adopted the Indian-style to add a sense of the exotic to their regular wares. Travellers can still sleep in a wigwam on 66 at the Wigwam Village motels in Arizona and California.

Slow Down and Enjoy the Sights

Route 66 was long referred to as 'America's Worst Speed Trap'. Dozens of towns were notorious for catching speeders and collecting extortionate fees for driving violations. Some towns were so adept at this that the bulk of their revenue was made in this way, without providing any of the regular tourist services like service stations, motels and eateries. When motoring publications published their lists of the worst speed traps in the nation, more than half of them were along Route 66.

On the Small Screen

In the early 1960s 'Route 66' was a popular television show which followed the adventures of Tod and Buz (and later Tod and Linc) as they cruised the Mother Road in their Corvette. The object of the show was to encourage viewers to rediscover the US through the featured storylines. Oddly enough, the show was never filmed on any part of Route 66, but on location all over the country. The show was praised for its writing and featured an impressive list of guest stars like Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff, DeForest Kelley, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, Ron Howard, Joan Crawford, Barbara Eden, Ed Asner and Robert Duvall. The show inspired toys and games as well as a very short-lived sequel series that aired in 1993. Occasionally the original enjoys a rerun stint much to the delight of its fans.

The Ever-Onward March of Progress

Heavy use of Route 66 led to rapid deterioration, and the driving public was soon again calling for improved roadways. Responding to demand President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 which allowed for the creation of a new highway system inspired by Germany's Autobahn. In 1957 work began on what would become the Eisenhower Interstate System.

Thanks to the Interstate Highway System it is now possible to travel across the country from coast to coast without seeing anything.
-Charles Kuralt, from On the Road with Charles Kuralt

The first segment of 66 had been bypassed in 1953 with the completion of the Turner Turnpike between Tulsa and Oklahoma City, but the Interstate Highway System insured that the rest of it would eventually follow. As traffic left Highway 66 in favour of the faster, safer, far less exciting interstates, businesses were devastated. In many cases entire towns were bypassed as the primary goal of the interstate system was to link major cities, allowing travellers to avoid more congested urban areas.

As the system was completed, 66 was gradually bypassed by Interstate 55 between Chicago and St Louis, Interstate 44 between St Louis and Oklahoma City (completely missing Kansas), Interstate 40 from Oklahoma City to Barstow, California, Interstate 15 from Barstow to just outside Los Angeles and Interstate 10 to Santa Monica.

Some businesses, like the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, moved with the highway, relocating themselves on the new interstates; ultimately these are the ones that survived the best. A few businesses managed to continue on the old road, like Lucille's in Hydro, Oklahoma, which remained open until owner Lucille Hamons passed away in 2000. Most businesses, however, were lost, unable to overcome the loss of their livelihood. Some buildings have found new life serving other purposes, others have been abandoned to fall down or be torn down. All along the road can be found relics of once thriving commerce, the odd lonely sign continuing its duty to advertise a motel or service station that has long since crumbled.

By 1970 nearly all of Route 66 had been bypassed. The last stretch at Williams, Arizona, was completed in 1984. In 1985 what was left of the Main Street of America, in its fractured and broken state, was officially decommissioned. Route 66 was no more.

The Road Goes On

Route 66 roadside signpost.

No other highway in history has captured the imaginations of so many people, not just in the US but all over the world. During its heyday Route 66 attracted enthusiastic motorists from the Americas and abroad to traverse its legendary miles. In the 21st Century the old road continues to inspire nostalgia and the urge to revisit, even for those who have never been.

All of the Route 66 states have organised preservation societies to protect and revive what's left of the highway. These organisations began as grass-roots efforts by individuals to save what was left of it, and their combined efforts eventually led to the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Act of 1999. This provides federal aid to local projects preserving and restoring the old road. Lengths of road have been declared historic, and although maps and street signs will have new names for the roads US 66 used to follow, much of the route also carries Historic 66 markers. Many excellent guides exist to help modern motorists experience the Mother Road, in books, online and on maps from individual state societies. A real map (more detailed than the online version) is essential to following Route 66 today. Though much of the route is marked not all of it is, and historic signs are often taken by less respectful souvenir-seekers.

A lot of old 66 has survived as frontage road to the interstate. Despite this I found it easy to ignore the interstate and concentrate on the two-lane, imagining how it would have been to drive the road fifty years ago. I liked winding through all the little towns along the way, seeing surviving attractions of the road's heyday alongside relics and ruins.

Outside of the United States many other countries have formed Route 66 groups as well to support and promote the road of legend, including Canada, France, Japan, Germany, Holland and Italy, among others. These groups provide information to tourists heading for Route 66 and sometimes sponsor tours for groups. It is not at all uncommon to encounter foreign motorists on a Route 66 journey.

Radiator Springs, USA

In the 2006 film Cars, hot-shot race car Lightning McQueen finds himself lost in the dark on the backroads en route to California4. By the light of day he discovers he has found, much to his dismay, Radiator Springs, a sleepy old Route 66 town, long ago bypassed by the interstate. Sentenced to community service for damage he caused to the road through town, McQueen spends several days in Radiator Springs, meeting the few remaining residents and learning the plight of the bypassed communities clinging to existence on the old highway.

The film is a conglomeration of US 66 sights drawn from dozens of towns along the route. The Cadillac Ranch can be spied in the rock formations of the background, the Cozy Cone motel is a Wigwam Village (although the name is taken from the Cozy Dog in Illinois). Fillmore, one of the town's residents is a tribute to Bob Waldmire, renowned Route 66 artist.

Get Your Kicks on Route 66

Why travel Route 66, you may ask? Well, Route 66 is about the best cross-sectional slice of good Americana that is left. Despite appearances, the US is not all giant malls, strip malls, video stores and home improvement superstores...not at all. Those are simply the by-products of urban enclaves. Between those enclaves, you find Americana.

Route 66 is a two-lane journey through this Americana. The journey starts in the bustling metropolis of Chicago, heads down through the cornfields of Illinois, through the hills and forests of Missouri, into the plains of Kansas and Oklahoma, onto the flatlands of Texas, into the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona, through the mountains of California, on to the beautiful sea at Santa Monica Pier.

The Journey

It is important to note that as Route 66 ages classic establishments are lost, sold, bought, abandoned, restored, torn down and relaunched (not necessarily in that order). The establishments you encounter on these pages may or may not exist when you make your own trip.

Illinois Route 66 AssociationMissouri Route 66 AssociationKansas Route 66 AssociationOklahoma Route 66 AssociationTexas Route 66 AssociationNew Mexico Route 66 AssociationArizona Route 66 AssociationCalifornia Route 66 AssociationRoute 66 Clicks
1Even though the highway didn't follow a strictly east-west route, as its primary purpose was to link rural communities between these two cities.2Fields felt Kentucky was doubly slighted, as the main north-south route, the Dixie Highway, also bypassed the state completely.3The Dust Bowl lasted for most of the 1930s as wind swept across the drought-stricken southern plains making farming all but impossible.4Race cars have no headlights, you see.

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