04 April 2011

The Mother Road

Last weekend I had the opportunity to see a musical revue called Route 66, which was essentially a collection of great old country and rock and roll tunes having to do with cars, trucks, and the open road. The show was good, but the addition of a narrator presenting vignettes about the old US 66 in between some of the musical numbers might have been interesting, for it was in the beginning of the 20th century 'The Main Street of America'.

The US has a lot of great drives-the Pacific Coast Highway, the Overseas Highway to Key West, the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Lincoln Highway, the Pennsylvania Turnpike. But Route 66-the Mother Road-the two-lane ribbon of road stretching from Chicago through the Southwest and ending in Los Angeles, may have impacted the national psyche and inspired more books, films, and songs than any other road save the trails of the Old West in pioneer days.

Most people know the song Route 66. Acts from Nat King Cole to Depeche Mode have covered the tune. Here it is performed by the original songwriter, Bobby Troup. Anyone who saw the old 1970s television show, Emergency!, remember him as Dr. Joe Early. But he made his name with this song.

Well if you ever plan to motor west

Just take my way that's the highway that's the best
Get your kicks on Route 66

Well it winds from Chicago to L.A.
More than 2000 miles all the way
Get your kicks on Route 66

Well it goes from St Louie, Joplin, Missouri
Oklahoma City looks oh so pretty

You'll see Amarillo and Gallup, New Mexico
Flagstaff, Arizona
Don't forget Winona
Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino

Would you get hip to this kindly tip
And go take that California trip
Get your kicks-on Route 66!
Route 66 features prominently in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, where the Joad family travels it from their dust bowl-ravaged Oklahoma to the so-called Promised Land of California in the darkest days of the Great Depression. The movie Cars is a detailed and loving tribute to small towns along 66 and the postwar car culture that provided their heyday. Robert Heinlein even gave a nod to it in his story If This Goes On...when he mentioned 'the ruins of the old 66 roadcity'. Not to mention the TV show of the early 1960's...

which was shot on numerous locations around the country, many of which, oddly enough, weren't on Route 66! Go figure.

What would you have seen on 66 if you traveled it all the way? You'd have started on the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago, headed southwest across the prairies, farms, and fields of Illinois, crossed the Mississippi on the north side of St. Louis, skirted the northern edge of the Ozarks in Missouri, traversed the old Indian Country of Oklahoma, rolled through the high plains of the Texas Panhandle, crossed the continental divide through New Mexico, and shot through the vast deserts of Arizona and California before ending in the City of Angels in sunny southern California.

The road started out, like many highways here, as a series of trails that the pioneers used to make their way West. Part of the route was patrolled in the pre-Civil War era by the US Army Camel Corps-yep, the Army experimented with camel cavalry to cross the western deserts for a time. In the 1920s, the road was paved. Two lanes of asphalt replaced the wagon ruts and muddy mires of the horse-and-buggy era.

Route 66 was, in the 1930s, a main route for the Dust Bowl refugees from Oklahoma and Arkansas, farmers who through poor farming practice depleted their lands (not necessarily entirely their fault) and were looking for agricultural work-or any work- in California, the 'promised land'.

So they loaded up their cars and trucks and headed west. Some of them found work. Many of them struggled in this new state that really didn't want them. And more than a few didn't survive the trip. The wartime jobs in the airplane factories and shipyards would come-but not for a long time.

The economy, in time, rebounded. World War II came and went. The properous postwar families had a desire to travel, not by rail (too many of them remembered cramped and worn-out trains during the war) or by air (transcontinental air travel was for the very wealthy), but by car. The 1950s were perhaps the golden era of the automobile-the cars were big and flashy and gasoline was cheap. People looked forward to the unveiling of the new model year cars like people today look forward to, say, the Super Bowl or the World Series.

And Route 66 was the coolest way to get from the Midwest out to L.A. to see that new amusement park out in Anaheim that Disney built or to catch a Dodgers game (how could the Bums have left Brooklyn, anyway?)

And roadside architecture in many towns was designed to be eye-catching:

...like this place. A kid from the 1950s could go in here and buy a rubber tomahawk or some rattlesnake eggs, or possibly some genuine Indian-style moccasins (made in Japan)! Motels, restaurants, gas stations, and roadside attactions of dubious quality all flourished along Route 66. Getting to a destination was possibly more fun than actually being there.

Eventually, the need for speed became more important to the traveling public. The drawback to the old Federal highway system was that the roads went through every town and city, and they were two lanes wide for the most part-not conducive to rapid travel. The construction of the Interstate Highway System, with four lanes, cloverleaves, and bypasses, eventually choked off many of the towns along Route 66 and other roads. The streams of tourists on 66 fell to trickles. Parts of the Route were incorporated into the Interstates and other parts were assigned to the various state highways. By 1985, the official US Route 66 was decomissioned, and a piece of Americana left us.

But it's still possible to travel bits and pieces of the original Route 66, like this stretch in Arizona:

...or make a parallel journey along Interstates 55, 44, and 40. The trip is definitely faster now than it was 55 years ago-but the interstates all have about the same stuff alongside them-the same gas stations, motels, and eateries all the way from Chicago to LA. Not the local color and culture like it was back then.

And that is one quite amateur historian's view of a road and time gone by. As I was researching this, I ran across a link to this documentary from Australia. It would appear that imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery as the land of the Southern Cross has its own version of 'Route 66', at least in the same spirit if not actual route number.

yankeedog out.


  1. Great post YD. Definitely want to do the drive-across-the-USA holiday some day soon. Specially now that our dollar almost makes it cheap!
    Hadn't heard of the Aus version. I suspect there would be a lot more loooong empty stretches than driving the US.

  2. Never did Route 66 on my ratsacking trip to North America. Nice take on a slice of U.S. social history. Don't think we Had the TV series here but we did get 77 Sunset Strip. I noticed in the Route 66 opener, amongst others was Martin Milner. I remember him from Adam 12.

    Like Drej I hadn't heard we have a Route 66 here. Methinks it may well be a failed marketing dream. It certainly wouldn't have those little tourist stop offs which once thrived on route 66, the sort of places which had cameos in National Lampoon's Vacation.