ROUTE 66 SERIES: An Intro and General History
I first read the Grapes of Wrath when I was in junior high. Perhaps a bit young for such heavy content, but sneaking “grown up” books was a favorite childhood past time. I’m glad I got my hands on this one, because it remains one of my favorite novels ever written. The dramatic struggle of the family Joad wasn’t all that hooked my attention (although, that was hard to turn away from, and you’ll never forget that ending). It was the story of the so-called “Okies” in general. In the Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck told two stories side by side. He unfolded the trials of the Dust Bowl at large, but he also made it human with his family Joad.
He also introduced me to a road. A mother road. A road of flight. A vital artery for Westward travelers that spanned most of the way across the United States. “Route 66 is the main migrant road,” Steinbeck wrote in his novel. “…66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land… they come into 66 from the tributary roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads… Cars pulled up beside the road, engine heads off, tires mended. Cars limping along the 66 like wounded things, panting and struggling… People in flight along 66. And the concrete road shown like a mirror under the sun…”
It was the first I heard of Route 66, and something about it pulled at my heart. First of all, I simply couldn’t imagine those broken people packing everything they owned, piling into those old jalopy cars, and throwing the dice on a highway that, especially back then, was quite sketchy in places. Route 66 became its own character in Steinbeck’s sweeping story. It engrained so deeply that when I lit out of the Midwest for California as a young adult, I definitely had Steinbeck in mind. The Route 66, winding from Chicago to LA, also wound deep into my imagination.
Route 66 pulled me in deeper when the movie Cars came out. Most of my 66 interest was rooted in the 1930s, but Cars introduced me to a whole new era of that old road. An era of bright neon lights, sleek, colorful cars, and pump stations and motels injected with their own breed of character. The movie, underneath all its comical characters and Pixar charm, served as a poignant reminder of how times have changed. No one travels the mother road anymore. The vibrant small towns have mostly been forgotten. With the advent of the fast-moving interstate system, towns like “Radiator Springs” (which some 66 buffs think is based on Arizona’s Peach Springs) were left in the dust and the rust.
When I moved to California in 2009, I couldn’t take the old highway. I had accepted a new job, so I was on a tight clock. Like all travelers in a hurry, I used the interstate system that bypassed old 66. However, I made myself a promise. I would return someday and travel that road. I would make a cross-country trip the Steinbeck way.
This summer, with a very enthusiastic husband in tow, I made that dream a reality. I will have lots of tales to weave from that marvelous cross-country adventure, but before I dive into all that, I wanted to explore the road’s entire story. I wanted to understand 66 from its very origins to its modern-day cracked concrete. So, as an introduction to the “Route 66 Series” you will soon see often on this website, here are the broad strokes of this most-famous road.
Route 66, or “the Mother Road,” was born from necessity. We all yearn for a good road that’s easy to travel, and that was especially so in the 1800s. Back then, they had nothing better than a confused network of paths beaten into the wilderness, where horses and buggies snagged and bogged down in the rough. While railroads temporarily distracted Americans from the pain of the backroads, the need resurfaced when the automobile took the world by storm.
Car fever struck hard during the first world war, and with it came the need for manageable roads. Uncle Sam came up with the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916, which provided funds for states to improve their highway systems and make them car compatible. Work was slow-going and bumpy, much like a Model-T would be on those muddy, country roads. Even with all the Federal help, by 1920, only 36,000 of the roughly three million American roadways could be traveled by car. Meanwhile, the car had taken a firm hold on American culture. The need for the highways to catch up was more urgent than ever. The country needed a road superhero, and a determined Oklahoman named Cyrus Stevens Avery answered the shield-shaped, federal road marker bat signal.
Commonly known as the Father of Route 66, “Cy” Avery lived in Tulsa with his wife and family. By the end of the first world war, he had a real estate firm and coal company. He dabbled in the Oklahoma oil scene. He also ran an inn and service station for weary auto travelers hungry for a home-cooked meal. Given all his many businesses, Cy became a staunch supporter of improved roadway systems. In 1921, he was elected to the Associated Highways Association where he served as President. He made such sweeping changes there that in 1923, he became the state highway commissioner for Oklahoma. He went national in 1924 when he gained a position at the American Association of State Highway Officials.
While working there, he caught the eye of Secretary of Agriculture Howard M. Gore. Gore chose Cy as the highway specialist in a government endeavor to create a federal highway system. Over the next few years, with Cy at the helm, the 21-person commission untangled the mess of over 250 marked trails that existed throughout the states. They combined many of them into one, big path that wound from Chicago to Kansas, diverted south, conveniently passed right through Cy’s hometown of Tulsa, and then eventually made it all the way west. The Mother Road, in its most primitive form, was born.
But what to call it? The commission came up with a numbering system for federal roads. Routes going north and south would have odd numbers, while those moving east and west would have even. Initially, the commission chose “Route 60” for the now-famous highway, but some folks wanted that same name for a Virginia-Missouri route. The fight was on, and Cy didn’t give ground easily. He had thousands of maps printed that gave his own route the desired name, and he put into production dozens of road signs, just to rub salt in the wound. When the Virginia-Missouri faction still didn’t back down, Cy and his team bowed to the pressure, fearing Congressional intervention that would tie up the highway system for years. Begrudgingly, they chose another number… Route 66.
That lost fight was a big win in the end, because “Route 66” sounded pretty darn catchy. It stuck well in the mind, and it stood out on maps and road signs. “We assure you that U.S. 66 will be a road through Oklahoma [shameless plug, Cy!] that the U.S. Government will be proud of.” Boy, I wonder if he knew then how famous his road was destined to become. Either way, on November 11, 1926, Route 66 leapt out of board room meetings and became a very real highway.
Like any project, Route 66 needed some elbow grease when it first entered the arena. A lot of it was still unpaved. Some stretches had nothing but wooden boards to keep drivers on the road. To fix up the newly-coined “Main Street of America,” it would need to attract some serious business to bring in more capital.
Well, when a highway needs a boost, there’s only one person to call. Cyrus Avery, the Father of Route 66, put his publicity skills to work. He began a series of programs to… shall we say… put Route 66 on the map (see what I did there?) The most famous of these was the 1928 Bunion Derby, a little jog of 3,422 miles, on foot, from Los Angeles to New York. It might sound crazy, especially since it cost $100 a person to enter (in 1928, that was a decent sum). However, the derby met with astounding enthusiasm, and sight seers and racers descended on Route 66. Almost three-hundred runners gathered at the starting line on March 4, 1928, while a cheering crowd of about a half a million looked on from the sidelines. Only fifty-five runners actually crossed the finish line in New York, with a part-Cherokee and very crafty boy named Andy Payne coming in first. After the craziness of the Bunion Derby, Route 66 became a household name.
It was just in time for the US fortunes to take a serious turn. The crash of 1929 brought a screeching halt to the roaring 20s, and one of the worst droughts in American history followed in short order. The entire Midwest dried up. Dust storms choked off the farmers and stripped their livelihoods to the winds. They shuttered and tore down their homes, right after they sold off all their possessions just to keep their families fed. In a last desperate gamble, these families converged on Route 66. They loaded down rusty cars with everything they could carry, and they struck out on the highway for California. In the burning hot sun of the far west, driving clunky, unreliable cars, the journey was a perilous one. The road’s sharp twists and curves toppled plenty of jalopies. Radiators overheated. Tires popped and went flat. Many of the Okies didn’t survive the trip. If they reached California, they found angry police who turned them back at the border. Those who were admitted faced a dismal future of low-paying manual labor jobs on fruit orchards.
It’s a bleak picture. The 1930s were so bad it took a vast and devastating world war to snap the country back into action. By the mid-1940s, Americans grew thirsty for an escape. As it did for the Okies, Route 66 gave it to them.
Colorful, bold, and shiny new automobiles replaced the rusty jalopies of the Dust Bowl. Bright pump stations and quirky motels popped up like mushrooms after a rain storm. Neon lights cast the highway in a romantic, rainbow glow. The first official Route 66 guidebook, published by Jack D. Rittenhouse in 1946, added to the allure. That same year, one of the most iconic road trip songs also made its first appearance on the radio. Thanks to Bobby Troupe, and many artists who duplicated the song after him, travelers now knew exactly where to “get their kicks.” By the 1950s, Route 66 was a constant traffic jam of travel-hungry tourists.
However, the 1950s also rang the first death tolls for the Main Street of America. It started in 1954, with President Eisenhower’s advisory committee for an updated federal highway system. Rumored to be inspired by the efficiency of the German autobahn, this was the beginning of the mass interstate system, and the beginning of the end for Route 66. The Federal Aid Highway Act came in 1956, which called for a 42,500-mile interstate highway to better accommodate the logjams of traffic. Construction began shortly after, and it gradually chipped away at Route 66. A little piece here. A bigger piece there. Lovely tourist towns were bypassed to save drive time.
Although Cyrus Avery was too old to take up the mantle, the road still saw some ardent defenders. The first champion was Jack Kerouac, who’s novel “On the Road” was published to vast acclaim in 1955. CBS Television jumped into the fray in the 1960s, releasing a series called “Route 66″ about a pair of highway daredevils tackling the road in a sleek Corvette. In the 1970s, one of the roads earliest and most devoted supporters, Jack Cuthbert, drew his sword for a final time and lobbied to name the new interstate I-66, to at least keep the mother road’s legacy alive in spirit, but I-66 went to a separate highway connecting Virginia to DC.
Despite the many soldiers willing to battle for their beloved road, no one could stop the inevitable. In 1984, the Interstate Highways bypassed the last section of Route 66. The Mother Road was officially decommissioned in 1985. The road maps replaced the bold 66 line with a sad, tiny gray one. A lot of the big road signs were taken down and auctioned. Towns that once saw hoards of customers went quiet, and one by one, the neon lights flickered and went out. The road was left to quieter folks who wanted an escape from the busy highway, and maybe some people who were lost (Lightning McQueen, anyone?)
In the summer of 2019, after everything it had been through, Route 66 played host to two history-hungry travelers. I’m not sure what we expected when we hit that old highway. In truth, I knew I would see some sadness, like boarded up buildings and closed-down main streets. Rusty street lamps and even rustier cars. Dug out ditches where road used to be. Cracks in the pavement. Once-stunning truss bridges that were dilapidated and closed off. Empty motels that had fallen to ruin. Neon signs long-since out of juice. I saw many of these things and it was enough to draw tears. The business lost to these once-booming towns must have been devastating. People headed out and moved on, migrated out of town on a four-lane interstate instead of the migrant road. Yes… it was sad.
Yet, underneath the rust, there were magnificent stops, many of which I will be telling about in future “Route 66 Series” posts. Stops that, in all of our modern-day madness, you just don’t see anymore. Like an amazing maple syrup farm where everything is fresh. A town in Arizona where wild burros run the show. Sweeping old mansions once occupied by famous faces. A town square where Wild Bill had his first shoot-out. Hole-in-the-wall diners like Midpoint Café, where the burgers are insane and the pies are homemade.
There were also the people. So many interesting people, like Crazy Ray in Arizona, who prepares chili dogs for his guests. A Kansas local who can turn his feet completely backwards. A Missouri man who had his pet rabbit run for president (he has the stickers to prove it). A man with a most impressive Hot Wheels collection, pieces of which the actual Hot Wheels owner envies.
I was actually surprised at just how many people there were, especially travelers. We met people from Sweden, Italy, and France. We met some folks who were retired, or young adventurers, or people moving to start new lives. Some were in it for the long haul, some committed to only a state or two. I noticed how different they were from other travelers. Nothing like the tired and weary drivers I have encountered on other trips. These people enjoyed slow meals and they befriended strangers. They took advantage of the countless photo opps with smiles and laughter. They were “having a good time instead of making good time,” as Porsche Sally puts it in “Cars.”
Perhaps that was one of the best takeaways from our Route 66 adventure. We learned that the forgotten road is experiencing a bit of a revival. Business owners mentioned their uptick in customers over recent years. I can only imagine they were helped by Pixar’s Cars, since beloved characters from the movie lay scattered all along the route. If that is true, it is a potent reminder of the power of storytelling. It made me realize how great of a responsibility it truly is. Storytelling is one of the few forces that resurrects something long-dead and makes it alive again. People have found their way back to the mother road because of storytelling.
In that vein, I will be telling many stories in the months ahead of the many adventures on the mother road. The “Route 66 Series” will appear in parts as I sort through everything, and if I spark even one person to take one tiny piece of that road, I will consider it a success. Because deeply embedded in the maps of America, there is a place where, believe you me, you can still get your kicks.
Route 66 Road Trip
“Route 66 Road Trip” – Moon & C. Taylor
“Route 66 – the Mother Road” – M. Wallis
“The Illustrated Route 66 Historical Atlas” – J. Hinckley
“The Grapes of Wrath” – J. Steinbeck
Take a photographic journey on Route 66 by clicking here
Stay tuned for more from the “Route 66 Series” that details our many stops and adventures. Looking forward to having you along!
A VERY SPECIAL THANK YOU!
Last week, I reached 500 followers on this blog. It is an achievement that blew me away. When I first started here on WordPress, I wasn’t sure what people would think. I think I expected more trolling than anything! Instead, I found an incredibly supportive community of bloggers who feel a lot more like friends. People who with every comment and like, they validate my crazy dream to be a writer. They make it feel more real, and they cheer me every step of the way. I am more than flattered and overwhelmed by all of you! With your fine support, I am so much looking forward to uncovering more amazing footsteps on the trail of history.
With all my very sincere thanks,