Route 66 History
Route 66 is known as the “Mother Road” because it was one of the first true transcontinental highways. The highways that became Route 66 were authorized by Congress and the route was established on November 11, 1926. The original route connected Chicago, Illinois with Santa Monica, California (part of greater Los Angeles). The route ran through Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, across the Texas panhandle into New Mexico, Arizona and on into California. That’s a distance 2448 miles or 3940 kilometers.
My little jaunt across Route 66 was from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Flagstaff, Arizona – a small fraction of the entire route. However my total trip was 1605.3 miles (2583.5 kilometers) and 31 hours, 55 minutes of actual driving time! That was a real road trip.
Why this trip, and why this route? That’s a complex question. I gave you part of the answer in Part I last time. When I was kid my folks used to take road trip vacations, and one year we went to the Petrified Forest National Park and the Meteor Crater in Arizona. I have always wanted to go back. My Mom had a strange phobia about public places, and as a result she wouldn’t even get out of the car at the Petrified Forest. I have wanted to see those places again since I was maybe 10 or 12 – whenever I was last there. And then there is history. Among other things I am a history buff, and I wanted to experience some of that “Americana” before it completely disappears forever. I also have a theory that I have been pondering for many years, and I thought that this route might help test my theory.
See, one of the benefits of being a bit older is perspective. I can compare things that I observe in our society today with things that I observed 40 years ago. That insight allows me to ponder the societal changes. For all of my American followers, and for those international followers who have personally interacted with the US, you may have noticed that we are experiencing some behavioral issues here. We are becoming more rude, much more polarized, and we seem to mostly value instant gratification over longer term rewards. Not being a sociologist, I don’t have too many answers, but I do have this theory that as our society has become more speed oriented, perhaps that has helped push us toward those qualities above. I will discuss this more in a bit.
Let’s get back to Route 66. 66 was one of the first highways to truly connect the US across the continent. It facilitated the more efficient movement of goods east and west across our broad landscape. Route 66 allowed, and perhaps started, the “family road trip” vacation. It was crucial in the westward migration of our peoples during the Great Depression and the Dustbowl of the 1930s. The road was iconicized in the 1960’s TV Show “Route 66”. Who hasn’t laughed at the “Griswalds” in the first of the “Vacation” movie with Chevy Chase? That show memorialized the trials and tribulations of the great American Road Trip.
But even more important than Route 66’s contribution to American culture was its long lasting contribution to our economy and prosperity as a nation. Commerce grew quickly and robustly all along the route as both truckers and tourists needed places to eat, to stay, and as goods moved back and forth across our great continent. During World War II, Route 66 helped facilitate the rapid movement of troops and supplies from the east to the west and back as needed in that war effort.
Without Route 66 and so many other transcontinental US highways like 101 that spans our west coast, US 89 that runs north and south through the intermountain west, US 2 that crosses our northern tier, and many others we would never have had the interstate highway system of controlled access roadways that were begun under President Eisenhower.
So, Route 66 history is US history. It is forever imbedded in our American persona. Even now in 2021 as we wrestle with how best cope with our global warming issues, the automobile – that icon of personal transportation and freedom, is transitioning away from the petroleum fueled internal combustion engine. But the best way to make that transition is under great debate due to the size and span of the continental US. Whether that future lies in EV vehicles with battery power or perhaps in hydrogen fuel cells is uncertain. But what is not uncertain is that as long as there is an America that we all recognize as such, the personal road trip will be an important part of our culture. I cannot imagine my grandchildren growing up without the kind of road trip vacations that I experienced as a kid. Those experiences helped fuel my passion for travel and history. I know they made me a better student and citizen.
So, what has become of that famed highway, Route 66? The route was officially decommissioned as a US highway in 1985. Those iconic road signs were pulled down and retired, now just a part of history. From Oklahoma City, Oklahoma to Barstow, California Interstate 40 has superseded and replaced Route 66. There is a short section of old 66 in western Arizona near Kingman that is now designated as Arizona 66, but other than that, one must look for “Historic Route 66” signs.
About the only place you’ll be on the old highway anymore is through towns, a few frontage roads and in western Arizona as I mentioned above. Interstate 40 may or may not be an improvement. As the interstate system was originally developed for high speed travel for the US military, many of the interstate highways bypassed the small towns that were the lifeblood of old Route 66. And that relationship was symbiotic as Route 66 became the lifeblood of many small towns.
There were literally hundreds of small family owned motels, restaurants and service stations that no longer exist. Many of those that are left have fallen into disrepair or are simply passed over by travelers unwilling to go past the first block or two off of the interstate.
The time I spent on I-40 (Interstate 40) was not my favorite part of the trip. The traffic is quite congested, and on the weekends I-40 is like a giant semi-truck (tractor-trailer rigs, road trains in Australia) convoy. The driving is stressful; the roadway for much of the route across New Mexico and Arizona was in serious disrepair. With speed limits of 75 miles per hour (120.7 kph), the heavy traffic and poor road conditions, the driving required immense concentration. About the only pluses of I-40 were that rest stops and service stations were plentiful, and it made short work of the commute between Petrified Forest National Park, Holbrook (Arizona) where I was staying and Meteor Crater near Winslow.
Earlier in the post I mentioned my theory about the speed culture contributing to our decline in social skills. Is this true? I don’t know and I have no proof. But this is what I do know and what I observed. For many Americans there is no joy in the journey any longer; the destination overpowers all else. I was literally run off of I-40 by some lady who had to pass me as I was doing 72 mph in my truck. She cut into my lane so closely in front of me that I had to slam on my brakes and veer onto the shoulder to avoid a collision. This was by no means an isolated incident. Then she pulled into the Petrified Forest, and proceeded to speed through the park. After a mile or so, she was gone into the horizon. Did she even see anything? How could she even experience the park and its wonders if she didn’t stop and look at things?
This high speed society we have created is breeding a low quality life for many of us. This lady can say she “saw” the Petrified Forest, but she didn’t really. She paid her park fee (maybe $25 to $30 per car) for the privilege of speeding around the park roads hurrying to her next destination. (OK, I don’t know the actual park fee because in April I got my Golden Eagle Pass for $80. That is available to anyone over 62, and it is a lifetime pass to all US national parks or monuments. One of the few perks for being an older dude. 😉)
So did she appreciate what she got for her money? Only she knows, but I would guess probably not. For me the journey is at least as important as the destination. I want to experience the local culture – the food, the people, the climate, everything. How can we get along if we don’t understand each other? And the only way to understand other people is to get in their shoes for a bit — eat their food, experience their culture.
Life is short. We only have so many days on this planet. None of us know what tomorrow will bring. So, please enjoy this journey we call life. Live it while you can. Take time, no better yet – make time to enjoy the journey. Don’t be afraid to get get off that high speed highway, roll down the window, put on some great music, and enjoy the cruise. Take in those sights. Eat at that little cafe. Embrace the locals and enjoy their hospitality. Because if we don’t do these things, when we get to the end – that final destination, we will have nothing to smile about. And if we can’t smile, then why are we here?
Well, now you know a lot more about why I chose this route for my trip. And hopefully you’ve learned a bit more about why Route 66 is so “American”. And of course I hope that you enjoyed my dissertation and thesis on the Mother Road and its ties to our culture.
Thanks for stopping by and reading my blog. Next time, I am back on the road with more cool sights to see.