Some roads have been constructed simply to get people from point A to point B in the quickest possible way. Pay a hefty toll and the weary traveler is rewarded with a straightforward tour of doppelganger rest stops every few miles and lackluster scenery hidden behind concrete barriers. And then, there’s Route 66.
Perhaps the most iconic and romanticized road in American History, Route 66 still lures road-trippers, adventurers, Americana afficianados and history buffs nearly 100 years after its official entrance to the American National Highway System. This 2,400 mile road begins on Jackson Boulevard and Michigan Avenue in Chicago and winds through not only the breathtaking scenery of the West but also dishes up a great slice of American history before finally coming to a halt in Los Angeles California. So pack up the car and the kids (or rev up the Harley), and explore this great highway that has been called everything from “The Main Street of America” to “The Mother Road”. Because maybe more than any other road in the world, Route 66 embodies the sentiment that sometimes the journey is more important than the destination.
Route 66 was born out of necessity from a long and unrelenting history of Americans pressing westward. What began as nearly imperceptible Native American trails grew into paths blazed by weathered mountain men and gold-rush seekers, and later widened into the wagon and railroad trails that would eventually help shape the flow of Route 66. The invention and popularity of the automobile, and the American people’s desire for easy mobility and long-distance travel deemed the old gravel, brick and packed-earth roads obsolete. These roads were designed for riders on horseback or for wagons, and the number of automobile owners was steadily rising. With the public in an uproar over the poor road conditions and disorganized road signs and symbols, the government was forced to step in and pass the Federal Road Act, which paved the way to a national highway system. The first of these new roads was Route 66. Using a trail from the California Gold Rush as a loose guide, a man named Cyrus Avery plotted the road that would connect Chicago to Los Angeles and everything in between. This groundbreaking highway would consequently foster easier travel and bolster the economy of small Midwestern towns. He justly earned himself the moniker “The Father of Route 66”.
Over the years, many adjustments and enhancements were made to Route 66 that subtly shifted the overall course and length of the highway. Most of these adjustments were undertaken to ensure safer routes for travelers, or to allow commuters speedier journeys between certain popular stops on the highway. Other changes improved travel by creating detours around major metropolitan areas, allowing motorists to avoid the traffic congestion becoming notorious around larger cities. The western ending point of Route 66 was even changed from Los Angeles to Santa Monica, largely in part to please disgruntled business owners situated around the infamous “End of the Trail” sign located on Santa Monica Boulevard.
“The Will Rogers Highway”, as Route 66 is also affectionately known, has had a tremendous impact on pop culture over the years, an interesting achievement for a stretch of road. The highway has influenced nearly every cultural medium available to appeal to the post-war adventuresome spirit growing in the American populace. For example, the infamous song, “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66” was written by Bobby Troup in 1946 and originally recorded by the burgeoning jazz singer Nat King Cole. But the anthem didn’t stop there. The tune struck a chord in the evolving adventure-seeking American psyche, and the artists who subsequently covered it have literally spanned decades of time and a myriad of musical genres, lending credibility to its timeless appeal. The Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry, Depeche Mode and John Mayer have all created their unique renditions of the song with relative success. On the printed page, John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Grapes of Wrath further immortalized the highway as the characters in his book make their infamous migration against the symbolic backdrop of Route 66. On television, CBS’s largely popular drama Route 66 aired from 1960 to 1964. Largely inspired by Kerouac’s novel On the Road, the show followed the exploits of Tod Stiles and Buz Murdock as they sought adventure on the highway in a Corvette, which, thanks to General Motors prolific usage of the TV show’s theme song in their advertising campaigns unofficially became “The” car of Route 66. Perhaps even more amazing, The Highway has also inspired infamous movie scenes: (Two-Lane Backdrop and National Lampoon’s Vacation), modern video games (The King of Route 66), and even basketball teams: (The Tulsa 66ers and The Island Empire 66ers).
Sadly, on June 27th, 1985 Route 66 was deemed no longer relevant and was removed from the United States Highway System as larger interstates and replaced most of the route. “Historic Route 66” exists now as a National Scenic Byway that runs through portions of New Mexico, Arizona, Illinois and Missouri. As well as making travel confusing for nostalgic road trippers seeking to experience Route 66 as it existed at the peak of its glory days, the “removal” has adversely affected the people who live and work along the highway, as businesses situated along the stretches of road no longer maintained or traveled have suffered tremendous setbacks or disappeared altogether.
Planning a trip down Route 66? There is still plenty to see and experience, as each state boasts its own plethora of tourist attractions, novelty motels, historic eateries, national parks and more. In the mood for some natural wonders? Check out The Meramec Caverns in Stanton, MS, The Meteor Crater in Albuquerque, NM, and of course, The Grand Canyon, a sight almost impossible to miss. Unusual giant roadside attractions also abound, from a giant ketchup bottle to a giant blue whale. When hunger strikes you can stop by the infamous 66 Diner, a historic 50’s-themed eatery in California, and when all that sightseeing and eating leaves you tuckered out, concrete tipis await at the Wigwam Motel in Arizona for a unique motel room experience. There’s also the Will Roger’s Memorial, the Devil’s Rope Barbed Wire Museum in Madison, TX, and the Springer’s Creek Winery in Edwardsville, IL. The links below provide many more sightseeing opportunities, as well as helpful information, quality maps and the fascinating history of Route 66.
- Shadows of Old Route 66: This site offers a brief and interesting history of the highway for the prospective traveler, as well as an interactive map of Route 66 in its heyday.
- In the Beginning: The Early Years of Route 66: This fascinating collection of antique maps of Route 66 from 1928 will educate and entertain the modern traveler of this historic route.
- Ghosts of The Mother Road: This chilling collection of ghost stories centered on and around Route 66 is sure to inspire impromptu stops on your journey…or just spice up bedtime stories at the motel!
- Oklahoma Route 66 Museum: This must-see cultural wonder guides visitors through six decades of Route 66 history. Experience virtual motels, vehicles, antique road signs, special audio tours, a drive-in theatre experience and more!
- Across The Tracks: A Route 66 Story: The perfect accompaniment to a Route 66 road trip, this radio series by David Dunaway will entertain and educate car passengers young and old alike about the significant stretch of highway they are travelling on.
- Petrified Forest National Park: Ancient fossils! Colorful, otherworldly petrified wood! Archeological sites! This must-see national park is a winner for kids and adults alike. Special events, junior ranger activities and cultural demonstrators add an intellectual edge to the already mind-blowing natural beauty of the park. The park is even a Geocaching hotspot, a super fun, high-tech pastime of growing popularity that’s appropriate for all ages and perfect for treasure-hunting family fun!
- Roadside Attractions of Route 66: This family’s chronicle about their Route 66 journey is a wealth of information about the nostalgic, weird and wonderful roadside attractions found along the highway (check out the world’s largest catsup bottle!) It’s a fun, informative read, and includes tons of quality pictures.
- The Kicks of Route 66: This site chronicles the ingenious and often hilarious methods the different states along the route dreamed up to compete with each other for tourists’ money and patronage.
- Mother Load Journey: This site is very helpful for prospective Route 66 road trippers. Organized by state, each page has handy links, great pictures and plenty of suggestions to help you find the bizarre Americana the highway is notorious for.
- Driving Route 66: Where to stay, where to eat and what to see on America’s most amazing highway.
- Route 66 Map: The National Park Service offers this high-grade map of Route 66, as well as information about conservation efforts currently underway and what you can do to help the cause.
- Route 66 Directory: This directory has it all: an alphabetized list of links that will provide gads of info on what to do, where to stay, what to eat and more. Maps, legends, history, hotspots: this site has it all!