Route 66, what it means…

For us, Route 66 symbolizes a spirit of adventure, an openness, a readiness to follow the road wherever it leads, always on the lookout for new discoveries along the way. This is one trip where that old axiom “the journey is the destination” rings true. And an important part of our journey is seeing how this fabled highway fostered a process of historical change, transforming people’s lives and influencing the character of the nation.

More than just an artery of transportation, Route 66 was an agent of social transformation. It was central to the development of American “car culture.” It defined the concept of being “on the road.” And it became the path to the American Dream of a “new life” in the west.

While Route 66 no longer officially exists, and you can’t find it on a current map, more than 85% of the original “alignments” (as the different routings of the road are referred to) are still drivable today, according to the National Parks Service.

The Route stretches some 2,400 miles across two-thirds of the continent, winding from Chicago across the agricultural fields of Illinois, to the rolling hills of the Missouri Ozarks, through the mining towns of Kansas, across Oklahoma where the woodlands of the East meet the open plains of the West, to the open ranch lands of Texas, the enchanted mesa lands of New Mexico and Arizona, to the Mojave Desert, and finally to the “Hollywood dreams” of Los Angeles.

HISTORY OF A LEGEND

Established as part of the first Federal highway system in 1926, Route 66 was just one of many new numbered “U.S. Highways” designed to unify a series of existing local, State, and national roads. However, Route 66, advertised by the U.S 66 Highway Association as “the shortest, best and most scenic route from Chicago through St. Louis to Los Angeles,” quickly stood out in the popular mind.

In contrast to other highways of that time, U.S. 66 did not follow a traditionally linear course, rather it followed a diagonal path linking hundreds of predominantly rural communities to Chicago. This unusual routing was intended to make it easier to transport goods and produce, now that the trucking industry had started to displace the railroads as the principal shipping method throughout the U.S.A. Thanks to the new highway, farmers in the midwest could more easily send their grain and produce east. And the manufactured goods from the industrial east could be distributed across the nation, to even the smaller towns and rural areas. This subtle change in distribution channels made a big difference for many people in more isolated areas of the country who now had access to products right where they lived.

As more traffic began to use the highway, there were a series of physical improvements to the road, and a network of support businesses, including gas stations, restaurants, and lodging grew up around it. Car ownership in the U.S.A. increased dramatically, beginning in the 1920s, as it became possible for “ordinary” people to own a car. There had only been 180,000 automobiles in the entire country in 1910, but within the space of a decade that number rose by more than 17 million. The United States was becoming a “mobile” society.

Mobility was forced by desparation in the 1930s, when the Dustbowl hit a population already suffering the effects of the “Great Depression.” Hundreds of thousands of families abandoned their land, packed up their belongings, and fled west. Route 66 became the “road to opportunity,” as this vast wave of migrants headed to California in search of work. Ironically, their presence on the road actually created some propserity for the small “mom-and-pop” businesses along the way.

These small businesses would come to define the character of Route 66 later on, when, after WWII, life got back to “normal,” and American families began to travel for leisure again. In the 1950s, auto ownership boomed, and almost every non-urban family had a car. The nation was prosperous. “Two weeks paid vacation” became a fairly standard employee benefit. While ordinary folks couldn’t quite afford the luxury of airline travel to exotic locales, they could pile into the family car and drive, via Route 66, to the Grand Canyon, Disneyland or the beaches of Southern California. Depending on the starting point, the drive west could be rather long, especially for young children, who would pester their parents with whining cries of “are we there yet.” Enterprising small businesses saw an opportunity, and the “roadside attraction” was born, making the “road trip” itself part of the fun.

Vacationing families shared the road with an increasing number of people heading west to “stay.” Until WWII many Americans had never left the area around their home towns. The military experience would change that, as draftees were sent for training in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. After the war, some of them chose to abandon the harsh winters of places like New York, Boston or Chicago, for the sun and fun of the Southwest. The lure of Hollywood or the laid-back surfer lifestyle attracted others to California. For so many, Route 66 became the road to a “better life” where they could “start over” with a chance to reinvent themselves and make it big — the quintessential “American Dream.”

At the same time, Route 66 was being defined in the popular culture as a symbol of fun-loving freedom. Beat poets and jazz musicians were celebrating the spirit of the highway. Their message made the road itself into an icon that persists despite the fact that it no longer officially exists! U.S. Highway 66 was decomissioned in the 1980s, but that doesn’t stop us (and thousands of others) from making the pilgrimmage to “Get Our Kicks on Route 66.”

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