The song says “It winds from Chicago to L.A. More than 2,000 miles all the way.” For a generation of drivers, Route 66 was the way to the West.
Yes, “was.” Past tense. Route 66 doesn’t exist anymore as an official US highway. The Mother Road (as named by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath) is now a scenic byway, a “historic route.” But before you settle for the efficiently soulless Interstate System, let’s take a moment and remember why 66 was the highway of legend.
California’s population exploded in the fifties and sixties, and many of those drivers arrived via the Main Street of America. (Yes, it does have several nicknames, thank you for noticing.) It’s hard to imagine these days, but much of the road was dirt or gravel until 1938, when it became the first national highway to be fully paved.
But what made Route 66 so special were the places it passed, and the attractions that sprang up along its length. It passed Lincoln’s tomb in Illinois, the Jesse James Museum in Missouri, the “World’s Largest Totem Pole” in Oklahoma, Cadillac Ranch in Texas, the Dinosaur Museum in New Mexico, Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, and the Santa Anita Race Track in California.
Eventually, the old road was just too slow for mobile America. If there’s a Dairy Queen beside the Interstate exit, why would you need to stop at Roy and Daisy’s Custard Shop? That doesn’t mean those attractions are gone forever, fortunately. Many still exist, and lots of folks now see the highway as a destination in itself. And God bless everyone who does. One of my “Things to do before I…you know” is to drive Route 66.
Here’s a very young Nat King Cole singing the song that helped make Route 66 famous: