Route 66
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Route 66

Route 66 once stretched more than halfway across the United States. For nearly half a century, it was the chief commercial highway and main tourist artery to the West Coast. Over those years, Route 66 gained a certain mythical character that is still fondly remembered. Its days of glory are now faded and most of the old highway has disappeared; yet the nostalgic attraction of this road lives on.

The West Coast was once severely isolated

Prior to the twentieth century, the West Coast of the United States was severely isolated from the East and Midwest by great barriers of mountains, deserts and barren wastes. Until the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1867, it was quicker and easier to sail a ship around the southern tip of South America than to attempt a journey across our country.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, it was still difficult and often perilous to drive from coast to coast. Paved highways frequently ended in the Rocky Mountains or at the edge of the southern deserts. To travel further, often required navigating poorly marked unimproved roads or even dirt tracks. There were few facilities or traveler's amenities along the way.

Route 66 in Hackberry, Arizona© Mike Leco / USATourist.com
Route 66 in Hackberry, Arizona

Route 66 connected Chicago with Los Angeles

Several businessmen from Oklahoma and Illinois decided that the USA needed an intercontinental highway connecting the East Coast with the West Coast. Naturally, they thought it should pass through their hometowns of Springfield Illinois and Oklahoma City. By 1926, they convinced the US government of the strategic value of such a road and construction was finally begun. The road was not fully paved until 1938. They called it Route 66.

Route 66 began along the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago Illinois, that great metropolitan center at the northern extreme of the immense midwestern agricultural basin of the Mississippi River. Chicago was already well connected to the big cities on the East Coast. From there, the road headed south across Illinois, Missouri and the edge of Kansas. In Oklahoma, it turned due west across the panhandle of northern Texas, New Mexico and Arizona before finally entering California. Route 66 ended in Los Angeles at the beaches of Santa Monica.

The route was nearly 2,400 miles (4,000 km) long. It connected many major cities in the Midwest and the Southwest like Springfield Illinois, St. Louis Missouri, Oklahoma City, Amarillo Texas, Albuquerque New Mexico and Flagstaff Arizona. It also passed through many smaller towns and villages along the way.

It became the favorite East Coast to West Coast highway

Route 66 quickly became the favorite east-west corridor for commercial truck drivers as well as for tourists. It bypassed the high-mountain passes in the Rockies and followed a southern route that was passable all year round.

Area residents along the route soon realized that the incessant stream of motorists required gasoline, food, accommodations and diversions on their journey. Thousands of filling stations, restaurants, cafes, bars, grocery stores, and tourist attractions were erected along the road. Route 66 fostered the popularity of the "motorist hotel" or motel. Roadside attractions included souvenir shops, Indian trading posts, scenic viewpoints, zoos, museums, historical sites and displays of geological phenomena. It was common to see giant Indian tepees, huge cowboy statues and other oddly shaped structures designed to catch the eye of passing motorists along Route 66.

Throughout the 1930s when the great economic depression gripped our country, a drought descended on the Midwestern farming regions. The crops in Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri died, and the parched earth turned to dust. The Mississippi basin became known as the "dust bowl". Hundreds of thousands of farmers, in economic ruin, lost their homes, loaded their meager possessions on their cars or pickup trucks and headed west in search of employment. They were often called "Oakies" after their home state. Many towns along Route 66 created camping areas or motorist camps where the poor homeless travelers could sleep in their cars for free. Route 66 became the road to the Promised Land of endless sunshine, bountiful harvests and paying jobs in California. American author, John Steinbeck documented this migration in his novel "The Grapes of Wrath" and dubbed route 66 "the mother road".

Route 66 in Williams, Arizona© Mike Leco / USATourist.com
Route 66 in Williams, Arizona

Bobby Troup wrote "Get your kicks on route 66"

During the Second World War, millions of young men and women traveled across the USA via route 66 as they were sent off to the European or the Pacific battlefields and when they returned home. One such traveler was Bobby Troup, former drummer with the Tommy Dorsey Band and a marine captain. He penned his now famous song "Get your kicks on route 66". In the 1960s, it became the theme song for the immensely popular television series called "Route 66". The mother road was portrayed in many motion pictures and television shows over the years and has earned its place in the history and culture of the USA.

Unfortunately, the mother road fell victim to progress. Superhighways and interstate roads that were bigger, straighter and faster began to replace sections of old route 66 from the mid 1950s onward. By October of 1984, the new interstate highway 40 replaced the last remaining section of route 66 near Williams Arizona. Today, only vestiges of the old mother road remain. You can still find small sections of the old highway all along the original route. The main streets in many small midwestern and southwestern towns are proudly emblazoned with "historic route 66" signs.

The highway fell victim to progress

The longest intact sections of the old road can be found in western Arizona and in eastern California. A 100-mile stretch of route 66 curves northwest from Seligman Arizona, through the Havasupai Indian Reservation at Peach Springs, then veers southwest to Kingman Arizona. Ninety miles to the west of Kingman, another 100-mile section of old 66 veers south of I-40 and curves through the Mojave desert through the tiny isolated community of Amboy California before it rejoins the new highway in Ludlow. If you want to sample the character of the old mother road, this is a good location to visit. The towns of Williams, Seligman, Peach Springs and the small city of Kingman have preserved or restored some of the nostalgic roadside attractions. You can still see abandoned tourist accommodations and attractions along the old highway.

If you want to follow the original path of route 66 from Chicago to LA, I suggest you purchase a good route 66 guidebook. Much of its 2400-mile original route is now difficult to find. You will likely find yourself jumping on and off of the newer interstate highways in search of small sections of the old road.

Note: I have been informed that a 110-mile section of original route 66 still exists between Tulsa and Oklahoma City in Oklahoma. The newer Turner Turnpike parallels it but the old mother road still exists.

Route 66 in Seligman, Arizona© Mike Leco / USATourist.com
Route 66 in Seligman, Arizona

The longest existing sections of 66 are in Arizona and California

I suggest you limit your exploration of route 66 to the stretch between Flagstaff Arizona and Los Angeles. Along that part, you will find the largest remaining sections of the original road with a lot of other scenic attractions in the near vicinity. The Grand Canyon, Sedona, Boulder Dam, Las Vegas, Barstow and the Mojave Desert are all close to old route 66. If you want to do it in style, rent a Corvette or a Harley Davidson motorcycle in Las Vegas, drive down to Kingman, and cruise along the old mother road.

Written by: Mike Leco
Top Photo Credit: © Mike Leco / USATourist.com
Photo Description: Old Route 66 Gas Station