Route 66 and the American Automobile Culture [Tracing the Highway’s Impact on Driving Traditions]

Route 66 occupies a mythical space in our collective American consciousness, embodying freedom, mobility, and the allure of the open road. Known as the “Mother Road,” it represents an essential segment of American automobile culture, acting as a main artery that once carried millions across the continental expanse of the United States. This storied highway, established in 1926, stretches from Chicago, Illinois, to Santa Monica, California, covering a span of approximately 2,448 miles. It not only facilitated cross-country travel but also spurred economic growth, connecting rural and urban communities.

The culture of the automobile was deeply influenced by Route 66, where the spirit of adventure met the practicality of transportation, weaving narratives of discovery, hope, and prosperity. The vehicles that traversed this highway reflected our nation’s technological progress and evolving identity, from the sturdy models that weathered Dust Bowl migrations to the bright, sleek designs that symbolized post-war optimism. The proliferation of diners, motels, and gas stations along Route 66 grew in response to the demand for traveller accommodations, crafting a unique tapestry of roadside Americana.

Our journey on Route 66 is more than a mere recollection of a bygone era; it is an exploration of the cultural imprint left by this historic path and its role in shaping the American experience. This emblematic route, while partially decommissioned now, lives on through our memories, stories, and the various cultural perspectives that continue to reflect on its legacy. Through the historical development of Route 66 and its intertwining with the development of the American automobile, we gain insights into the dynamic relationship between transportation infrastructure and cultural evolution.

Historical Significance of Route 66

Route 66 has cemented its place in American history as an emblem of freedom and opportunity, representing significant transitions in U.S. culture and economy across several decades.

Origins and Expansion

Originating in the 1920s, we saw Route 66 officially commissioned as part of the effort to create a national highway system. Spanning from Chicago to Los Angeles, it covered over 2,400 miles, crossing Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and finally California. Instrumental figures like Cyrus Avery advocated for its expansion, earning Route 66 the nickname “The Mother Road,” which was later popularized by author John Steinbeck.

The Dust Bowl and Migration

During the 1930s, the Dust Bowl significantly affected the Midwest, displacing thousands of families. We recognize Route 66 as a crucial migration route for those seeking better lives in California. The road became a symbol of hope and resilience during this mass movement and stands as a testament to a defining period in our history.

World War II Impact

World War II further heightened the importance of Route 66, as we utilized it to transport troops, equipment, and material. The route facilitated military mobility and was vital to the war effort. After the war, the highway experienced an era of prosperity as we celebrated peace with the rise of road trips and automobile tourism.

Post-War Decline and Decommissioning

However, by the 1950s, the increased demand for more efficient roadways led by president Dwight D. Eisenhower saw the development of the Interstate Highway System, overshadowing the older Route 66. Subsequently, we witnessed the route’s official decommissioning in the 1980s. Despite this, through acts like the Route 66 Study Act of 1990 and the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program, we honor and preserve the cultural legacy of this historic pathway.

Cultural Impact and Symbolism

Route 66 has woven itself into the fabric of American history, symbolizing freedom, adventure, and the cultural mosaic that defines the nation. Through art, music, and its intersection with the automobile, this iconic roadway offers a portal to understand the expansive American spirit.

Art and Literature

Route 66 has long served as both muse and subject in American art and literature. We see its influence in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which captures the harsh realities of migration and the search for prosperity during the Great Depression. The road’s aura also permeates the works of Jack Kerouac, especially in his novel On The Road, which presents a vivid narrative intertwining travel and freedom, contributing to Route 66’s identity as the Main Street of America. The imagery and ephemera echoing the route’s significance have enriched the American artistic landscape, evoking a sense of the rural frontier transitioning into the modern American West.

Music and Entertainment

In music and entertainment, Route 66 has both reflected and shaped pop culture. Songs like Nat King Cole’s “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” and Bobby Troup’s rendition have immortalized the highway as a symbol of leisure and the joys of the open road. Through these tunes, we encounter a soundtrack for the journey, amplifying the road’s role as an attraction and a pathway to adventure.

Automobile and American Freedom

The automobile has been intrinsic to the Route 66 experience, representing unparalleled mobility and progress. From Springfield to Santa Monica, each stop along the route tells a part of America’s story, evolving from post-World War II economic growth to today’s nostalgic travels. Route 66 facilitated not just movement but cultural exchange, seen in trading centers such as Amarillo and Gallup and the fusion of cultures in Albuquerque and St. Louis. It has ultimately come to symbolize the American spirit of freedom and the continuous pursuit of the new American dream on the open road.

Route 66 Today: Preservation and Revival

We are witnessing Route 66 undergo a resurgence, exemplified by concerted preservation efforts and a rekindled interest in automotive tourism. This iconic corridor is more than a highway; it’s a symbol of America’s cultural and historical tapestry.

Preservation Efforts

The Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program, facilitated by the National Park Service, has been a significant force in fostering the preservation of critical landmarks along this historic route. Towns like Tulsa and Oklahoma City have embraced their heritage by restoring key sites, showcasing our ongoing commitment to safeguarding this piece of American history. Historic Route 66, also known as US Route 66, is not just a road; it represents hope and the legacy of the communities that thrived along its path.

Key preservation highlights:

  • Tulsa’s vintage signage restoration initiative
  • Oklahoma City’s investments in historic district enhancements
  • Santa Fe and Tucumcari’s adaptive reuse of auto camps and motels
  • Kingman’s focus on rural community economic development through heritage tourism

Modern Travel and Tourism

Modern travel along Route 66 offers a mixture of the past and the present, with tourists seeking to experience the nostalgia of America’s quintessential public highway. The route caters to a diverse array of travelers, from motoring enthusiasts to history buffs, exploring the revitalized metropolitan regions and burgeoning commerce in rural communities. Tucumcari, Kingman, and other towns have become integral stops that encapsulate the spirit of the Mother Road.

Tourism by the numbers:

  • A steady increase in international travelers exploring Route 66
  • Growth in local events celebrating automobile culture
  • Development of 21st-century travel amenities alongside historic attractions

Tourism remains the lifeline that breathes new life into Route 66, creating a symbiotic relationship that honors our past while fueling the economic engines of our present.

The Journey Through Eight States

Traveling Route 66 is more than a road trip; it’s a voyage through the heart of America, from the bustling streets of Chicago to the shimmering Pacific in Los Angeles. Each state offers unique landscapes and landmarks, reflecting the rich history and culture of the route.

Illinois to Missouri

As we begin our journey in Illinois, Chicago’s storied streets give way to the rural beauty of the state’s heartland. Entering Springfield, we encounter historic motels and drive-ins that capture the essence of the bygone era of the American road trip. Crossing into Missouri, St. Louis greets us with its iconic Gateway Arch reflecting the pioneering spirit of Route 66 travelers.

Kansas through Oklahoma

Though our stretch through Kansas is brief, it is filled with the welcoming towns of a former frontier, leading us into the vast expanses of Oklahoma. Here, in towns like Tulsa and Oklahoma City, we understand why they call this the ‘Main Street of America’. Oklahoma’s section of Route 66 is peppered with vibrant gas stations, motels, and reminders of the okies seeking a better life out west during the Dust Bowl era.

Texas and New Mexico

In Texas, the city of Amarillo stands out, with its famous Big Texan Steak Ranch challenging travelers to a hearty meal. We also pass through the distinctive painted desert landscape with horizons that stretch forever, bringing us to the state lines of New Mexico. There, Santa Fe and Albuquerque beckon with their unique blend of Native American and Spanish culture, exemplified by historic sites along the central route.

Arizona to California

The final leg of Route 66 takes us through Arizona, where natural wonders like the Painted Desert near Holbrook, the ponderosa pine forests of Flagstaff, and the ghost town of Oatman await. Finally, California calls, with stops such as Needles, Barstow, and San Bernardino leading us towards the Pacific Coast. Our journey concludes in the sunny city of Santa Monica, where Route 66’s legacy meets the vastness of the Pacific Ocean.