Of all America’s roads, only one has been the subject of prize-winning novels, hit songs, popular television shows, motion pictures and festivals. Though the route is no longer a U.S. Highway, Route 66 survives in the psyche of all who seek to return to the past.
U.S. Highway 66 was one of America’s first public highways, consolidated from existing roads and commissioned in 1926. It eventually traveled 2,448 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles. And, from its beginning Route 66 was different.
Whereas other U.S. highways ran vertically or laterally across the country, Route 66 passed diagonally through rural America. This orientation linked small towns that had been bypassed by the railroads. They could now truck their crops to big cities. Soon, garages, trading posts, restaurants, motor courts and tourist attractions developed along the route to serve its travelers.
Many of these assumed outlandish form. Along Route 66, roadside vernacular architecture (born in Southern California during the 1910s) spread east as “auto-mania” took hold. Structures assumed fantastic forms to entice motorists to stop… coffee shops were topped with towering doughnuts, diners were encased in gigantic oranges and hot dog buns, and motel rooms became Indian teepees.
The outrageous expressions of 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s vernacular architecture evolved to “googie” (exaggerated space-age themed), “Polynesian pop” (grass huts and tiki idols) and Stylized-Western (lariat-shaped lettering, split-rail fences and wagon wheel furnishings) during the 1950s and ‘60s.
Remnants of these styles can still be seen along Route 66 at Roy’s Café in Amboy, the New Corral Motel in Victorville, Tom’s Welding on old route 58, the Sycamore Inn in Rancho Cucamonga, The Trails restaurant in Duarte, Historic Harvey Houses in Needles and Barstow, and the elaborately embellished “Mayan Revival Style” Aztec Hotel in Monrovia.
At night, when these fantasy buildings weren’t as visible, neon signs would illuminate the sky with glaring animation. Today, many of these historical signs and retro replicas light the way along the Route 66 Neon Tour between San Bernardino and Irwindale on Foothill Boulevard.
Route 66 had become so great a cultural icon that it was given six nicknames atop its official numerical designation. It was called “The Main Street of America,” because it became the main commercial street in whatever town through which it passed (even the first McDonald’s restaurant was located on Route 66 in San Bernardino). Because so many Americans shared the common experience of traveling the route in search of prosperity, it was called “America’s Glory Road.” Similarly, Route 66 gained the nickname “The National Road,” for the influence it exerted in tying the nation together. In sections, telephone poles topped with glass insulators along the highway, remind us why another of its nicknames was “The Wire Road.” Though, it was dedicated officially as the “Will Rogers Highway” in honor of America’s beloved cowboy philosopher and humorist who began his journey to fame and fortune by traveling to California over Route 66.
It was during the Great Depression when thousands of workers migrated west to escape poverty and the worst drought in American history that John Steinbeck described the difficult trip in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath and gave the route its most enduring name, “The Mother Road.”
It was over this Mother Road that Arkansas native Maggie McShan traveled in 1936, as a young bride, accompanying her husband to his new job in the mines near Needles, Calif. Though she traveled Route 66 countless times since, her first and everlasting impression was of Needles’ exotic palm trees. They were for her and countless others arriving in California, an apparition of paradise.
Mrs. McShan says Route 66 “was unique in the type of attractions along it. Whatever people could dream of would be used to stop travelers. One place had a badger that you could get pretty close to. Some would display snakes.” Signs alerted motorists of not-to-be missed curiosities and with the highway speed then being much slower and no exit ramps to dissuade motorists, stopping at these roadside attractions was common.
Nat King Cole was unlikely to have had the inhospitably hot Mojave Desert in mind when he sang Bobby Troupe’s hit song “Route 66,” in 1946. Cole’s peppy rendition chanted, “If you ever plan to travel west, travel my way that is the best. Get your kicks on Route 66.”
The song popularized the notion of motoring west, an idea that became pandemic following the 1960 television program, “Route 66,” in which Martin Milner and George Maharis portrayed two carefree single men who traveled the road in a Chevy Corvette, looking for adventure. The hit show identified classic cars with the route, as did the 1969 countercultural film “Easy Rider,” starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, which connected motorcycles with the freedom of this open road.
Today, vintage cars and motorcyclist cruise sections of the route, regularly. The biggest congregation of them occurs in San Bernardino at the Route 66 Rendezvous each September when 2,448 classic American cars (one for every mile along the route) are displayed.
Route 66 succumbed in 1984 after its last section was bypassed by Interstate 40, though much of the route remains identified by Historic Route 66 signs. If you travel it, begin by dining at Acadie Hand Crafted French Crepes in Santa Monica. This seems an odd starting point, but there are few more appropriate places to fill up before hitting the road.
That’s where Thierry Boisson ended his Route 66 pilgrimage in 1989. It had taken him three months to travel from Chicago. Along the way, he dined and stayed in small cafes and motels. His Glory Road epiphany occurred upon reaching Santa Monica. He recounted,”Where the sun go to sleep, I decide to open my restaurant.”
Like so many others who traveled Route 66 before him, Thierry’s return to the past created a new future for him along the Mother Road.
John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.