Route 66 is the most famous highway in America, and arguably the world. To this day, Route 66 still captures the attention and imagination of legions of travelers, a highway of dreams realized and dreams lost.
Unveiled in 1926, it was only a few years before the highway was on everyone's map. In no time it became "America's Main Street." During the turbulent 1930s, tens of thousands of tenant farmers, Okies, Arkies, and other desperate refugees from the Midwest and southern Plains took to the highway. Eager to rebuild their shattered lives, they followed the scent of orange blossoms to California, the so-called promised land.
During World War II, troops trained along the entire length of the highway and convoys motored east and west. Then, at the close of the war, Route 66 experienced what many consider its glory years. America's passionate love affair with the internal combustion engine increased and big gas-guzzling cars with fins became the rage, just as President Dwight Eisenhower changed everything with a single stroke of his pen. On June 29, 1956, he sent America speeding down an off-ramp toward the future of an automobile-oriented society. In signing the Federal-Aid Highway Act that created the nation's interstate highway system, Eisenhower not only made Route 66 obsolete, he kick-started a nationwide freeway-construction boom.
The result of that single act literally rearranged the way people live their lives in America. One road expert pointed out that the amount of concrete used to build the network could erect a wall nine feet thick and fifty feet high around the world. The interstate highway system that resulted was undoubtedly the most important and grandest public works project in United States history.
True enough, the interstate boom brought an economic boom, driving the growth of fast-food outlets, national motel chains, and other cookie-cutter businesses built around off-ramps.
The interstate network also brought urban sprawl. With the creation of the new highways, it became possible for people to live a significant distance from their workplaces. This new-found ease of travel lured residents and businesses from city centers, leading to the decline of many downtowns and creating communities that required driving to get to the supermarket, the park, school, church, and, of course, the shopping mall. Some politicians and big business interests called it "progress."
In the long run, the Interstate Highway System, for all its supposed virtues, may well be seen as a mistake. At least, that is what a growing number of Route 66 proponents came to believe. They speculated on what the United States might have become had it invested earlier in improving the railroads or developing better ways of moving people. Yet even as the familiar Route 66 shield signs were removed and road maps changed, these people knew that Route 66 would never die. Their ranks soon swelled and continue to grow today. They are the protectors of pop culture, the commercial archeologists, preservationists, and historians who joined forces with the folks who still eke out a living along the old highway. Together they ignited the intense revival of interest in Route 66 that still gains momentum. If Route 66 is to have any kind of future, the past must be acknowledged.
That is precisely why A Route 66 Companion, compiled by David King Dunaway, is so important. This collection of historic narratives, prose, poetry, essays, and personal memories provides readers with the most comprehensive view ever offered of the greater Route 66 story. Dunaway, however, does not present the romanticized viewpoint of the Mother Road—past and present—that often ignores reality. He goes much further, and in so doing validates the entire experience of open-road travel. For that reason alone I consider Dunaway's anthology one of the most important contributions to the ongoing effort to preserve and protect Route 66.
For we have always been a restless people. Long before any white intruders came to the continent, Native Americans kept on the go. They moved from place to place to avoid inclement weather, follow the great herds of bison, or escape warring tribes. They carved a network of trails and traces later used by white explorers and settlers. Some of those same pathways eventually became the foundation of many of our existing paved highways, including Route 66.
By reading about the time before there was a highway, we can better understand our own history and learn from it. All we have to do is go back to a time long ago. Back to bedrock. To those who knew the land in its natural state. Go back and imagine—dare to imagine. Route 66 has always been a place where people are free to imagine. Imagine when there were no roads or highways. No cities, towns, farms, or factories. Imagine no boundaries or borders. Imagine a time when the prairies and stands of trees were the churches, temples, and cathedrals. Imagine no prisons, cemeteries, country clubs, casinos, or shopping malls. Imagine when there were no cars or trucks.
And then go back to when the first cars did appear. Go back to when Route 66 was a new road—parts of it unscarred, unproven, unknown, and unpaved. Back to bold days when crews of men and mules and machines carved new roadbed. When dreamers connected stretches of existing highways. When the road became a linear village. Back to when Cyrus Avery was the newly crowned Father of Route 66 and when Andrew Hartley Payne pulled on his racing singlet and prepared to run in the 1928 "Bunion Derby," the Great Transcontinental Footrace.
Go back before the coming of the networks of interstate highways—those super slabs of monotony that now crisscross the land. Go back to the hot, sad days and agonizing nights of the Great Depression and the devastating Dust Bowl. Back to when an entire nation's life was interrupted first by acts of God and then, a few years later, by acts of madmen, when the world went to war. Back to when people of color could not find the comfort afforded white travelers on the Mother Road.
Go back to when there were no strip centers or shopping malls. When there were no Golden Arches, Starbucks, or Walmarts. Go back to when gasoline was dirt cheap and a ten-dollar bill—maybe even five bucks—got you through a Friday night date just fine. When there was no bottled water, no credit cards, no cappuccino, and no cholesterol.
Imagine a time when no one locked doors, when there was no air-conditioning or television, and when everyone sat on the front porch. People actually looked each other in the eye, had conversations, wrote long and beautiful letters by hand, and mailed home postcards. No text messaging, cell phones, or Internet.
Hitchhiking was safe for both parties, and drive-in movies were not on the endangered species list. There were genuine waitresses and real carhops. Food tasted better. Summer lasted longer.
Go back and then imagine the old highway—this road I love—as it was, as it now is, and as it will become. This crooked path littered with history, aspirations, broken promises, and fulfilled dreams has been shaped by its geography.
Route 66 is big cities and tiny towns. It is rich farmland, Ozark forests, vast prairies and rangeland, high and low desert, great mountains, mighty streams. Flood, earthquake, fire, and killer tornadoes have tempered it and its people. Route 66 is the eight states it traverses and bits and pieces of forty-two more. It is American, through and through.
The highway has yielded plenty of saints and a good many sinners. It is not just black and white, but shades of gray and all the colors of the rainbow and then some.
The Route 66 story is both bitter and sweet. A microcosm of the nation, the old road has plenty of scar tissue, much to be ashamed of and much to brag about, as well as a bright future. It is an unfinished story—a work in progress. It always will be.
Route 66 has always represented big ideas to America and to the world: a chance to start over, a road to a better life. In its wake from Los Angeles to Chicago, it encompasses two-thirds of a continent and perhaps one-quarter of the U.S. population.
To many who traveled Route 66, it represents the good ol' days of their youth, ripe with nostalgia and innocent illusions. Looking backward, Route 66 is seen by many as the epitome of America at its golden age, midway through the American century. Cars were sleek, gas cheap, the road open; anything could happen there. Route 66 was footloose guys in a cool Corvette having adventures at every stop on a television series. Route 66 was a set of movies and songs about escaping the Dust Bowl. For Europeans, Route 66 was the freedom to travel thousands of miles on the same road and to never be asked what you're doing there. Route 66 was the road you got your kicks on and the road to California, which shimmered like paradise with a tropical view.
Route 66 has been a road for all America, not just the Mid-West and Southwest and California where it passes. But it's not just a road for Americans; there are books about it in Japanese, Swedish, German, and Brazilian Portuguese. This volume contains clues as to why a road attracts so many visitors from different continents.
Recently, the Old Road—decommissioned but mostly still drivable—has turned 85. Angel Delgadillo, a barber on Arizona's Route 66, has watched European tourists actually climb down off their bus and kiss the pavement, saying, "This is the true America."
Historical Overview of U.S. Highway 66
A comprehensive, thoughtful look at Route 66 is long overdue. U.S. Highway 66 is among America's glory roads, alongside the Boston Post Road, the Lincoln Highway, and California's Route 1. As John Steinbeck wrote in The Grapes of Wrath (1939):
Highway 66 is the main migrant road, 66—the long concrete path across the country, waving gently up and down on the map. . . . 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.
Steinbeck understood the deep tie between this highway and the great American myths of freedom and starting over. He captured the essence of Route 66 during the Depression, but this corridor is far older than that, assembled from transits dating back to buffalo trails and the native hunters who followed them along the banks of the South Canadian River. In Illinois, U.S. 66 followed trails of Indians migrating from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi (Dodge 1980). Westward from what would be St. Louis, trails (and later, the National Old Trails Highways) rotated westwards from Cahokia, the largest pre-Columbian Indian settlement in the Midwest. These paralleled the Fort Smith, Arkansas, wagon road and the New Mexican portions of the Santa Fe Trail across canyons and mountain passes. Later, following the railroad crossings, the first muddy roads dragged through a wilderness of plains and forests. People with a stake in movement followed: homesteaders, miners, railroad-builders.
By the mid-nineteenth century, the national expansion of railways opened another chapter in the history of what would be Route 66. After nineteenth-century surveys of Edward Beale and others, railroads (on the congressional land grants they were given) created a steel trail joining the Pacific Coast to the Midwest. They crossed some of the most inhospitable reaches in U.S. geography: Texas's gumbo mud and the vast Mojave Desert, which required water tanks every ten miles for steam engines. The list of companies laying the grade for what would be Route 66 is long; a partial list: from west to east, the Atlantic and Pacific, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, the Rock Island, the Texas and Pacific, St. Louis-San Francisco (also called the Frisco), and the Illinois Central, among more than a dozen. The railroads, variously linked, graded the way. Their water stops became towns on 66, and after World War II they ceded freight and passengers to the new road (Waters 1950; Goddard 1994; Jackson 1964).
The planning for U.S. 66 (originally U.S. 60) began in 1921, following the development of the mass production of automobiles and the Good Roads Movement. Originally planned to follow the Santa Fe Trail across Nebraska and Colorado, Route 66 eventually passed further south and east along the thirty-fifth parallel from L.A. to Oklahoma City, before angling north through Tulsa, then east through Missouri and north from St. Louis to Chicago, an "all-weather" route (Riegel 1926; Scott and Kelly 1990).
In the twenties, Route 66 was largely a farm-to-market road. By the Depression, it had become, in Steinbeck's words, the "migrant road." Incidentally, it introduced travelers to the Southwest and particularly to its native populations. In the forties, Route 66 transported materiel for the war and then hosted returning GIs. In the fifties, trucking companies filled 66's lanes. In Jack Kerouac's On The Road, heading west from Chicago took him to Route 66:
My first ride was a dynamite truck with a red flag, about thirty miles into great green Illinois, the truck driver pointing out the place where Route 6, which we were on, intersects Route 66 before they both shoot west for incredible distances.
By the sixties, the road was so well known—in part from Bobby Troup's popular song, "Get Your Kicks on Route 66"—that it was given its own television series, starring Martin Milner and George Maharis. This brought yet more tourists in the seventies, just as the interstates began to bypass portions of the Old Road. Yet Route 66 is The Road That Wouldn't Die; by 1985, as the government decommissioned it and pulled down signs, preservationists followed in their tracks, putting up historical markers. In our time, and into the future, Route 66 has become a mixed-up symbol of American highways and travel culture and lore (Patton 1986; Krim 2006).
Route 66 offers a broad avenue into American history, one stratum of road laid down over the other, like the clay tablets that preceded paper and carried traces of older messages. The road's many surfaces (dirt, gravel, poured concrete, macadam) parallel its evolution from paths, trails, rails, to roads. Yesterday's armory is today's senior center; the old gas station becomes a tourist plaza. Route 66 lives on, in popular memory and via oral history. Paradoxically, as with many preservation or revitalization movements, Route 66 really sprung alive after its demise.
Route 66 has been misread as a place of nostalgia for a simpler (read variously: innocent, respectful, rural, segregated) era in the United States. The decades most associated in the popular imagination with Route 66—the 1940s and '50s—are seen as Happy Days, complete with fifties relics: knee socks, Coke bottles, dancing around the jukebox to lyrics less graphic than those listened to by today's teenagers. Yet 66—and its golden era—have another history to tell, one of segregation at bus stops and restaurants and racial profiling of drivers.
For too long, Route 66 has been "whitened," its multi-cultural past denied. It has been reduced to a set of images fixed in time, small-town nostalgia like Thornton Wilder's Our Town, or Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegone.
With the twenty-first century, a new interpretation of Route 66 has begun, ranging from radio programs and video documentaries to dissertations and serious nonfiction works. From all this, a counter-nostalgic, critical history of Route 66 emerged, replacing with research the hollow shell of Route 66 previously dominated by images of sock hops and malt shops. This "new" history of 66 looks past a triumphalist narrative into the darker corners of what lingers in the American past: the communities and the residents displaced by the building of 66, poverty and injustice, and remaining echoes of racism.
For me, Route 66 is a corridor across time as well as place, an avenue into American history, one broad enough to incorporate all of our westering instincts: a democratic road not just for the traveler, but for those left behind in the dust.
This anthology is an effort to serve up a Route 66 that existed long before U.S. Highway 66 became "Route 66" in bright neon letters. Like 66 itself, this volume contains a great deal for a great many.
For mystery fans it has two all-time greats, Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald, and a half-dozen up-and-coming writers. For those who like classic American literature, it includes Washington Irving and John Steinbeck, Henry Miller and Thomas Wolfe.
For those who like their writing with an edge, there's Joan Didion and Rudolfo Anaya; for lovers of the western, Zane Grey and Hal Evarts, Jr. The America of Route 66 includes tall tales, detective yarns, poetry, and oral histories I conducted—even a radio play that starred Orson Welles. My criteria for inclusion were location and relevance, eloquence and authenticity—writing with a sense of the uniqueness of the Route 66 corridor.
There's living history here from the mouths of those who lived it: miners and ranch hands, migrant workers and tycoons, rock stars and curmudgeons. The interviews took place everywhere, from towns so tiny that maps have lost their name, to fancy hotels in big cities. Here are stories of American Indians born in boxcars on 66, and rocket scientists teaching at Caltech. There's an account of a poor black man who had to buy his sandwich at the back door on 66, and a man who made a wacky monument of Cadillacs stuck face-down into the Texas plains.
There's the history of a man who drove camels across the Continental Divide on what would be Route 66, and the tale of a historian whose tribe was marched to a corral and penned there like cattle. It's the story of the Joads headed down 66 for California, and an account of what happens when some try and go home again. There are stories set in Chicago, St. Louis, Amarillo, Albuquerque, and Hollywood—and many places in between. Each excerpt is a small, tantalizing sample to inspire readers to look at the original work, in its entirety.
This book is organized according to bioregionalism, the theory that the contours of the land and its contents determine the life and culture there. Bioregionalism presupposes an ecological sensitivity: is such a sensitivity the subject of science? Is it basic knowledge or something esoteric, as a generator was to Henry Miller in The Air-Conditioned Nightmare? Talking to a Route 66 mechanic in Albuquerque, Miller admitted to "hoping he would first, show me where the damn thing's hidden, and second, that he would tell me whether or not a car could function without one."
To understand the complex intersection of Route 66 and the geography it passes through is a long process of reading ecology. In New Mexico, where I teach at the largest university along 66, Bill DeBuys writes of how mountains and the drainage systems they spawn determine how people live and work together, in a state where water is the most precious commodity. Bioregions, defined through physical and environmental features, have long channeled Route 66's development.
Organization of This Volume
The selections in the anthology are divided into six sections. The first focuses on the pre-history of Route 66. Then, the next four sections are organized geographically, one for each of Route 66's distinct bioregions. A final section peers into 66's future.
The anthology moves east to west, beginning its second section in Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas. The third section, on Oklahoma and Texas, opens with the wit and wisdom of Will Rogers and includes excerpts from The Grapes of Wrath and a literary attack on Route 66 by Robert Davis, debunking its myths.
New Mexico and Arizona head up the anthology's fourth section, including stories of Native Americans traveling and living along Route 66, along with Rudolfo Anaya's comic Route 66 encounter: meeting a tourist for the first time.
The fifth section takes us to California with Zane Grey, Raymond Chandler, Sylvia Plath, Ross MacDonald, and an oral history by musician Ry Cooder.
The sixth and last section explores possible futures for Route 66, including an interview with a rocket scientist, Aldous Huxley's description of rocket travel along the path of Route 66 in Brave New World, and science fiction set in Route 66's wild-west future.
"Route 66 was like your main blood vein going through. Just nothing affected it," Texan writer Delbert Trew said. "All of a sudden you decided to go somewhere—and what did you do? You jump in that main vein and let it take you. And if you come out good, you had a good new life, why then it was the Miracle Road. If it was bad, then it was danged ol' 66 took me there."
Route 66 was a lot more than a road of dreams. Route 66 didn't create racism, but it passed through a great deal of it. It was always a rainbow road, joining communities of color across the country. It was the Indian road to drive without a license while the police patrolled the interstate. It was the Mother Road to towns it nurtured and sustained. Here is its story, from dozens of viewpoints. If Route 66 hadn't existed, America would have had to invent it. And it did.