Route 66 Laid to Waste

by Drew Knowles

Americans are widely considered the most wasteful people on earth. As a nation, we are credited with inventing the “throw-away” society. Whereas spatial and economic constraints have long caused the citizens of other nations to scrimp, to save, and to recycle, the relative wealth and spaciousness of this country have resulted in the proliferation of disposable products of every kind -- from paper cups and non-refillable cigarette lighters to abandoned cars, vacant lots, and inner-city blight.

Western Oklahoma, 1994
©Drew Knowles

Ironically, it is just this tendency toward wastefulness which has served to preserve much of old U.S. 66. Otherwise, we might not have anything left of Route 66 to enjoy today. “How's that?” you may ask.

The same conditions which today cause us to buy a new wristwatch rather than have the old one repaired led our forebears decades ago to build completely new highways rather than upgrade existing ones, with the Mother Road being one of the casualties.

With land relatively cheap and plentiful, it was fairly economical (and a lot easier) to simply cast aside the old road and start fresh several yards away.

If Route 66 and her sisters had been considered valuable enough to keep, they would have been completely re-worked and would then offer little in the way of their original character for today's observer. But because they were deemed insignificant, they were left in a more authentic state and allowed to slowly deteriorate.

This principle is easily detected all along the length of old 66. This is what makes the smaller towns the museums of mid-twentieth-century commercial architecture that they have come to be. Only in the larger cities, where real estate was—and still is—more precious, did idle buildings get razed and replaced with something more fitting to the times. Greater L.A. is the most obvious example of this, where it can be hard to find that Mother Road flavor. But in the smaller communities, where there was little or no demand for re-use of the land occupied by those dinosaurs from the pre-interstate era, the remains of those roadside structures— along with some of the old roadbed itself—have become fossils for the explorers among us to rediscover and enjoy. Oddly, in those places where we discarded Route 66, we still have it.

If you appreciate what Route 66 has to offer—as I do—then you have our “throw-away society” partly to thank.


This article first appeared in the Spring 2002 edition of the National Historic Route 66 Federation News.