Route 66 in the News

Route 66 Now Shorthand for Heritage Highway

2008-03-13 07:09:48

HOLLAND, Mich. - One of the most indelible memories of my childhood was a trip "out West" as my parents liked to refer to it via the famous Route 66.

I remember it vividly even to this day, perhaps because my parents took me out of school to accompany them on what my teachers agreed would be an important "educational journey." My first road trip.

I was very young, but I can recall almost every detail of that adventure.

I remember my parents encouraging me to feel the silky texture of a piece of wood from the Petrified Forest in Arizona. I remember the intense heat of the Mojave Desert and my mother dipping cotton towels in melted ice and wrapping them around our heads to keep us cool during that endless drive through that relentless desert. I remember the ghost towns and gold mines that captured my imagination, the Cherokee trading post, my first and only auto court chamber pot and of course, Stuckey's pecans.

There were some sobering moments as well.

I remember clinging to my parent's hands in fear and amazement as I took my first glimpse over the edge of the Grand Canyon. I was awestruck by its magnificence, but terrified by the possibility that my parents might consider descending those canyon walls on the backs of "poor little mules."

It was there that I discovered my fear of heights and what would become my lifelong love and empathy for animals. I also saw my first serious car accident along a windy mountain road and watched my father -- the only doctor to come upon the scene -- grab his black leather medical bag and scramble down the mountain side to try to save the family of five that had been thrown from their overturned automobile.

That was the first time I was aware of my father's profession as a physician and surgeon, and it was my first encounter with death. I clearly remember my mother trying to shield me from the scene and my resistance to her efforts. I was mesmerized by my father's command of the situation and the respect shown by the onlookers. I was so proud of him. I think it was the first time I had observed leadership.

That trip was a journey that held many "firsts" for me. I believe it played a major role in molding my future, building my character and binding my love of travel with the intellectual aspects of art, history, culture and education.

I don't believe we ever stopped to see the world's largest ball of twine --if we did, I don't remember it. But I will always remember being given the awesome responsibility of "lookout" from the back seat of our yellow Buick Roadmaster convertible to scan the horizon steadfastly with my brand new pink plastic binoculars to alert my parents of any run-away stage coaches, bands of Indians or stampeding herds of bison that might impede our progress west on Steinbeck's "Mother Road," historic Route 66.

These nostalgic memories, associated fondly with my parents now long since deceased, were suddenly rekindled about a year ago at a Beachtowns Association meeting when Sandra Clark, director of the Michigan Historical Center, proposed that Beachtowns undertake the task of certifying Michigan's Route 31 as a Heritage Route.

This highway, also known as Blue Star Highway or the West Michigan Pike, was built between 1911 and 1922. It was the first continuous, improved road between Chicago and Mackinaw City and opened West Michigan to automobile tourism.

The history and culture associated with the pike played an important roll in the development of tourism along the lakeshore.

"Eureka," I exclaimed. "I get it. Michigan's Route 66!"

Surely there were lots of folks like me who would connect with this idea and rekindle memories of their youth and the West Michigan Pike!

For the past year or so, the Beachtowns Association has been working on the certification process, which takes about three years. We have completed a substantial portion of that process and are currently applying for a Corridor Management Planning Grant for 2009 through the Michigan Department of Transportation.

We have been working in conjunction with the Michigan Historical Center, a division of the Department of History, Arts and Libraries, through a $160,000 Preserve America grant, plus a $50,000 matching grant from The Michigan Council of the Arts and Cultural Affairs to meet federal and state guidelines for participation in Michigan's Heritage Route Program.

Our route will extend from the Indiana border to Ludington along the Lake Michigan shoreline. In addition to presenting Beachtowns with expanded promotional opportunities, the historic designation will offer many benefits to a variety of municipalities and organizations.

Historic designation does not make anything happen, but allows things to happen by qualifying the area to tap into federal and state grant opportunities such as transportation enhancement grants, private foundation grants, Michigan Department of Transportation funds and, potentially, scenic byways grants. Heritage designation does not add any layers of government, presents no additional liability issues or land use issues. However it has the great potential to attract and keep visitors coming to the area.

The next steps include meetings with all municipalities along the route to secure resolutions affirming local government support for the concept of the heritage route. The Beachtowns Corridor management team will also work with a variety of organizations and governmental groups to develop a corridor map identifying assets along the route that should be promoted and liabilities that should be improved or enhanced through private/public partnerships or grant resources.

I am happy Beachtowns is undertaking this project. I want other people to relive the West Michigan Pike the way I have relived my trip on Route 66.

Our association was formed in 2001 to promote nine southwest Michigan communities as a linear tourist destination. The group has spent more than $1.5 million promoting the area.

We also initiated a PBS public relations effort in 2006 that netted the area $36 million dollars in free publicity. The West Michigan Pike project will certainly stimulate nostalgia travel and give us an opportunity to expand our historic and cultural promotional opportunities.

I'm excited about planning this new road trip. I particularly like the idea of being the "lookout" again, though I've long since lost my pink plastic binoculars.

This time I'll just slip on my magnifier reading glasses and log on to the Web, searching for clues that might reveal some secrets about the West Michigan Pike.

~Felicia Fairchild,


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