Route 66 in the News

Route 66: Still a Good Ride

2010-06-27 11:59:36

Today marks the 25 anniversary of the decommissioning of Route 66. And while some will argue that the beloved American highway was unfairly killed off, others see it differently, arguing that perhaps the mythological status so enjoyed by Route 66 in years since was born the moment she reached the end of the road.

Just the term "Route 66" conjures up nostalgic images of mom-and-pop diners, souvenir huts, trading posts and old-fashioned gas stations dotting the vaunted route from Chicago to Los Angeles -- of caves, caverns, canyons, alligator farms and "blue plate specials."

From 1926 to 1985 the road held a familiar place in the collective American consciousness, especially for those who enjoyed east to west motor trips.

Route 66 had intriguing nicknames bestowed upon her, including "The Main Street of America," "The Mother Road" (from John Steinbeck's 1939 classic "The Grapes of Wrath") and "Will Rogers Highway."

Colorfully named businesses along the route gained notoriety, including the Pig Hip Restaurant, Wagon Wheel Motel, Eat-Rite Diner and Polk-A-Dot Drive In.

There was the breezy 1946 song from Bobby Troupe, a lyrical road map that's been covered by everyone from Nat "King" Cole to the Rolling Stones.

And an early-1960s TV series named for the highway took viewers on a weekly road trip.

Still, the nostalgic icon that Route 66 is today was not exactly how everyone viewed it in 1985, when it was decommissioned. Like Elvis, it took a few years for a nostalgic cocoon to form around the reality. And in a few short seasons, a charming, marketing-ready, road-from-the-past emerged.

But what about the reality?

"How we view Route 66 today says more about us than it does about the road -- about our longing for the past. We actually know more about the road in the last 25 years since it was decommissioned than we ever did in the time it was active," John Murphey, resources specialist for the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program, told AOL News.

"The documentation pre-1985 is nowhere near what it is post-1985, and I think if we take a hard look back and really study the road, as more and more universities are starting to do, the story will widen. About how Indians and immigrant travelers were treated, for example. About other roads that make up the cornerstones of U.S. transportation. Sometimes misplaced nostalgia can get in the way of what really happened."

Murphey, who also serves as a board member for the Society for Commercial Archeology, described why he thinks the road is today so steeped in nostalgia. "Route 66 represents the yearnings of a certain generation for an imagined past. The freedom of mobility, the spirit of wanderlust that the words 'Route 66' symbolize. It already had a bit of that mystique 25 years ago. But nothing like today."

When Route 66 was decommissioned, it lost official authorization as a highway, leaving much of it abandoned, destroyed or repurposed as part of another roadway.

Today, Murphey sees the future of Route 66 heading in two directions. "Looking back, we'll learn more about road's relevant history from 1926 to 1985. And looking forward, we'll hopefully have entrepreneurs creating new businesses along the road that, while invoking nostalgia, can combine all of the eras into a whole new stratosphere. A place like Pops."

Pops, in Arcadia, Okla., is a dazzling "new" historic landmark, a stylized gas station/burger joint/soda fountain that features an iconic 66-foot soda bottle out front and a selection of almost 600 sodas inside.

For Laurel Kane, the nostalgia of Route 66 has been a part of her entire life, thanks to numerous family road trips as a child. "I'm a Route 66 person," she told AOL News. "Always have been, always will be."

That's why, nine years ago, she bought the Afton Station service station and turned it into a Route 66 greeting center and museum.

Today it's called the Afton Station & Route 66 Packards (her ex-husband David runs it with Laurel and here he displays many refurbished vintage autos). She also owns about 15,000 vintage Route 66 postcards.

Afton, about 80 miles from Tulsa, "will be a ghost town soon," Kane said. "But that won't stop other Route 66 people form finding their way here. We're like a family, especially those of us who own businesses along the road. And we like to help each other out, so we send visitors from one place down the line to the next."

Kane guesses her visitors split three ways: from within 100 miles, from the rest of the United States and from overseas.

"Twenty-five years go, just like today, to me 'decommissioned' is just a word. The people who want to get someplace fast will take the interstate. The people who want a nostalgic journey will take Route 66."

(Today, about 80 percent of the originally 2,448-mile highway is drivable.)

Commissioned or not, the mystique of Route 66 attracts scholars, wanderers and romantics alike, road lovers all in search of something different.

Like many other historic American highways, Route 66 is like a physical timeline that reflects everything from our technology to our eating and leisure habits.

But unlike many other highways, it has a song, a TV show and a dedicated family of followers.

~Chris Epting, AOLnews.com

 

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