Route 66 in the News

A History of Escape, Opportunity, and Sorrow

2011-09-03 18:02:09

Cut to ribbons by the interstate highways that made it obsolete, Route 66 - John Steinbeck's "mother road" - at age 85 is an intermittent track of deteriorating asphalt and nowhere roadlets.

To the millions who drove it with little in their pockets and only hope in their future, U.S. Highway 66 was the gateway to a new life.

Ten years ago we spoke with several dozen of these travelers about the days when you patched flat tires yourself and everyone carried a burlap bag full of water hung on the radiator cap. A number of those interviewed are no longer with us.

They came from all over the country but most memorable was the army of "Okies," Midwesterners trying to escape the drought known as the Dust Bowl during the worst days of the Great Depression.

"The thing I remember most was an endless line of people on foot moving west," Kenneth Pitzer of Arcadia recalled of his family's trip along Route 66 in May 1930, when he was 8.

"There were families with children, mothers with babies in arms, all walking.

"It's clear in my mind even today. I didn't think about it at the time, but how could they have survived, what did they do? Miles and miles of what even now is inhospitable territory. There must have been a lot of sadness and despair.

"The `Grapes of Wrath' -- it was very real."

California was the goal of most of the newcomers who clung to the pipe dream that it never was cold here and even if you didn't have a job you could survive by taking oranges off the trees.

The poor and homeless who flooded Route 66 in the 1930s and 1940s weren't given much of a welcome in California, and minorities were often tolerated only to do the menial labor no one else wanted.

Robert Collins of Ontario, in an oral history taken in 1978, said his family was turned back at the border by state troopers because his father didn't have a job. They turned around and went back to Michigan. His father refused to ever set foot in the state that wouldn't have him earlier.

When Virginia Lee Bickle Akers of Arroyo Grande and her family of poor Oklahoma farmers reached the state line in 1936 there was a genuine fear they also might be turned back, or even worse.

All the food they had for their cross-country trip were canned fruits and vegetables packed weeks before in Oklahoma. She was terrified the inspectors at the border would take the food. The only money they had was for gasoline, a few precious dollars earned a couple of days earlier in Phoenix where they stopped to pick oranges.

"We hid the food under a lot of blankets so they couldn't see them," said Akers, who was 7 at the time. "Fortunately they (the inspectors) were swamped with a long line of cars, so they passed us on."

Akers said her family ended up in Rodriguez Camp, a labor camp near Cutler north of Visalia. Her father's first job was for 25 cents an hour cleaning cesspools. "And he was glad to have it," she said.

The road

For those who have known only freeways as the means for traveling long distances, early Route 66 may be a bit hard to appreciate. When the route was created, two-thirds of its 2,448 miles was still dirt, and between Oklahoma and Santa Monica, there were only 64 miles of pavement, according to a National Parks Service report.

Frances Barnett Pfeifer of Needles drove out in 1925 the year before Route 66 was named. Her family came from Michigan and spent three months on what seemed to be a continuous muddy track before getting to an aunt's house in Bakersfield.

A highlight of the trip? "My father traded his tire gauge in Barstow to a man for a lug of Thompson seedless grapes," she said.

You never knew what was ahead, recalled Vivian Davies of La Verne, who founded the California Historic Route 66 Association.

One day in March 1943, she and her husband were in a car they were delivering to the West Coast when it began to rain, and rain.

Reaching Miami, Okla., they and everyone else on U.S. 66 were halted by a six-foot-deep creek that flooded the road. They waited, and waited.

"We were stopped by the water in the morning, and by 4 p.m. the line of cars waiting for the creek to fall was five miles long," she said. "A farmer with a tractor offered to pull anyone across for $5, but few were willing because $5 was a lot of money then.

"Finally, when the water fell a little, we said the `Lord's Prayer,' plowed through the water and made it, even though the creek was above the car door."

Disaster did strike Joe Guarrera of Azusa and his family from Brooklyn pulling a trailer with everything they owned on Easter 1947.

"A tornado picked up the trailer and sent it rolling over and over off the side of the road," he said. The trailers' contents were thrown everywhere around that Texas landscape.

The family collected the few unbroken belongings they could find, crammed them into the already-loaded car, tied Guarrera's Schwinn bike on the top, and continued on.

"We looked like the `Beverly Hillbillies' when we arrived into town," he said.

Helen Govang of Rancho Cucamonga remembered one stretch of desert at night in 1938 where their car suddenly started bouncing around on some odd bumps. Later she found out it wasn't the road, but they had hit some of hundreds of jackrabbits blinded by the car's headlights.

Ed Thomann of Highland said his mother brought a bucket of water into which he and his sister would dip rags to stay cool during their 1934 vacation trip along Route 66.

Breakdowns were also frequent, and you had to be a bit resourceful.

Jim Williams of Glendora recalled a more damaging situation when his family's car was broadsided by an Army truck on Colorado Boulevard, Route 66, in Pasadena in 1941. Their car went up in flames, but at least they weren't out in the desert. Williams said the burn mark from his car's fire can still be seen on a palm tree there at Kinneloa Avenue.

The road's two lanes posed some problems for people in a hurry because of the trucks and other slow vehicles there. You either slowed down and joined the caravan, or you tried to pass, noted Jim Daugherty of Covina.

But once you had gotten past the long line of vehicles, you felt like you couldn't stop anywhere soon, even for a bathroom break.

"Once you passed those cars and trucks, you realized you had to keep going, otherwise you'd have to start all over passing them again," he said.

The decision

Pulling up stakes and heading west on Route 66 was a big decision, and for some the weather had a lot to do with it.

It wasn't a difficult decision in 1946 for Harold Thompson of Pasadena, after he and his wife had spent the eighth straight Sunday afternoon clearing the snow off their 150-foot driveway in New Jersey. That's went they decided to buy a trailer and head west toward Route 66.

Reathel Bush of Upland was similarly motivated once day in the Midwest while helping build a bridge over the Canadian River in sub-freezing temperatures.

"I stopped for a moment, thought about it and realized this was too much so I just put down my tools and up and quit," he said. "The next day I drove to California."

In Russellville, Ark., from which Harvey Smith of Glendora set out in 1942, they had a saying about going west on Route 66.

"They say in Russellville that everyone in the town has moved to California except for one old woman," Smith said. "And she's only there to forward the mail."

The Trip

Route 66 has always been a road for the unconventional and the unusual.

Jim Sivelle of San Bernardino and a couple of other sailors each paid $40 in 1944 for a man to drive them from Los Angeles to their ship in Philadelphia.

The driver rolled the 1938 Chevrolet off the road near Flagstaff.

Then they blew two tires and when they tried to buy a new tire at an Albuquerque gas station, the owner tried to sell them an old tire disguised as a new one by covering it with chimney black. That's when Sivelle decided to just take the bus.

Jill James of Claremont came from Michigan in August 1943 when her dad was hired to work at the expanding Kaiser Steel Mill in Fontana.

She remembers asking the eternal question asked by all kids on long car trips: "When will we get there?"

"He said, `You'll see it when we see the orange trees,' and we spent a awfully long time looking for those trees on the trip," she said.

Merle Rawlings of Covina saw Route 66 as a yearly vacation in the mid-1930s as he used his annual summer layoff from General Motors to drive new cars from Detroit to California. They were only supposed to drive 55 or less.

"But we drove night and day," he said. "Heck, I once hit 85 or 90 on the paved roads of Illinois."

Why the hurry?

"We wanted to get to California before we were scheduled to so we could use the car for a couple of days seeing Santa Monica," he said.

The Oatman Hotel on Route 66 in the mountains between Kingman, Ariz., and Needles is on the national historic registry, only partially because it was where Clark Gable and Carole Lombard were said to have spent their honeymoon in 1939.

San Dimas' Pat Gore recalled her mother was certainly not impressed with that hotel in the little mining town when they drove in one night about 9 p.m. in 1937.

"She said she thought the place had snakes," said Gore. Her mother went in to look at it and didn't like what she saw.

No amount of convincing by Gore and her father could convince her mother to stay there. Finally, they drove on into the darkness to Needles. "And the place we stayed in there really wasn't any better," she said.

Help on a tough road

One thing Route 66 brought to many who traveled its miles before freeways was a sense of caring, that most people were in the same boat - little money, unreliable vehicles, lots of flat tires, and a willingness to lend a hand.

"I remember that everyone had flat tires, and when you saw someone with one, that you'd always stop to see if they needed help," said Michl Gaul of Covina, a Belgian native who drove the route in 1946.

"You knew you could always count on some help."

Theron Page of West Covina drove Route 66 in 1946 heading east to Wisconsin. It had already been a frustrating trip with a dozen or more flat tires on his 1935 Ford Coupe when he broke a piston on a Sunday in a small Oklahoma town.

He found a closed garage, called the emergency phone number and got the owner.

"He came right over and opened his garage," recalled Page. "Then he told me to go ahead and use his tools as he was going to church."

After services, the owner helped Page finish the repair and sent him on his way -- without charging him a dime.

A similar experience was noted in 1943 by Eleanor Cleaver of Redlands who was driving alone from Los Angeles to join her husband in the Army in Missouri.

She had a flat tire near Santa Fe, N.M., and while she knew how to change the tire, she couldn't loosen the lug nuts.

"Two young men in a Model A Roadster stopped, helped remove the tire, took me into Santa Fe, waited until the tire was fixed, then drove me back to the car," she said. "I tried to pay them but they wouldn't take anything. They just said for me to look out in case they needed some help farther down the road."

Gail Gillette of West Covina was 12 when he and his Dust Bowl refugee family got a flat tire a few miles from Topock, Ariz., on the Colorado River near Needles, on a dreadfully hot summer day in 1932.

"My older brother started walking to Topock a couple of miles a way," he said. "A man stopped and gave him a ride to town. He waited there for him while he got the tire fixed, then brought him back to the car and helped him put it on, all the time with the weather hotter than hell.

"It was amazing."

~Joe Blackstock,


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