Route 66 in the News

Grateful for Route 66

2012-06-20 16:40:10

I don’t remember my first road trip. I must have been small, perched in the back of the Ford next to my sister Jane. When Daddy made business trips to the cotton-mill country of North Carolina, he took us along, driving crooked miles into those backcountry foothills.

That was before interstate highways cut through the U.S. But the first national highway, Route 66, had been going strong since 1926. This east-west road was the first completely paved U.S. highway, and it was the quickest way to drive across America. It’s more than 2,400 diagonal miles from Chicago to Los Angeles, spanning three time zones and eight states. In its heyday, it was a migratory path for people going west, especially during the Great Depression. John Steinbeck wrote about it in “The Grapes of Wrath,” calling it “the Mother Road.”

In 1946, Nat King Cole recorded the hit song “Route 66.” The lyrics that are a mini-travelogue about the major stops along the road celebrate the romance and freedom of automobile travel. The tune and the line “Get your kicks on Route 66” came to songwriter Bobby Troup while he was driving west from Pennsylvania to LA. He said the rest of the words eluded him, so he filled up the song with the names of towns and cities on the highway. Winona, Ariz., is the only town out of sequence, because Troup added the line “Don’t forget Winona” to rhyme with Flagstaff, Arizona.

The highway inspired a popular television program in the early 1960s. “Route 66” was about the adventures of two young men traveling west. Watching Buz and Tod tooling around in their 1960 Chevy Corvette was sublime. Like most teenage girls, I loved Tod and the convertible, and longed for the romantic, carefree lifestyle.

I’ve never traveled Route 66 from beginning to end, but I’ve spent a lot of hours chugging along the flat, two-lane road. I made my first car trip to Wyoming the summer I was 13, heading west with my sister and her husband. We covered miles of Route 66, going through St. Louis, Tulsa and Amarillo. I remember the wide-open-window smell of the open range and exhaust fumes.

A few years later, I drove with friends to California in my ’64 VW Bug. This time we stayed south on U.S. 66 almost all the way to LA, cruising through Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Gallup and Flagstaff.

By the late 1970s, most travelers bypassed Route 66, taking the new, faster Interstate 40 instead. The road was decommissioned in 1985, but in 1999 Congress funded the restoration of the highway. Now most of Historic Route 66 can be driven today.

The nostalgic road came back to life for me when I saw the movie “Cars,” and race car Lightning McQueen ended up in the sleepy town of Radiator Springs on old Route 66. Someday I’d like to go on another road trip west. I’d start in Chicago and get my kicks all the way to the end of Route 66.

~Mary Belk,


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