Why Route 66 Became America’s Most Famous Road

Most Amer­i­cans know Route 66, but some­times it seems like non-Amer­i­cans know it bet­ter. I hap­pen to be an Amer­i­can liv­ing out­side Amer­i­ca myself, and when­ev­er con­ver­sa­tions turn to the sub­ject of road trips in my home­land, it’s only a mat­ter of time before I hear the usu­al ques­tion: “Have you dri­ven Route 66?” Orig­i­nal­ly com­mis­sioned in 1926, the 2,448-mile road from Chica­go to San­ta Mon­i­ca enjoyed about three decades of pri­ma­cy before its eclipse by the Inter­state High­way Sys­tem. Quaint though Route 66 may now seem com­pared to that vast post­war infra­struc­tur­al project, it some­how has­n’t quite let go of its hold on the Amer­i­can imag­i­na­tion, and even less so the world’s imag­i­na­tion about Amer­i­ca.

“Route 66 has been in the shad­ows twice as long as it was in the spot­light,” says Vox’s Phil Edwards, “but there’s still this ener­gy around it.” In the video “Why Route 66 Became Amer­i­ca’s Most Famous Road,” Edwards does the icon­ic road trip him­self, and along the way tells the sto­ry behind what John Stein­beck called “the moth­er road, the road of flight.”

This nat­u­ral­ly involves an abun­dance of both cin­e­mat­i­cal­ly emp­ty land­scapes, flam­boy­ant­ly unhealthy cui­sine, and rich­ly kitschy Amer­i­cana, the kind of thing fea­tured in Atlas Obscu­ra’s robust Route 66 cat­e­go­ry. Edwards vis­its colos­sal cow­boy stat­ues, the Amer­i­can Quar­ter Horse Hall of Fame and Muse­um (“hors­es must be dead to be con­sid­ered”), and a road­house where, if you “eat 72 ounces of steak and sides in under an hour, you get it for free” — and those are just in Texas.

Route 66 can’t but appeal to Amer­i­can his­to­ry buffs, but in recent decades it has also attract­ed con­nois­seurs of des­o­la­tion. Orig­i­nal­ly shaped by a vari­ety of lob­by­ing inter­ests, includ­ing an espe­cial­ly vig­or­ous pro­mot­er of Tul­sa, Okla­homa named Cyrus Avery, the “Main Street of Amer­i­ca” turned many of the ham­lets along its path into, if not des­ti­na­tions, then places worth spend­ing the night. Fas­ci­nat­ing arti­facts remain of Route 66’s vibrant mid­cen­tu­ry “motel cul­ture,” but not even the most Amer­i­ca-besot­ted vis­i­tors from for­eign lands could over­look how thor­ough­ly his­to­ry seems to have passed most of these places by. I saw this first-hand myself when I drove across the Unit­ed States on Inter­state 40, the con­ti­nent-span­ning free­way that fol­lows Route 66 in places and cer­tain­ly has­tened its demise. You can see it and much else on Route 66 besides in the “aer­i­al doc­u­men­tary” above.

Edwards’ inter­vie­wees include denizens of Route 66 mak­ing a go of revers­ing the decline of this 34-years-decom­mis­sioned road, such as the pro­pri­etor of the Motel Safari, a ver­i­ta­ble 1950s time-cap­sule in Tucum­cari, New Mex­i­co. He also talks to the edi­tor of Route 66 News, an elder­ly Tex­an lady with a thing for dinosaurs, a mod­ern-day Cyrus Avery look­ing to pro­mote the glo­ries of Route 66’s Okla­homa stretch, and Route 66 road-trip­pers of var­i­ous ages and nation­al­i­ties, includ­ing a guy who actu­al­ly ate that 72-ounce steak with­in an hour. “There was dessert as far as the eye can see,” says one still-mar­veling young Euro­pean. He almost sure­ly meant desert, but as far as the charms of Amer­i­ca’s open roads go, both inter­pre­ta­tions are equal­ly true.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

If You Dri­ve Down a Stretch of Route 66, the Road Will Play “Amer­i­ca the Beau­ti­ful”

12 Clas­sic Lit­er­ary Road Trips in One Handy Inter­ac­tive Map

Four Inter­ac­tive Maps Immor­tal­ize the Road Trips That Inspired Jack Kerouac’s On the Road

Jack Kerouac’s On The Road Turned Into Google Dri­ving Direc­tions & Pub­lished as a Free eBook

Down­load Dig­i­tized Copies of The Negro Trav­el­ers’ Green Book, the Pre-Civ­il Rights Guide to Trav­el­ing Safe­ly in the U.S. (1936–66)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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