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.
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.