The most famous road in the world went by many names. The Mother Road. Main Street of America. The Will Rogers Highway. US Route 66. Or just simply…Route 66.
The idea for it came just after World War I. The military boys were back home. There were more cars around. And more cars meant more and better roads. Initiated in 1921 by a US Act in Congress called the Federal Highway Act, federal politicians in Washington voted in a nation-wide highway that would spread from the northeast to the west coast. Construction began that year and Route 66 opened for traffic on November 11, 1926.
Predominately two lanes, it spanned from Chicago to Los Angeles, 2448 miles in total, although only 800 miles was paved at the time of its opening. Not until 1938 did Route 66 become a fully-paved highway. From Lake Michigan to the Pacific, Route 66 covered 3 time zones and 8 states. Illinois, Missouri, Kansas (for a mere dozen miles), Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. The highway meandered past bald prairie, corn fields, the Ozark Mountains, rocks, and desert, before finally ending at Santa Monica Beach, California. There were some big cities in between such as Oklahoma City and St Louis, as well as cities with interesting names like Albuquerque and Tucumcari. A mostly flat road, it did have some very scary hairpin turns in the Black Mountains around Oatman and Kingman, Arizona. So scary in fact, that local guides were sometimes hired to take the timid travelers through the then-gravel mountain turns. The weather at times could be equally scary, especially when snowstorms hit the High Country in Arizona and New Mexico.
When you hear the name Route 66, what do you think of? The open road. Diners. Greasy hamburgers. Motels. Drive-in theatres. Gas stations with attendants who cleaned your windows. Other entrepreneurs came with their reptile ranches, fireworks shops and maple syrup stands. Route 66 was all this and more. It signified an automotive escape. The highway was made famous in song, written by Bobby Troup in 1946 and sung at first by Nat King Cole that same year, followed by many others including Frank Sinatra, and the Rolling Stones. Remember the 1960s TV show Route 66 with Marty Milner and George Maharis (later replaced by Glenn Corbett)? Two cool guys driving around in a hot Corvette ragtop, finding adventure around every bend of the road.
A major thruway, Route 66 was different things to different people. It was an escape route during the Great Depression for Oklahomans who chose the road to head for California to find work. To them, the Sunshine State was the land of milk and honey. This is depicted quite well in John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, which was turned into a 1940 movie starring the Henry Fonda. About this same time, in 1939, Phillips 66 Gas Company came up with a bright idea. Due to the increase in traffic along Route 66, the company’s gas station restrooms were being overused to the point of embarrassment. Registered nurses, called Highway Hostesses, were hired to monitor the Phillips 66 establishments by dropping in on each restroom once a month and perform the “white-glove treatment.” To the company higher-ups, Phillips 66 restrooms were going to be “the best and cleanest washrooms in the nation.” The nurses were also expected to help distressed motorists in need of assistance. Each nurse’s back seat and trunk held a first-aid kit, a bottle of Lysol, and a mechanic’s tool box, the latter of which they were trained to use.
By World War II, due to civilian gas rationing, military traffic found its way on the road, as goods were shuffled off to various points to aid the American war machine after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Following the war, Route 66 opened the West to the rest of the United States. By then, everybody had an automobile and they didn’t mind travelling in it, cross country, too. By 1950, Route 66 was the main highway to vacation spots in Los Angeles, even though air-conditioned vehicles were rare. The 50s were the heyday of Route 66, at a time when the New York Yankees had their greatest years, thanks to a young, superstar named Mickey Mantle who was brought up in Oklahoma just off the Mother Road. The integrated Brooklyn Dodgers was the other popular ball team, led by Jackie Robinson. TV sales jumped in that decade and if the sets weren’t tuned to baseball, then it was shows like I Love Lucy.
There were lots of places to visit along US Route 66. In Arizona, there was the Grand Canyon, the Petrified Forest, the Painted Desert, and Meteor Crater. Missouri had the Meramac Taverns, a hideout for Jesse and Frank James after their many train and bank robberies. New Mexico had the El Rancho Hotel outside Gallup where movie stars like John Wayne stayed while filming Westerns. There was the chain of Wigwam Motels along Route 66 that had individual rooms shaped in the image of Indian teepees. “Do it in a teepee,” was the slogan. The one I love is the Big Texan Steakhouse that opened in Amarillo, Texas right beside the highway in 1960. By 1962, it advertised the 72-oz steak. Yes, 72 ounces! That’s 4.5 pounds of prime rib, there big fellah! If anyone could eat the steak, as well as the trimmings, which were a salad, a shrimp cocktail, a baked potato and a bread roll in less than one hour, the meal was free. The weirdest attraction was Spooklight, a common but unexplainable flash of bright lights that bounced around the Oklahoma countryside, usually at dawn, leaving people mystified, to say the least.
Route 66 reached its peak in the 1950s. Then, it all came crashing down when President Dwight D Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act in 1956, which essentially was the first nail in the coffin for the Mother Road. As the Supreme Commander of the Allies in World War II, Eisenhower saw up-close the miles and miles of the four-lane German Autobahn and how quickly traffic moved along this vast highway system. He wanted this same system back home. Over the next three decades, the two-lane Route 66 was gradually replaced by the wider and faster 4-lane interstates. In some areas, the new road went right over the old road. Many businesses had been right up to the old Route 66, with no room for the 2 extra lanes. Those areas were avoided, causing most of the establishments to go belly up. Others moved closer to the interstates, like the Big Texan Steakhouse in Amarillo. Some sections of the old road were now service roads and private drives, while others were abandoned and weeded over. In 1984, the final stretch of the old Mother Road to be decertified was a piece near Williams, AZ just an hour south of the Grand Canyon. With that, Route 66 ceased to exist.
Well, not really…
By the late 1980s, Route 66 enthusiasts banded together to preserve the memory of the ol’ road. They formed organizations such as the US Route 66 Association (with chapters in all 8 states) and the National Route 66 Federation. Some of the more well-preserved areas were marked as Historic Route 66 or designated under protection of the National Register of Historic Places. In 1990, Missouri declared the entire length of old Route 66 in their state as a “State Historic Route.” While in office, president Bill Clinton signed the National Route 66 Preservation Bill which set aside $10 million to preserve many historic features along the 2,400-mile-long stretch.
I rode a section of old Route 66 back in November, 1999, with my son, Barrie, and my brother, Greg, at the wheel. One of the last to fall to I-40, this stretch in Arizona was between Williams and Seligman. It was clean and pristine, very few bumps, and nicely preserved in the dry climate. At Seligman, we drove past the barber shop of Angel Delgadillo (the town’s most famous citizen and one of the founders of the Historic Route 66 Association of Arizona) and the Snow Cap, a drive-in restaurant owned by his brother. Although we were on the vintage road for only 30 minutes tops, it was quite the experience anyway. Ironic though, because for a good portion of the trip, we could see cars, RVs, and trucks on I-40, just a few miles away. It was that close to Seligman. During the trip, we stopped at a gift shop in Williams where I purchased a denim jacket with a neat Route 66 logo on it, a jacket I still have today.
Here’s something you can do if you have the time and the money. Most of the old route is still drivable, but you have to know where you’re going. People have done it. End to end, I mean. Books such as the Route 66 Traveler’s Guide and Roadside Companion by Tom Snyder is a must because it coaches you through every twist and turn, besides giving you the right restaurants to stop at and the different roadblocks to avoid. Look for the most recent edition of the softcover to stay updated on road changes. A married couple I know did the trip, using Snyder’s book in the late 1990s, around the same time I was in Arizona. While she flew from Toronto to Los Angeles on business, he drove all the way to LA on the quickie interstates. He met up with his wife in California, then together they followed the Route 66 guide for most of the way back, sightseeing and such, taking lots of pictures, which I saw later in a slide show. It was an experience that the 2 of them would never forget.
By the way, my friends stopped in at the Big Texan, which was-- and still is--going strong with the 72-oz steak gimmick. They didn’t try the big meal, but the steaks they did eat were outstanding, they told me. The best they ever had. As of 2013, the meal is $72 or free, with the trimmings, of course. (I think I could have done it in my younger years. When I was fourteen, I once ate 21 of my mother’s homemade, cottage-cheesed-filled perogies in about 45 minutes. They were huge, triple the size of the skinny, little potato-and-cheese perogies you buy in the stores today). Since 1962, over 50,000 people have taken the 72oz challenge and almost 9,000 have accomplished their objective, sore guts and all. Funny though, it’s not just hulks and offensive lineman finishing the meal in under an hour. In the 72oz Hall of Fame are many people less than 200 pounds. Some under 150. In 1977, an 18-year-old guy weighing 125 pounds did it. In another sitting, a 42-year-old tipping the scales at a mere 115 pounds also conquered the 72-oz. Women have taken the plunge with success, too, including a 20-year-old weighing 135 pounds.
Ah, there’s nothing like the lure of the open road, is there? Especially after a good meal like that.