September 1, 2007

Route 66 - A Brief History
Nearly everybody has heard of Route 66. Some remember driving on it as kids, others refer to it in reference to motion pictures, while others think of it as the ultimate car trip. As Mustang nuts, we're sure some of you fall into the last category if not the first and second as well. However, a Route 66 pilgrimage isn't always that simple. For starters, the road was decommissioned in 1984, so it's no longer complete and you won't often find it on state maps, or even on many GPS systems like our trusty companion. Secondly, it runs a heck of a long way - a total of 2,448 miles, so figure in a good deal of time to do the trip 'properly.' Thirdly, you'll also want to figure the best time of year in which to do it. For some folks, the high summer will be too hot, especially in the Western Arizona/Eastern California sections, while doing it in the dead of winter, might make things a bit hairy on the Chicago to Oklahoma City portion, especially if you want to drive it in a Detroit muscle machine of sorts, which we believe is the only way to travel.

The stories about Route 66 are legendary. Novelist John Steinbeck referred to it as 'The Mother Road' in his 1939 work The Grapes of Wrath. Perhaps symbolizing the image of a better life out west, it was the route thousands of people took from parts of Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas in the 1930s as the dust bowl literally wiped out everything they had. Some made it, a lot didn't, but the image of that 'moving' West was forever etched in the public consciousness. Route 66 was fully paved by the late 1930s and gained prominence in World War II as a major artery for shipping military equipment and supplies from the factories out east to the training bases located in the western regions. In 1946, a former US Marine Captain and jazz musician, Bobby Troupe, wrote 'Get Your Kicks on Route 66' which, sung by Nat King Cole, became the anthem for a journey on the Mother Road and in many respects remains so today (having been covered by a number of other music artists).

Route 66 reached its zenith in the early to mid-1950s, as the postwar boom along with a mushrooming in vehicle ownership and car trips, made on-the-road vacations the thing to do for many families. Roadside businesses that had made steady incomes during the War years, now catered to a civilian population with money to spend. Motor Courts, drive-in theaters, diners, restaurants, auto camps and unique roadside attractions all sprouted up along Route 66, bringing prosperity to many small and medium sized towns that flanked this stretch of black top. However, Route 66 ultimately became a victim of its own success. As the need and desire to travel great distances in a shorter time span became more of a priority, along with an ever growing number of vehicles on the roads, increasing calls were met for a more efficient system of main road arteries across America. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, after having witnessed Germany's Autobahn system as a General during World War II, felt the homeland needed a similar kind of high-speed expressway system. The first section of Route 66 to be bypassed happened in 1953, with the opening of the Turner Turnpike that connected the cities of Tulsa and Oklahoma City. In 1956, Eisenhower signed into law the Interstate Highway Act, which signalled the death knell for 66 as a major thoroughfare. Gradually, more and more bypasses sprung up, diverting traffic away from the towns that had foistered their living providing travellers with roadside services. As a result, many communities started to wither and die. The last remaining sections of 66 to survive were portions that went through Tucumcari, New Mexico and Williams, Arizona.

These were finally decommissioned in 1981 and 1984 respectively and with them, Route 66 became largely forgotten. Today, almost a quarter of a century later, preservation efforts have been made to bring at least some sections back to life. Historic Route 66 Associations have been formed and several stretches have been renamed National Scenic Byways. A growing number of roadside buildings have been or are being restored and historic markers now pepper the route. As a result, Route 66 is starting to reappear on maps once more.

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