I finally got to drive Route 66. Not all of it, just a short stretch, but enough to feel the magic. Dubbed the ‘Mother Road – the road of flight’ by the fictional Joad family in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, this narrow, two-lane road goes from Chicago to Los Angeles (2448 miles in all) and, for the most part, runs parallel with Interstate 40.
Route 66 opened on 11 November 1926 in Springfield, MO. Back in the 1930s, it was the path to freedom for many from Oklahoma who went west, dodging the clutches of the Dust Bowl. It has been immortalised by writers like Jack Kerouac. It has been a source of wonder and inspiration for comedians like Billy Connolly. But in the 1980s, it had outlived its usefulness and on 27 June 1985, it was decommissioned, no longer an official US highway. It hasn’t gone away, though, and while it might not be ploughed by snow ploughs during the winter or patrolled by Highway Patrol year ’round, the Mother Road is still very much alive and kicking – and as the t-shirts and fridge magnets declare, many still get their kicks on Route 66.
Like much of the rest of my world (Ireland and Hungary), many small towns thrived from the traffic the route brought. But then, as infrastructure upped a notch or five and freeways and highways and motorways were built, the lifeblood of these small communities was choked at source. In the USA, it was Eisenhower, who in 1956, inspired by the German autobahn he had seen during World War II, began the move to make US highways more efficient. Route 66 was what might be called collateral damage. Now, instead of booming centres of commerce, Route 66 is dotted with tacky souvenir trading posts, fast-food joints, and petrol stations. There is the occasional gem, though, like Joseph’s Bar and Grill in Santa Rosa, New Mexico.
Here, in 1956, a WWII veteran by the name of José Campos, opened La Fiesta drive-in, which developed into a full-service restaurant within a couple of years. Handed down to the next generation of Campos in 1985, it blossomed under the banner ‘Joseph’s Bar & Grill’. Now home to a gift shop, the restaurant is what any tourist would expect of an American diner. It has struck the right note between tacky and nostalgic and the food is as comforting as diner cooking should be.
It doesn’t stand on ceremony – come in your curlers! This couple, in their eighties, were making their way north to see their kids and were a tad concerned about the possibility of running into wildfires. But they’d resolved to go as far as they could go. Hats off to the tenacity of older Americans, whose ‘live it while you can’ attitude would put many a more delicate European to shame.
Route 66 may have been decommissioned but it still hasn’t lost its magic. Along this very same road hundreds of thousands of people have travelled to better lives. Today, motorbikes and RVs and clapped-out cars make the trip as their drivers search amidst a nostalgic haze for life as it used to be. There’s something so romantic about ‘doing Route 66’ – something I’ve had on my bucket list since I first read Jack Kerouac. And now that I’ve had a taste, the notion has cemented a place in my top 5 things to do before I die – preferably on a Harley.
It’s a treasure of oddness and eccentricity. It’s the home of the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, TX, the Continental Divide between Brannigan and Parks, AZ, and the Wigwam motel in Holbrook, AZ. There’s also the Amboy Shoe Tree in California, the steady demise of which chronicles the demise of the route itself. Off to the side, American Indians trade their wares. The crafts of local artisans battle for space with Chinese imports. Billboards line the highway urging travellers not to miss the biggest and the best, each one promising something it can never hope to deliver. Yet the plight of towns like Amboy are a grave reminder of the price of progress.
Despite efforts to protect America’s first paved highway, Route 66 now features on the Top 100 Most Endangered Sites to Watch – courtesy of the World Monuments Fund. With just 85% of the road still drivable, perhaps I’d better up the ante a little and promote this trip to top of my list.