For this week, let me give you some history about the Mother Road, as it was nicknamed in the novel, The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck, written in 1939. It was also put to a catchy tune in Bobby Troup's popular hit "Get Your Kicks on Route 66", written just after World War II, when Americans began to travel more, either on business, family vacations, or to move to another area. Then in the 1960's there was a TV adventure series called "Route 66". How did it all get started?
Back in the 1920's the federal government decided it was time to have some consistency in the roads that were being created across America. So they set some standards that had to be followed to get federal funding in building these roads. All the highways going east and west (coast to coast) were to be numbered routes ending in zero. These roads also had to meet certain surface quality, and have numbered signs along the route to guide traffic.
In 1924 a man named Cyrus Avery, Oklahoma Highway Commissioner, was appointed to develop a highway system by connecting existing roads into a network that allowed travel across several states. His route stated in Chicago, Illinois, ran down through Missouri, across his home state of Oklahoma, with a few miles in Kansas, then through a small portion of Texas, across New Mexico, Arizona, and California, ending at the Pacific Ocean. There was another highway system that started in Newport News, Virginia (at the Atlantic Ocean), ran through Kentucky, and tied into Avery's road in Springfield, Missouri. Since it was a coast to coast highway, it was the major route that was numbered 60. Avery's road, although accepted by the US Bureau of Public Roads, was given the official number of 66, since it was a lesser road (did not run coast to coast).
As people begin to travel Route 66 more frequently, the tourist traps began to spring up...places such as trading posts, souvenir shops, animal parks, and snake pits (oh, yes...let's go see them!! NOT!!) Motels and cafes were established out of necessity, and to catch the eyes of the travelers, they more often than not had colorful flickering neon signs. Roadside parks sprang up as a place to stop for family picnics on their trips. Billboards were put up to advertise what was ahead...where to stop and spend their money.
During World War II Route 66 became the main road for military equipment to be transported, and the heavy equipment did much damage to the road surface. That's when Washington began thinking about a wider road, better constructed with limited access so the traffic flow could be faster. The sad thing that happened beginning in the late 1950's is that new highways were built. These highways with limited street access became what is now known as the interstate system. Often the roads ran parallel to old Route 66, but there was no convenient way to get off the highway to stop at the cafes and motels and parks, so those places began to die off for lack of business. Some towns along the way were by-passed altogether by the new interstate system, and those small villages went belly up.
Today there is a renewed interest in finding that old Mother Road, also called America's Main Street, and the places that existed along the way. The road surfaces back when Route 66 was built were not the smooth pavement and leveled roads of today, and over time the cement surfaces and whatever else was used, cracked and crumbled and disintegrated. Much of the old Route 66 no longer exists because of that, or because the interstate system literally ate up (replaced) the old road. Some parts of Route 66 are still there, but not always numbered "66", and not easily found. Much of it dead ends, or has disappeared. Another hint for which roads are authentic Route 66 is to follow the railroads. The early roads were built along the railroad right-of-way corridors. Watch for old rusty steel bridges, another link to the original road traveling over rivers.
Anyone wanting to drive the old roads will have to use lots of imagination and navigation to find them...but parts of the Mother Road still exists. There are all kinds of people and organizations that have researched these roads, and written books and maps to help you find your way through the maze, if you take the time to wind back and forth and make loops on your journey. Sometimes there are "options" for where various parts of Route 66 used to exist. Choose your option...they both have some validity. But don't try to be a purist on traveling this road, or you will become very frustrated. Make this an Adventure designed to find some of the sights and places along America's Main Street, and just go with the flow. Take time to smell the roses along the way. You might actually see some some signs labeled "Historic Route 66" as you go along.