When my husband and I were planning our recent road trip, we realized that our drive home from St. Louis could naturally follow the same trajectory as old Route 66. Even though our trip west wouldn’t begin in Chicago (the traditional starting point) and our final destination wasn’t Santa Monica (Route 66’s “end of the trail”), we were excited to have the opportunity to see many of the famed byways and unique roadside attractions we had heard so much about.
Like many of the original highways constructed in the early 1920s, Route 66 was designed to connect urban and rural communities and break the monopoly of the railroads. Nicknamed “America’s Main Street” and the “Mother Road,” it linked hundreds of small towns along a winding 2,400-mile ribbon of asphalt. Although the highway was used during the Dust Bowl and the Depression by those who traveled west seeking better lives, it wasn’t until the late 1940s and early 1950s that Route 66 fully became a symbol of freedom and the wide open road. With the economic boom of the post-war area, more Americans had money to buy cars and the leisure time to travel, and a road trip on Route 66 was almost a rite of passage for many.
That began to change in 1956, as the Interstate Highway System started to develop super highways that were straight-lined and designed to move people from one place to another as quickly as possible. Because the modern highways bypassed hundreds of the small towns along the path of Route 66, many couldn’t survive. Just like the cracked and crumbling asphalt, the towns and the business that depended on travelers began to decline. In 1985, Route 66 was officially decommissioned by the federal government.
As we made our way west, we ran into a lot of fellow travelers who were also tracing the historic route. Some were dedicated Route 66 explorers and others, like us, made stops here and there at towns and attractions that sparked an interest. We were surprised to discover many Route 66 aficionados were visiting from other countries, including a group from Sweden traveling on rented motorcycles. Just about all of us were baby boomers.
Many of the shopkeepers and restaurant owners we talked to along the way shared that business wasn’t what it used to be. Several pointed to the recent recession as the beginning of the downward trend and I’m sure that had a big influence. But, I also wonder if the lure of America’s Main Street just doesn’t tug at the imagination of Gen Xers and Millennials as it does for Baby Boomers*. Yes, there are various Route 66 associations and preservation groups, but most members are over 50. Back in 1999, our former Boomer-in-Chief, Bill Clinton, signed a National Route 66 Preservation Bill. I’m not sure a similar bill could pass today.
A majority of the original road is gone and many of the roadside attractions are no longer open. Some of the small towns are now boarded up ghost towns. But, there still is a lot to see and do. If the lore of Route 66 has ever pulled at you, or if you want to find some escape from our modern generic world (even in bits and pieces), I encourage you to make your travel plans soon. Route 66 awaits you and I’m not sure how long many of the places can hang on.
* There may be hope for Generation Z as many of them would have see Pixar’s 2006 animated film Cars. In it, the once-booming Radiator Springs, situated along Route 66, is now nearly a ghost town because it was bypassed by Interstate 40. Perhaps the movie’s success has generated a resurgence of public interest in Route 66.