US Route 66 became official in 1927 when a federal law made it one of the first national highway systems routes. Starting in Chicago it bent it’s way south and crossed through seven states before ending 2,000 miles later in Los Angles.
Parts of the road were old wagon roads. By the 1920s the automobile was rapidly becoming a part of daily life and the pressure for roads and highways caused local, state and finally federal governments to plan, fund, and build them. Route 66 was fully paved by 1938. During it’s time it became the major automobile route to the west. It was used by people fleeing the Oklahoma Dust Bowl (the Okies), by the military in WWII, by people seeking the dream of living in the west, and by all types of vacationers and adventures.
Perhaps you heard the song, Get Your Kicks On Route 66, first recorded by Nat King Cole in 1946. An interesting note about the song: It was written by jazz pianist, singer and songwriter Bobby Troup, who is likely more known to my generation as Dr. Joe Early on the 1970’s TV series, Emergency!
The end of Route 66 started in 1956 with the signing of the Federal Aid Highway Act. President Eisenhower championed this system formally known as, “Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways,” or simply as the “Interstate Highway System.” Eisenhower recalled his experience with moving army troops during WWI over the Lincoln Highway as a young Army officer. One of his arguments for the system was the need to move troops, equipment, and supplies in the event of an emergency or invasion – the fear of an atomic attack was real in the fears of America at the time.
By the time I first traveled Route 66 in 1968 the route was already in decline and it didn’t survive much beyond that. By 1976 most of the route was bypassed by interstate highways and in 1985 Route 66 was officially decertified by the Federal Highway Department.
Today there is a lot of nostalgia about the road – imagines of simpler, happier times when life moved at a slower pace.
I was eight years-old my first time on Route 66. My mother had a fascination with the American Southwest – so armed with AAA maps, guide books, camping gear, canned food, canteens and a picnic basket she set off across California with me and my two brothers for a three-week vacation in the vast reaches of Arizona and New Mexico. I can’t remember the exact places we went or the routes we took, but I do remember adventure.
I remember the time we had a flat tire. My brother Rick and I had to unload the car to get the spare and jack. Then some 60 or 70 miles down the road Mother found a gas station where she bought a new tire and I recall mother buying us root beer floats after we unloaded, and reloaded the camping gear a second time to put the spare tire back in the 68 Chevy station wagon – the mom-mobile of the day.
We got to unload the car for a third time and set up camp when we finally arrived at a KOA campground just before sunset. We ate by the light of an old Colman gas lantern that had the annoying habit of bursting into yellow flame from time to time.
In exchange, Mother showed us some wonderful sites: The painted Desert, Petrified Forest, ancient cliff dwellings, a real Pueblo, the Navajo Reservation, and the stark desolate beauty of the desert.
The road was just a way of getting from one fascination to another. It was an obstacle. Our car lacked AC so we used what Bill called, 450 air-conditioning – roll down all four windows and get Mom to go 50 miles per hour. We rarely traveled faster than 50 or 55 as the road was a two lane shoulder-less winding barren ribbon through the desert. In the distance you could see heat rising from the pavement and near sunset you could feel the winds whip across the road.
You felt each bump and twist. We rationed the water out of fear of getting stuck. We tried to convince Mother to use the “Phillips 66” gas stations because we liked their sign and teased her that “Phillips” was her madden name and she should support the family business.
Parts of the interstate were completed then. Interstate 40 through Northern Arizona and New Mexico largely follows Route 66. We boys preferred the interstate. It was generally the shorter route and you could go faster, reducing the time we spent in the car and upgrading our AC to 465. I recall on the return journey from that trip to be disappointed when we discovered that much of Interstate 40 between Flagstaff and Kingman Arizona wasn’t finished and we had to leave the interstate for a long round about on Route 66.
There must have been hours of boredom and fights between three brothers on that trip, but all I remember is the adventure and jumping out that station wagon when we stopped. I’d hit the ground running, Rick would chase me and Mother would call us back to show us some wonder of the desert.
Some amazing coloration of rock. A tree from millions of years ago turned to rock. Rocks balancing on each other or arches carved by rain and wind. She showed us the dazzling sky at sunset and light bursting up from the horizon at dawn. Words just fail to describe the memories of my heart.
Later, in 1972, it was just Mother and I in that 68 Chevy. Both brothers had grownup and moved away. This time we stopped at Canyon De Chelly, Bryce and Zion Canyons, Santa Fe, Carlsbad Caverns and ended up in Bend National Park, Texas. Along the way it was maps, travel guides, road signs, gas stations and miles and miles of desolation and vast skies punctuated by mountains and clouds drifting through.
For years I’ve wanted to take Heather on a trip though this part of the world. I’ve wanted to show her the wonders I saw in my youth. That was the trip I planned and we went this April. Due to pressures of life and limited vacation time we only had a week and we decided to make it a road trip. While we did get to see many wonderful things, the trip did have its moments of disaster and disappointment.
Still, it was worth it and I hope to come back this way again soon, but likely we’ll take a plane and avoid the joys of Route 66.
Till Next Week,
Note: This is the beginning of a multipart series on our trip.