Route 66: The Mother Road

There’s a piece of the road in the museum—square slabs of aged asphalt excised from west of Oklahoma City.

I’ve never seen such a thing in a museum.  I have seen shrunken human heads and Tyrannosaurus teeth, polished suits of armor and a queen’s underpants, but never before have I seen a chunk of road lying in a museum like a framed work of art.

I stare at the little bits of broken stone, forever frozen in the flattened pavement and wonder, how many cars passed over this spot? How many Midwestern thunderstorms rained down into those microscopic holes, how many ’57 Chevys and milk trucks trundled by, how many people’s weight helped settle, then polish, then crack and break this special bit of Route 66?

The display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is big and peppy, with Route 66 scrawled out in red on a billboard-sized map of America. A 1929 Oakland Sedan and 1936 Ford truck are parked beneath a vintage sign for Phillips 66, a gasoline that was first tested along Route 66.

A 1929 Oakland Sedan, one of the first popular family cars to travel Route 66, on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)
A 1929 Oakland Sedan, one of the first popular family cars to travel Route 66, on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

Behind me, a few hundred spring breakers whiz past, uninterested—all except one young boy who stops to gawk before beckoning his mother, “C’mere! It’s Route 66!”

The kid is young, maybe nine or ten years old, but he’s about as thrilled as most kids would be if they were slapping glass at the gorilla house at the zoo. His joy is infectious, so that suddenly, I get excited, too—like I zapped up all that little kid energy with a pair of jumper cables and remembered that tomorrow, I will begin driving down Route 66.

Though my pre-trip checklist remains mostly unchecked, and I have not even begun to pack for the long road ahead, I am pleased to pay homage to the Mother Road here, in our nation’s capital. No other American highway has a place in the Smithsonian, and no other road has little boys jumping up and down with excitement.

A few months ago, when I told my parents that I was planning a trip down Route 66, they staged an intervention in which they poured me a large lemonade, then sat me down in front of their television and forced me to watch Cars. My mom really loves Mater, the anthropomorphic tow truck, while my dad appreciates the filmmakers savvy inclusion of Chuck Berry’s recording of the song, Route 66. I liked how the duration of the film is equal to the amount of time it would take me to drive the first hundred miles of the actual Route 66, from Chicago to Lexington, Illinois. I also liked that the working title of Cars was Route 66—How many highways have their own Disney movie?

Though many minds helped our highway system emerge, the diagonal highway between Chicago and Los Angeles was the vision of Tulsa native Cyrus Avery. The Oklahoma state highway commissioner fought long and hard to see his dream come true, and in 1926, “Route 66” was approved at a meeting in Springfield, Missouri. Interesting fact: the road was meant to be called “Route 60”, but this number had already been assigned in Kentucky, so the federal government offered Avery “62” which lacked any sense of poetry, leaving the road’s founding fathers to request the iconic and alliterative “66”.

Just how is it that Route 66 became more memorable than larger and longer interstate highways, say I-80 or I-75? And how is it that even now, nearly 30 years after the highway was decommissioned and disappeared from most road maps, Route 66 maintains an indelible allure for travelers from all over the world?

Because this is the Mother Road—a road that follows in the footsteps of Native Americans who once followed the buffalo; a road that winds over the wagon ruts of pioneers and breathes the lonely horse trails of cowboys and conquistadors. Route 66 represents the evolution of America from fresh wilderness to a nation of states.

The road represents change and movement, time and exploration, a longing for freedom and the call of America’s wide-open west. Though it lacks any federal recognition as such, Route 66 is America’s history, spelled out in 2,488 miles.

Exactly 75 years ago (today!) John Steinbeck published his novel, The Grapes of Wrath, in which he wrote so wistfully about Route 66 and christened this “The Mother Road.” Which other highway has its own Pulitzer Prize-winning novel?

As stories go, Route 66 has been done to death—already, people ask if I will be stopping in Radiator Springs, when such a place does not actually exist (only places like it). They ask how my trip will be new or different—how will I stand out from the millions who have traveled the iconic Route? Might I consider “doing” Route 66 by Segway, or writing the gluten-free guide to Route 66?

But gimmicks are like spare tires—they only get you so far. What matters to me is that this trip is entirely new—to me. While I have driven considerable sections of Route 66 in the past, I have never traveled its entire unfettered lengths, from beginning to end. Like every great expedition, this road trip will bring plenty of adventure and no lack of stories.

The beauty of road trips, is that no two drives is ever alike, which is why I am asking you to follow along, from start to finish—from Chicago to LA.

We are driving a road that no longer shows up on any present-day maps. In a way, we are traveling back in time, while following the sun westward, to the future. I expect this trip to be fun and educational, and at times, beautiful—and I imagine that somewhere west of Oklahoma City, I will dodge a square-shaped pothole and think of that hunk of asphalt that sits proudly in the Smithsonian, a piece of highway with its very own spotlight.

——————————————————————————–

Post Script

  • Despite popular belief, Route 66 is not a fixed roadway—it’s a flowing river of time and towns and turns that have come and gone and changed. Whenever possible I shall attempt to follow the original route as spelled out, turn by turn, in the guidebooks, maps and websites that I have studied. This will not be possible all the time, as some original sections of the road no longer exist, but whenever I can, I shall stay committed to taking every detour back to the real Route 66.
  • I say Route (rüt) 66, as opposed to Route (raut) 66, though according to most American English dictionaries, both pronunciations are correct. Some linguists suggest that Route (rüt) is more common in the East, whereas one is more likely to hear Route (raut) in the West (I shall be paying close attention to any shifts in the vernacular along the way). For the record, the word route derives from the Old French rut, which comes from the Latin ruptus (to burst), which is the same root for the English word “rupture”.  And I sincerely hope that my etymological curiosity is not, in fact, some type of tire situation foreshadowing.
  • As a matter of personal policy and safety, I never tweet or text while driving. Every text you will see from me was made while the car was stopped and pulled off the road.

Comments

  1. David Morris
    Fort Mitchell, KY
    April 17, 2014, 8:54 am

    My son and I drove the length of Route 66 over a 5 year period (2007-2011), a week at a time (averaging about 100 miles per day, due to all the stops and small side-trips we made). We drove as many of the different historical alignments as are still accessible. My son was 9 when we started those trips, 13 when we finished – great memories over parts of America we would not have seen otherwise. I look forward to following your trip.
    I have a shelf of 25 books about Rt 66 that served as background or on-the-road references. Although I suspect you’ve researched those and many others, I’ll comment on my favorite: For driving, the most helpful was the Route 66 EZ Guide (now in its 3rd edition), which has wonderful hand-drawn maps and notes of the entire length and all the various alignments, as well as specific notes on driving certain tricky sections. It was the perfect size and structure (8.5 x 5.5 pages, plastic spiral-bound) to keep on the dashboard throughout the trip. Written and drawn by Jerry McClanahan of Chandler, OK – he welcomed us into his home when we passed through Chandler.
    Have a wonderful trip.

    • Andrew Evans
      April 17, 2014, 10:19 am

      David! Thanks so much for sharing. How wonderful to be able to one’s time along Route 66. Thanks for your advice, I will try and follow. I have the ROute 66 EZ Guide and have been studying it very carefully. Best wishes to you and your family, Andrew.

  2. Kelly Robertson
    Springfield, MO
    April 17, 2014, 11:08 am

    I’d like to know when you’ll be coming through Springfield, MO. I can offer some suggestions as well as many others here. Also, I work in tv. I found this posted a few days ago about Illinois and figured I’d share it with you.
    “A message from the Shrine.
    Due to poor maintenance by IDOT, it is not recommended that tourists take Historic 66 from Farmersville through Litchfield which includes the location of the Shrine. Many tires have been destroyed as well as rims. The deterioration is a hardship for those of us who live in the area but we’d hate to see your trip ruined.

    We ask that you complain to IDOT as well as sign a petition which is available at the bars and gas stations in Farmersville. We hope that a thorough and complete resurfacing will be done but until then the West Frontage Road/US 66 is dangerous.?

    • Andrew Evans
      April 19, 2014, 6:39 am

      Thanks for the tip! Much appreciated. Not sure when I’ll get to Springfield, MO, but I am looking forward to it! Thanks for reading along.

  3. Suzanne Gray
    Virden, IL
    April 17, 2014, 11:16 am

    Best wishes on your trip! Please stop in Virden, IL and see the monument to miners who participated in the Mine Riots and in Girard, IL to see Doc’s Soda Fountain and enjoy a treat. The people are friendly and you’ll find the many communities along the central Illinois portion of your trip friendly and ready to entertain! Godspeed!

  4. Heather Beach
    Calgary, AB Canada
    April 17, 2014, 11:46 am

    How exciting….as usual I will be following you closely…;-) I remember as a kid following along behind my favorite TV show Route 66 . Loved the people stories behind the scenes….as I’m sure we will hear from you….Can’t wait….
    Isn’t it funny how childhood shows impacted our lives, I just realize we have a local newspaper photographer that travels all over Alberta with his camera and I faithfully follow him also.
    ‘Mike Drew, Sun Media’. I also traveled by myself to the Yukon for 3 months and created a blog of my journeys.. Hadn’t tied the pieces together till right now…..
    Enjoy your travels, explorations, people…..I’ll be waiting..
    Heather….

    • Andrew Evans
      April 19, 2014, 6:40 am

      Thank you Heather. You live in a beautiful province. Keep exploring!

  5. Andy Holder
    Weymouth, England
    April 17, 2014, 12:01 pm

    Good luck on your trip Andrew. Me and my better half, Sara, both drive taxis in England. We decided to travel the Mother Road with Fred, our company mascot, who bear-blogged his adventure. We have just completed the trip and are now back home. Say hi to Gary, Melba, Angel and all the other lovely people you are about to meet along the way. Read freds’ blog at andyandsarasroute66trip.blogspot.com when your lying in your wigwam listening to the trains trundle through Williams, AZ. Good Times.

    • Andrew Evans
      April 19, 2014, 6:40 am

      Thanks so much Andy! Glad you enjoyed our country as much as I enjoyed yours! (I lived in England for 4 years). Best to you and Sara, AE

  6. Stan Barker
    Carlinville, IL
    April 17, 2014, 12:05 pm

    We regularly have international tourists traveling historic Route 66 stop in our town of Carlinville, IL, and we ask them “How do you know about Route 66?” And, most often, whether they’re from France or New Zealand or the United Arab Emirates, they tell us it’s because of the movie “Cars”. Always makes us smile.

    • Andrew Evans
      April 19, 2014, 6:41 am

      Yeah, it’s amazing how much publicity that Disney movie gave the road. But it’s also become an icon in its own right, I think, all over the world. Thanks for reading, Stan, best, AE

  7. Becky's Barn
    Off the Bricks of Route 66 - south of Chatham, IL
    April 17, 2014, 1:09 pm

    We are looking forward to reading about your trip. If you follow the original alignment in IL (Route 4), you won’t have to worry about the pot holes near the Shrine. We have beautiful country side to view, the brick road, numerous shops & even more characters!

    We hope to meet you on this trip; if not, put us down on the “next time” list!

  8. James Craven
    Miami Shores
    April 17, 2014, 1:34 pm

    Safe travels Andrew, will be following your blog/Tweets. Have been on many parts of RT66 but never the full length. Did land an excellent parking spot in Chicago last Sept: https://www.dropbox.com/s/030tbgkd6xvdkk8/RT%2066.jpg

  9. Ryan Brutt
    Chicago, IL
    April 17, 2014, 8:44 pm

    I did this as well, we had a few old maps of what Route 66 used to be, and some new maps and we did as much of the oldest parts as possible.

    I was unfortunately not able to finish. But I got most of the way.

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/hemipwr70/collections/72157635704137594/

    Ryan

  10. Simon Dawson
    St Helens, UK
    April 17, 2014, 10:56 pm

    I have driven almost all of Route 66 over a number of years and, more recently, have been joined by my wife and my 8 year old son. We absolutely love the freedom, nostalgia and friendliness of Route 66. The sights and experiences along the way will live with us for a lifetime and the people we have met have been so passionate about keeping the dream alive.

    Most recently, about a week ago, we brought our friends and their 11 year old son to experience and understand what we have raved about for years. They were captivated by the story of the road and the sights they have now seen from Chicago to Oklahoma City. I will never forget the race I witnessed between the adults and the kids to be the first one to pose with Mater when the car stopped or the excitement at sailing on the Mississippi and riding up the St Louis Arch or the contentment of staying at the Wagon Wheel Motel and eating at Mo Hicks BBQ or visiting the Blue Whale in Catoosa or seeing Sally and the Rock Cafe or just getting off the damn impersonal Interstate and seeing honest people working hard to keep their communities alive. And who can leave out Chicago ? – in my opinion, the belle of the American, and Route 66, ball.

    No serious traveller can miss out on the experience of a US road trip and no serious road trip can miss out on the experience of driving Steinbeck’s Mother Road !

    Enjoy…and spread the magic !

  11. Sandra Reason
    Lomdon
    April 18, 2014, 1:41 am

    My husband and I drove Route 66 a couple of years ago. Unfortunately I fell over in Chicago and was on crutches so he did all the driving. It also meant we changed some of the things we intended to do. We had wanted to visit mermec caves in Missouri but when we arrived found it was too difficult for me but the very kind guide told us about Fantastic caves where they do a jeep tour. The history of those caves was so interesting and but for my accident we would have never have been there. So many interesting places and lovely people we met along the route and a two week tour was just not long enough.

  12. John
    Springfield, Illinois
    April 18, 2014, 5:06 am

    Abe Lincoln’s back yard is a half block off Route 66!

  13. […] the river and beyond, my first mile on the Mother Road was not a movie montage of fluid careless travel. Rather, Chicago brushed past me in stops and […]

  14. Steven Marquez
    Rancho Cucamonga, Ca
    April 18, 2014, 3:06 pm

    I hope on your route as you get closer to L.A., that you stop on Route 66 in the city of Rancho Cucamonga. The Route 66 I.E.C.A. non profit organization is restoring the old” Cucamonga Service Station” on Route 66 (Foothill Blvd.)at the north/west corner of Archibald Ave. and Foothill Blvd. We would love for you to stop by and see what is going on at the station as we try to get her restored by her 100th Anniversary next year. We have a lot of great volunteers working on it, but money is what keeps us from going full force to get her done. Safe travels on Route 66!

  15. Route 66: Steiny’s – Digital Nomad
    April 25, 2014, 11:46 am

    […] grew up on Route 66, spending all his summers working at his father’s “clubhouse” just up the road that is now […]

  16. […] hear these stories more and more, all along the Mother Road—tales of foreign visitors on a pilgrimage into America’s heartland. French, Swiss, Belgian, […]

  17. […] was my third border crossing on the Mother Road, and after rolling less than 200 yards out of Missouri, everything felt hotter and dryer. The sky […]

  18. […] us stands a monument to Cyrus Avery, father and founder of the Mother Road. As commuters tear past, we gaze up at the eight state flags whipping against eight steel flagpoles […]

  19. […] “Show me,” I asked, handing them a piece of paper. “If I could write a story in just one word, that would be magnificent,” I said—Navajo is probably the most ancient language I’ve encountered on the Mother Road. […]

  20. […] the road is still here and I am still on it. After three weeks of driving, I am still traveling the Mother Road to its final end on America’s long western […]

  21. […] alone at the bar, the only customer not wearing sunglasses. Barely fifteen miles remained of the Mother Road, and though the sun was high and I felt the coolness of an ocean that I could not see, the […]

  22. Bruce Bennard
    Johnson City Tennessee
    May 23, 2014, 10:48 am

    All very nice – Will make the trip in probably 2 years (start time not length on road) Since I graduated from high school in ’62 I do have to say it was not a vanilla number for a road – (“American Graffiti” “where were you in ’62?” – it is poetic – just sayin) but no arguement Rt 66 moniker cannot be topped.

  23. Sarah Davis
    Johnson City, TN
    June 23, 2014, 9:56 pm

    I traveled this route when I was a child with my parents. In a few weeks I’ll be adventuring on it again with my daughter and granddaughter who is the same age I was. We will have air-conditioning; when I went our car had no AC. Who knows maybe there will be an article about 3 generations…infinite patience shall be the title.

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