On Route 66: Driving the Mother Road

One of the country's first continuous spans of paved highway linking east and west, Route 66 played a significant role in defining 20th-century American culture.

| May/June 1990

It conjures up all kinds of images. Route 66. An artery linking much of the nation. Route 66. An inspiration to literature, music, drama, art and a nation of dreamers. Route 66. A highway fashioned from vision and ingenuity. Route 66. A broken chain of concrete and asphalt. Route 66. It has forever meant "going somewhere."

U.S. Route 66, starting at Grant Park in Chicago, reached across more than 2,400 miles, three time zones and eight states before it dead-ended at Santa Monica Boulevard and Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica. People like to say the highway started at Lake Michigan and ended in the roaring Pacific. It was one of the country's first continuous spans of paved highway linking east and west.

One of the most famous highways in the world, it now exists only in memory. Parts of it were known as the Pontiac Trail, Osage Indian Trail, Wire Road, Postal Highway, Ozark Trail, Grand Canyon Route, National Old Trails Highway, Mormon Trail and the Will Rogers Highway. Steinbeck called it "the mother road, the road of flight." Some, like the Okies, knew it as the "glory road." Because it went through the center of so many towns, it became known as the "Main Street of America." The highway has been a mirror held up to the nation. It put Americans in touch with each other through its necklace of neon, Burma Shave signs, curio shops, motor courts, garages, diners and cafes with big-boned waitresses who served up burgers, blue plate specials and homemade pie.

Route 66 means a time before America became generic—when motels didn't take reservations, when there were genuine barbershops and drugstores, when doctors made house calls. Movie theaters weren't look-alike boxes in a shopping center. There were no diet soft drinks or imported waters. People drank straight from the tap and sipped iced tea brewed by the sun, or guzzled bottles of cold beer or Coca-Cola or grape Nehi. Hitchhiking was safe. Nobody worried about cholesterol. Summers seemed to last longer: There were drive-in movies and miniature golf courses and slow-pitch softball games under the lights.

Route 66 was also a highway of flat tires, overheated radiators and cars with no air-conditioning; tourist traps with few amenities; treacherous curves, narrow lanes, speed traps and detour signs.

The highway that spanned two-thirds of the nation was christened in 1926, when we were between wars and on the wagon. It was the America of Edgar Lee Masters, Sinclair Lewis and Thornton Wilder. Calvin Coolidge was president. People across the country, especially in the Bible Belt, were still mulling over the Scopes trial of the previous year. Aimee Semple McPherson, Admiral Richard Byrd, Gertrude Ederle and the U.S. invasion of Nicaragua were also making headlines.

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