February 26, 2024

The Mother Road, Route 66, is one of the most famous highways in American culture. It originally ran from Chicago, Illinois, through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, before ending at Los Angeles, covering a total of 2,448 miles. It’s brief but storied rise and fall reads like a parable of modern America. Route 66 served as a major path for those who migrated west, especially during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, and it supported the economies of the communities through which the road passed. During World War II, even more migration west occurred because of war-related industries in California. Route 66, by then fully paved, became one of the main routes and also served for moving military equipment. In the 1950s, it became the main highway for vacationers heading to Los Angeles. The road passed through the Painted Desert and near the Grand Canyon. Meteor Crater in Arizona was another popular stop. The sudden uptick in tourism in turn gave rise to a burgeoning trade in all manner of roadside attractions, like teepee-shaped motels, frozen custard stands, Indian curio shops, and reptile farms. It also marked the birth of the fast-food industry: Red’s Giant Hamburg in Springfield, Missouri, site of the first drive-through restaurant, and the first McDonald’s in San Bernardino, California. Changes like these to the landscape cemented the road’s reputation as a near-perfect microcosm of the culture of America, now linked by the automobile. People doing business along the route became prosperous due to the growing popularity of the highway, and those same people later fought (unsuccessfully) to keep the highway alive in the face of the growing threat of being bypassed by Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System. Route 66 underwent many improvements and realignments over its lifetime, but progress eventually won out and it was officially removed from the United States Highway System in 1985 after it had been decided the route was no longer relevant. Portions of the road now recognized as Historic Route 66 have since been designated as National Scenic Byways, including this stretch through Bernalillo, New Mexico. The state has almost 500 miles of Route 66 bisecting it, making me hip to Nat King Cole’s timely tip:  this isn’t the last chance for me to get my kicks on Route 66.

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