Route 66 – A Journey Then and Now History Essay

Nowadays, more and more Americans, as well as citizens of other countries show interest to their culture and national heritage, hence giving rise to a peculiar kind of niche tourism. Moreover, the USA has always placed a huge importance on its automobile industry and related highway culture, which have acquired an immense symbolical meaning in the country throughout the decades since the moment when cars became an integral part of every household. Thus, Route 66 represents a mixture of the above mentioned two cultural phenomena, which makes this highway a unique and everlasting monument in the American culture. This highway has become a versatile symbol and a powerful tourist attraction after its official closure. Unlike the overwhelming majority of US old infrastructure elements, it has become a part of the US historical and cultural heritage along with other highly valued highways like the Lincoln highway. Furthermore, preservation of Route 66 is not just a matter of nostalgia; it is about valuing heritage as an important tool for education, community building, and sustainable development. Thus, thanks to the collective action and shared preservation and restoration initiatives, Route 66 as a notorious highway of the past and a true icon holds bright future and should be saved for future generations of American and international tourists interested in cultural heritage tourism and traveling along the pathways of the US history.

Brief Overview of Route 66

The above sign is just one of countless widely-spread signs relating to Route 66 and its role in the US popular culture. There is hardly any other highway in the world that has held public’s attention and interest for so long as Route 66. Thanks to the popularization and wide circulation of signs and symbols like the one depicted in Figure 1, Route 66 has remained an extremely popular highway and niche tourism destination although it is not used any longer as an official transportation interstate road intended for heavy traffic and commercial use. Those days when Route 66 was the primary road connecting eight states in the USA ended after its decommissioning in the mid-1980s, but its use as entertainment and tourist destination started at the same time and has lasted till today.

History of Route 66 started in 1926 after the Federal Highway Act was passed in the USA and the Good Roads Movement was launched with the aim of satisfying needs of an ever-increasing community of car owners (Grubisic). As seen in the map on Figure 2, this highway connected Chicago with Los Angeles and ran through 8 states, including Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. This two-lane road, running 2,448 miles, was “once considered an essential artery” (Crapanzano). Initially, the highway was named Route 60, which was then changed to Route 62 (Crapanzano). For some years, representatives of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials could not unilaterally agree on the name for the then-new two-lane road that had to be made attractive for both travelers and tourists and relieve heavy traffic on nearby roads while connecting the two parts of the country. Finally, the road was named Route 66 on April 30, 1926, under the initiative of Cyrus Avery who was often referred to as the “Father of Route 66”, while Springfield was deemed “its birthplace” (Crapanzano).

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As a rule, history of Route 66 may be subdivided into several phases:

  • Thus, in the period of 1927-1934 it was a newly opened road that was the first choice for people travelling through the above listed eight states, yet the road still had many shortcomings like sharp turns and bumpy stretches (Grubisic).
  • The second phase lasted from 1934 to 1940 when the highway was considered as “‘the getaway road’ for hundred thousands of economic refugees from Oklahoma and its neighboring states” running away to California to find new jobs and start their lives anew (Grubisic).
  • The third phase of the history spanned throughout the period of the World War II when Route 66 became a primary location for military bases and transportation of soldiers across the country (Grubisic).
  • The fourth phase started after the end of the war in 1945 when its purpose of “the favorite tourist route” and “primary transport corridor between Chicago and Los Angeles” was restored (Grubisic 110).
  • The fifth phase lasted from 1956 to the 1970s when Route 66 was gradually losing its transportation importance and was replaced with modern interstate highways (Grubisic).
  • The sixth and final phase started after its official decommissioning in 1985 and lasts till nowadays with Route 66 being a true icon in the USA and abroad, as well as a popular niche tourism destination.

In fact, the road lost its value as a transportation infrastructure element in 1984 after the Arizona Department of Transportation opened the bypass around Williams and a special funeral ceremony for Route 66 was held in this town to commemorate the once primary highway of the country (Gulliford). However, the funeral ceremony did not mark the end of Route 66 and its subsequent ultimate destruction as the highway has remained an essential part of the American heritage and plays a peculiar role today both for both local communities and the nation in general, which will be discussed in more detail in the following sections of the paper.

Symbolism of Route 66 – Then and Now

Route 66 is perhaps the most symbolic highway in the world thanks to its heritage and multiple references in various popular media. Thus, this highways has acquired and preserved several nicknames throughout its existence with the best-known being “The Mother Road”, “Will Roger’s Highway”, “The Main Street of America”, and “The Symbolic River of America” (Grubisic 104). Furthermore, it is the only highway that has its own fan clubs, associations, forums, museums, and even a magazine entitled Route 66, all the covers of which are eye-catching and commemorative with respect to symbols representing the highway under analysis. For instance, a cover shown in Figure 3 below emphasizes connection of Route 66 with first family cars, automobiles considered as posh and trendy at the time, trucks, bikes, frequent stops and cafes by the road, old gas stations, countless ads , inns, and motels, which are now turned into symbols and became objects of several preservation initiatives.

Symbolism of the road is tightly interconnected with myths “of ‘wild Indians’, the ‘Wild West’, and the freedom and romance of the ‘open road’ (Gulliford 298). Since the times of its decommissioning, Route 66 has become a symbol of “good old days” of the 1950s with which it is often associated (Gulliford 299). However, this symbol is not an objective representation of the reality, but rather a highly idealized version of the past when “people had time for themselves and each other and our lives were not consumed with ‘stuff’” (Gulliford 300). Route 66 is also regarded as a symbol of freedom and unrestricted movement across the country in search of adventures and new experiences. Such symbolism of the highway is evident from the following popular statements relating to the road:

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You find yourself lumbering along a red-dirt road in a totally cherry ’55 Cadillac and gazing dreamlike, trancelike, out the thick glass windows. Route 66 is way behind you, and the sunset is melting into the car’s huge, glossy hood…. The desert flatness and its cedar and sage give way to dramatic red buttes and cliffs (Gulliford 301).

For the generation of the Great Depression, the road became a symbol of a search for a better life in California. Nonetheless, not all symbols connected with Route 66 are positive since it is also associated with racial segregation for many African Americans who could hardly feel free and welcome along the entire span of the highway in the period from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s. Hence, The Negro Travelers’ Green Book: The Guide to Travel and Vacations, which was the unofficial “Bible of Black Travel” in the middle of the 20th century, claims that 44 out of 89 counties along Route 66 were “sundown towns” (Taylor). It means that they were inhabited predominantly by white communities that did not welcome African American travelers in the daytime. This travel guide contains information on 250 sites along the highway, but over the half of them no longer exist now (Taylor). Some of the remaining ones are sometimes considered to be symbolic representations of the Black artistic culture as they served as unofficial country clubs. For example, the Dunbar, once officially recognized as a hotel and a hair salon, was in fact a country club visited at different times by Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, and Josephine Baker (Taylor). The Dunbar shown in Figure 4 is no longer a hotel, but it is still remembered as a popular attraction site on Route 66.

Withal, Route 66 may be considered as “the icon of pop culture, certain product of the American history of memory and heritage” (Grubisic 104) and a way to symbolize “freedom, the adventures of the open road and the times when life was simpler” (Carden 130). Despite a diversity of symbols associated with Route 66, one fact remains undisputed, in particular, its role of a true American icon mentioned in various movies, songs, and other media.

Route 66 as a True Iconic American Highway

There are several possible explanations and reasons as to why Route 66 has become a true iconic American highway among all other roads of the past that have gone into oblivion after being decommissioned. One of the explanations of its today’s popularity consists in the American culture and consciousness in general. Another explanation is the fact that Route 66 has been commemorated in various popular media, which merely do not let it become a distant past. Moreover, Route 66 is of utmost importance to many communities and economies of small towns along the road, which will deteriorate significantly if the highway is totally forgotten. Finally, nostalgia and historical value constitute another reason why the highway cannot and will not be forgotten both in the US and abroad. The list of these explanations is not exhausted, of course, yet these four seem to be the most influential factors that promote preservation of Route 66 nowadays.

The first explanation implies that Route 66 is an icon because the Americans generally place an immense value on their cars and highways, while the latter are also an inseparable part of the American folklore and popular culture. Thus, Roland Primeau claims that highways seem to be holy objects in the USA, while cars mean “much more than a sheer transport, places that encourage movement, speed and loneliness…going on the road represents a chance for a new start, a time during which they come to understand themselves and their country, driving through the open landscapes” (Primeau 1). The road is therefore seen by the Americans as a place that grants them freedom from social norms, all kinds of obligations, and restrictions (Primeau 69). Such a description fits the perception of Route 66 at the time of its utmost glory and heavy use.

It goes without saying that mass media plays a huge role in people’s lives and does not let them forget about some culturally and historically significant events and items, which also include Route 66. There is no other road in the world that has been paid so much attention to in literature, songs, magazines, movies, and other sorts of media commemorating this highway for decades to come. Route 66 signs are virtually everywhere, including clothes (see Figure 5 below), caps, cups, car stickers, wall paper, etc. The start of such a representation in the popular culture started with a novel named The Grapes of Wrath written by the Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck in 1939, which tells a story of an Oklahoma family moving to the West during the Great Depression in search for a better life. This novel was later filmed by John Ford and may be deemed the first successful incorporation of Route 66 as a symbolic icon into the American culture.

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Hence, Route 66 has moved beyond the scope of an iconic highway to an icon of American popular culture and a symbol that is recognized and used internationally. Such fame of the highway has been also achieved thanks to songs, poems, TV series, and movies mentioning it. The most famous song dedicated to the highway is entitled Get Your Kicks On Route 66 composed by Bobby Troup. It has been sung by many other artists, including Nat Kick Cole and Depeche Mode. This song has become a sort of an easily memorable and hardly ever forgotten hymn of all who travel along Route 66 thanks to its catchy lyrics and beat. The title can be even seen in Amarillo, Texas, on the 5th Street where a part of Route 66 still goes through the town (see Figure 6 below).

Besides the movie The Grapes of Wrath, there are other television series and films mentioning Route 66 or even focusing on the highway as the primary location, including the following: Easy Rider, Thelma & Louise, Bagdad Café, Cars, Little Miss Sunshine, and Route 66 with the latter being a popular CBS TV series (120 episodes) that ran from 1960 to 1964 (Route-66.tv). Furthermore, Route 66 is also deemed an advertising icon due to the abundance of various commercials along the route aimed at attracting travelers’ attention and boosting the economy of local communities.

Niche Tourism and Importance of Preservation

According to various studies, cultural or heritage tourism has recently become a widely-spread international phenomenon, especially in countries where the World War II generation has aged, but has not lost its drive and a thriving desire to learn something new (Johnson). Thus, an increased interest to Route 66 and its so-called renaissance “is not an isolated phenomenon but an integral aspect of Americans rediscovering their vernacular past” (Johnson). In turn, the US past is dominated with various manufacturing and industrial sites, as well as the road infrastructure. That is why, it is obvious that miscellaneous roads and highways, as well as plants and other industrial sites attract tourists.

Besides, scholars suppose that rediscovery of Route 66 may be regarded as a sign of “a growing sophistication of the American public for the total story, not just one localized or isolated aspect of that history” (Johnson). In this respect, Route 66 is a significant evidence of how the transport industry has developed over the years as it is one of the first two-lane highways connecting eight states in the USA. Due to such a unique nature of the highway, it has become a popular heritage tourism destination, hence being a part of niche tourism. Niche tourism with respect to Route 66 is also blooming due to its symbolic significance of the highway that “has come to represent the essence of the American highway culture to countless motorists who traversed its corridor” (Johnson). Besides, the road holds personal value for thousands of Americans whose ancestors moved to a new part of the country via Route 66 in the past and who now want to see how this great move happened by reliving the experience.

Another category of niche tourists attracted to Route 66 consists of motorists and motorcyclists, who use highways for the sake of driving. They do not seek some peculiar museums and do not strive to research legacy of places they visit, but merely like feeling the freedom of movement along beautiful old roads with their own unique stories and memorable views. Some niche tourists embark on the journey along Route 66 in a kind of a quest for romanticized images propagated by the popular culture and countless websites and blogs dedicated to the highway (see Figure 7).

As one of cultural tourists sums up her experience, “Route 66 is an intoxicating drug. There is an allure to it that is unmistakable. You drive it and you look back over your shoulder and, in almost every instance, you want to drive it again” (Grubisic 114). A heritage tourist has posted the following about the journey: “Driving down what’s left of 66 is a bit like visiting Roman ruins. You don’t do it for the views (which are often lacking), aesthetics (mixed bag) or for their contemporary relevance (obviously now obsolete), but for their historic value” (Grubisic 118). Niche tourists may either decide to embark on the journey along the highway on their own or use services of special travel agencies that offer different tours depending on the number of days, preferred stops, set goals, and ultimate destination. In any case, countless websites, associations, fan clubs, and blogs offer versatile lists of must-sees and must-visits along the historic highway. However, unless Route 66 is preserved and conserved through respective initiatives, there will be nothing left for tourists in the nearest future.

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Therefore, preservation of Route 66 becomes increasingly important nowadays. This need has been realized and studied by the government and local communities as well. In September, 1990, the US Congress adopted P.L.202-400 or “Route 66 Study Act of 1990” aimed at assessing its condition and developing possible preservation programs (Johnson). In July, 1995, the National Park Service published “Route 66 Special Resource Study” (Johnson). Nonetheless, the government has remained largely declarative with respect to the preservation of the highway, ordering and publishing assessment and studies, but failing to develop and implement a comprehensive action plan for the entire highway instead focusing on some of its parts. This plan is called “Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program” and it is overseen by the National Park Service (National Park Service US Department of the Interior). World Monuments Fund and American Express have their own preservation programs aimed at saving some historical and monumental sites along Route 66 through collaboration with local communities and individuals (National Park Service US Department of the Interior).

According to President of World Monuments Fund, cultural value of the Mother Road is immense and therefore investments into its preservation campaigns are required. Besides, preservation Route 66 holds a promise of bright economic future for local communities that depend on the continuous existence of this tourist destination. Hence, about 85% of people traveling along the highway visit various historic places and spend about $38 million annually in local communities living nearby (National Park Service US Department of the Interior). Preservation programs draw about $94 million of investments per year, which means employment and well-being of the locals (National Park Service US Department of the Interior). Hence, Route 66 preservation and revitalization brings about 2,500 jobs, annual income of $90 million, $127 million in GDP, and $37 million in taxes (National Park Service US Department of the Interior). Furthermore, these preservation campaigns bring life to small towns along the highway and foster development in communities that live far from new interstate highways and would be threatened with gradual decay and extinction without Route 66.

Conclusion

Based on the above discussion of Route 66, it is evident that it has played an extremely significant role in the USA since the very beginning of its functioning. At some point during the period of its functioning, it has acquired an immense symbolic value that has persisted till today and has enhanced development of niche tourism in the region after decommissioning of the highway. Importance of preservation of Route 66 is dictated not only by nostalgia, but rather its value as a national cultural heritage and an essential element of the economy and sustainable development of local communities residing along the historic road. Withal, the highway may be deemed a true icon and the great American highway that still holds a bright future thanks to various preservation and revitalization programs.