ROUTE. 66 was one of our favorite roadways when it was lkstill only a nameless orphan. We were there when it was christened and named. It helped open up a big slice of America for us. For half a century it carried us where we wanted to go and in some instances led us toward other roadways that took us where we never dreamed of going. It helped us explore our land.
We shed tears when the “66” signs came down and this great Artery of America was splintered, cut in pieces, partially abandoned, and given up for dead. But now, in the 1990s, we are witnessing a re-birth. Glory Halleluah! There is life in the old girl yet.
In 1922-23, my brother and I, making a 13-month hike to the then 48 states, naturally followed along large segments of this roadway that was destined to become known as Route 66, the Main Street of America.
In 1925, my parents, my brother, and I made a 23,000-mile auto trip all over the West; again, the roads that would become Route 66 came in handy; often they were indespensible.
Previous to all this, there had been a few American roads with names—but not numbers. In 1922, I had hiked with my brother on the Lincoln Highway. Even if it was just a dirt road—or often mud, or gumbo, or in rare cases gravel—nearly all the way it was an important American artery, stretching from sea to shining sea. There were others–the Jefferson Highway, Dixie Highway, El Camino Real.
The 1930s saw highway construction and planning take giant leaps forward. It was a bit sad to see some of those great names consigned to the history books, but a coherent overall national plan was evolving, with names giving way to numbers. Roads running east and west—or roughly so—received even numbers. North and south routes got odd number designations.
Under the new “name by numbers” system, the Main Street of America became Route 66, connecting the shores of the Pacific, west of Los Angeles, to the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago.
It not only became our nation’s Main Street; it was her heartbeat; almost her soul. It has seen romance and tragedy. Receiving her name in America’s depression years, it became soaked with the tears of depression victims. The Oakies followed it hopefully as they migrated along it from Oklahoma to Southern California; some of them never made it; some of them, filled with despair, retraced the route back to Oklahoma. Along Route 66, especially in those depression years, we have seen gas stations hopefully started at isolated crossroads and then hopelessly abandoned. We have come upon roadside cafes and curio shops similarly created and forsaken. We saw mine shafts sunk where no pay dirt ever materialized; rock “dream houses” started then sadly deserted before the dreams came true.
In the 62 years of our marriage—and individually before we were married—Helen and I have followed all or parts of 66— before it was named, during its heyday, and after its name was taken away—probably many hundreds of times. Often, with pad and pencil on the alert, we would jot down notes inspired by what we saw. Here are some of those jottings:
The mournful wind howls like the prairie wolves, while frightened tumbleweeds leap and scatter like jackrabbits bent on escape.
Mud-caked adobe houses dot the landscape, with rickety TV aerials tilting above them, plucking old “I Love Lucy” shows from the skies.
Glass insulators nestle on the crossarms of telephone poles like resting birds. The telephone wires sing and whistle like birds in flight.
We pass brightly colored trucks, the red and white corpusles of America’s life-blood, carrying sustenance to all parts of the nation’s body—McDonald’s trucks, with hamburgers and pancake mix, Safeway trucks for the supermarket shelves, milk trucks for the dairies, lumber trucks for subdivision sprawl, new cars riding piggy-back on huge box cars of the highway.
Roads in the old days passed through the towns, and people were welcomed and cheered by the hospitality of the West. Now the freeways nonchalantly by-pass cities and villages, and tourists pass by without a thought of those living and working in the towns along the way.
Slow trucks, worming their way like caterpillars, with long tails of impatient cars stretching out behind them.
Rocks and sand and greasewood, all along the way. Desert scents and sounds and scenery; they really make my day.
Cactus arms extended, reaching up to heaven; Their attitude of worship is God inspired leaven.
It may not have been Horace Greeley who first said “Go West, young man,” but whoever it was helped to bring whole new worlds to birth. Symbolically, those could possibly have been the most important four words in America’s early history.
Grain elevators stand tall and white, like lighthouses, washed by the waving seas of Midwest wheat.
A string of red chili peppers transforms a humble adobe into a beautiful Spanish lady hiding behind her mantilla.
Thanksgiving by Telephone. The copper wires gleam and shimmer from their poles along the highway, in ecstacy at the messages they carry of love and thankful greetings.
The rivers are filled with molten gold, the kind of gold Coronado did not find—cottonwood and willow trees putting on their autumn finery.
Sign on a Midwest drive-in: “Closed for the season. Reason—freezin’.”
The chapter in Route 66’s life story that floods Helen and my memories more than any other concerns an event in mid-August of 1945. We were camped out in a completely isolated area on the Grand Canyon’s north rim, miles from any habitation, filming sequences for a travel motion picture. Having overworked on the filming project that day, I was spending a restless night. Going to our car, I switched on the radio, hoping the aerial might snare some music which would lull me to sleep. Instead, I snared a news bulletin that shook the globe. World War II had ended.
I called frantically to Helen. “Come quick; listen. The war is over; Japan has surrendered.”
The news came to us in one of America’s most remote spots. We were completely, unutterably alone. But at that moment the whole world seemed very close—and dear. Peace! We said some prayers of thanks that early morning.
I never slept at all, and never took my ear from the radio. Toward dawn another flash.
For years we’d had almost no gas. Our professional film work had suffered considerably. We needed other scenes of the Southwest to complete our film story.
Strange—yet really perhaps not so strange, after all—that this second news flash should be the first vital one following the surrender bulletin. Shaking Helen awake, I relayed to her the radio news flash: “Gas rationing is ended.”
It chagrined me that there were still a few unused gas coupons in our ration book. But without need of them we drove 75 miles to the nearest gas station and started out on the strangest week of touring we had ever had.
It was night of the next day when we reached Flagstaff. No room at the Inn. Or at the tourist camps either. Holbrook the same. And Winslow. And Gallup, New Mexico.
Highway 66, as we traveled by night, was almost one continuous makeshift camping spot and row of campfires. Tens of thousands of gas-hungry and vacation-starved citizens of California and Arizona were celebrating America’s victory by taking to the road. A highway that for years had seen only a handful of cars a day—no tourists whatsoever—suddenly became a thoroughfare of commerce. A thousand campfires of an army bivouacked in war might have produced a sight such as we saw between Flagstaff and Albuquerque. But these were campfires of peace. Americans seeking release from the emotional strain of war. A Niagara of travelers flooding Highway 66. A thousand campfires, creating a strange path of light across western America. Someone flying above in an airplane might have thought that the desert was on fire.
For a solid week we were never able to find lodging in a hotel, motel, or regular campground. The banks of impromptu night campfires lining the highway—America’s “Main Street”—was one of the strangest sights, in its way, that we had ever seen.
Route 66 has weathered depressions, wars, and the stirrings of peace. Good times and bad times have been woven into its story. It has given our nation a vibrant slice of American lore and history, congealed in dirt and mud and concrete.
We pray that what remains of it may be preserved; no matter what, it shall always be part of the memories and fabric of America.