Coast to coast: the true story of Route 66

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When we’re talking about Route 66, everybody knows what we are referring at: this is actually one of the most famous roads connecting the East Coast to the West Coast of the United States. Nowadays it’s a special place for many riders who travel there just to taste freedom on their motorbikes, to feel the wind on their skin, to breath that particular rebel atmosphere… But what do we know about its history? What should we think about when standing on its asphalt? Let’s have a closer look at the legendary Route 66!

First of all, it was established on 11 November, 1926 and the original plan ran from Chicago (Illinois), through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona to arrive in Santa Monica (California), covering a total of 2,448 miles (3,940 km).

Photo credit: Thomas Hawk on VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC

In the same year a numerical designation was assigned to the Chicago-to-Los Angeles route: it was the number 66. That was the very first part of the ambitious project for the construction of a national highway system. Later, in 1927, US 66 was signed into law as one of the original U.S. Highways -although it was not completely paved until 1938.

The number 66 was settled by an highway engineer named John Page, who thought that the number could be easy to remember for travelers, as well as pleasant to say and hear. During the following years the highway became very crowded and traffic on it grew: as you know the road was -and still is- essentially flat and this contributed to make it a popular truck route. Especially during the Dust Bowl -a period of severe dust storms that greatly damaged cultures and fields in ’30s-, Route 66 was used by many farming families, mainly coming from states as Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, and Texas, which were heading west looking for agricultural jobs in California. As the route was passing through many small towns and villages, it was easy for them to create businesses based on service stations, restaurants and cafes or motor courts. In 1940, the first freeway in Los Angeles was incorporated into US 66 and then during ’50s it became the main road for vacationers trying to reach West Coast.

Photo credit: Wayne Stadler Photography on Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Sadly, in the following years, many changes and both the signing of the Interstate Highway Act and the the opening of the Turner Turnpike between Tulsa and Oklahoma City caused the gradual decline of this road: actually, the new 88-mile (142 km) road paralleled US 66 for its entire length and bypassed all the small towns, that began to suffer the abandonment of the highway and most of them lost their businesses.

But don’t worry, because there’s a good news too: in more recent years -I’m talking about ’80s and ’90s- the first Route 66 Associations were founded in Arizona (1987) and Missouri (1989) and later other groups from many other states soon followed, in order to preserve the memory of the road and to make it rise again. In 1990, the state of Missouri recognized the US 66 as a “State Historic Route” and since then various sections of the road itself were signed on the National Register of Historic Places too. The route gradually became a new place of interest for tourists and travelers. Recently the National Park Service has also developed a Route 66 Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary, which describes over one hundred individual historic sites!

In popular culture Route 66 has been honored several times in songs ((Get Your Kicks on) Route 66), TV shows (Route 66 in the 60s) and movies, for example in Easy Rider by Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Terry Southern (1969), Thelma & Louise by Ridley Scott (1991), Little Miss Sunshine by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (2006, and many others. It has also been a fixture in Pixar’s 2006 animated film Cars, when the creative director John Lasseter found his inspiration during a family trip along it.

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Beatrice Giovine writes stories about music and places on Auralcrave and The Travel Shot. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

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