If you ever plan to motor west
Travel my way, take the highway that’s the best.
Get your kicks on Route Sixty-six!
Won’t you get hip to this timely tip:
When you make that California trip
Get your kicks on Route Sixty-six!
– From the song Route 66, by Bobby Troup
Growing up in Tulsa I guess I always knew that old Route 66 passed right through the heart of town, but I never paid much attention to it.And truthfully, it’s an easy thing to overlook. Nowadays pretty much all that’s left are a few wisps of nostalgia still lingering in the air along the road. You have to search very hard to uncover the few bits and pieces of old signs, gas stations, motels and bridges that still remain. Of course I’m way too young to remember The Mother Road as it used to be… but I am fascinated by it’s legend. In particular, I am fascinated by the way that older people speak of it with that romantic, faraway look in their eyes, imagining they are going back to visit some magical world that used to exist in their childhoods. I guess that’s the very definition of nostalgia. Was it really that magical? I certainly couldn’t tell you. But the lore of the Mother Road seems to draw people back to it, and they keep coming back to trace the highway like treasure hunters hoping to uncover something deeply personal and long forgotten.
What made Route 66 so special in it’s day? Completed on November 11, 1926, it was one of the very first federal highways, connecting travelers all the way from Chicago to Los Angeles. Thanks to Henry Ford, the automobile was now widely available to the general public, offering people more freedom to travel long distances without having to buy a train ticket. Fondly called “The Main Street of America,” Route 66 passed through the center of hundreds of towns as it meandered its way from the Windy City to LA. The road itself was the dream and lifetime achievement of Cyrus (Cy) Avery, an entrepreneur from Tulsa. In fact, the reason that Route 66 passes through almost the entire length of Oklahoma is Cy’s doing… he wanted people from all over the country to be able to see and enjoy the state that he loved.
The road did change quite a bit through the years. During the Depression and Dust Bowl of the 1930’s, many Oklahomans, including my grandmother’s family, picked up and moved to California in order to find work. Route 66 was the path of migration for these “Okies,” the new term coined for poor Oklahoma farmers in California during the Depression era, and the inspiration for the John Steinbeck novel “The Grapes of Wrath.” I imagine that memories of the road in those years are complicated and perhaps difficult.In the more prosperous years after WWII, families fired up their engines, packed the kids up in their cars, and set out to see the country and visit loved ones. The Great American Roadtrip was born. Many of the businesses and towns along Route 66 prospered during these years. Many places took advantage of that traffic and developed and promoted the crazy roadside gimmicks and tourist stops that roadies have come to know and love: stucco hotels shaped like tee-pees, giant painted statues, and other beloved kitschy artifacts.
Route 66 began it’s decline in the mid 1950’s and was eventually completely removed from the US highway system in 1984 in favor of much faster (and unbearably boring) interstate highways which now connect all of the major cities along old Route 66 in a much speedier fashion. But you can still find the road. Sure, some of it is gone, some of it has been overgrown, and most of it has been renamed, but you can still find it, as long as you’re patient enough to follow it, take some turns, and go with your gut. There are books out there that tell you where to go exactly to find the remains of the highway, but one of the best books about traveling Route 66 (“The Route 66 Adventure Handbook” by Drew Knowles) basically just tells you which towns are connected and to follow your hunches, take interesting detours, and explore the area. It’s good advice.
In the last few months, for some reason I decided that traveling part of Route 66 was something that I needed to do, before it ceased to exist altogether. Even with the recent restoration efforts, the parts of the highway that are still navigable seem to be fading quickly into weeds and mythology. So when I went back to Tulsa this Thanksgiving to visit family, I jumped in the car with my husband and set out to find the road.
We headed up north of Foyil, Oklahoma and found her. Along the way, we made a couple of detours to see some old highway artifacts and tourist attractions, like the huge painted totem pole in Foyil and the big Blue Whale of Catoosa. On a windy November day, these things seemed like forgotten, hazy shadows of what they used to be. But with a little imagination, you can almost see the kids running and jumping in the pond off of the big blue whale on a summer day in the early 1950’s, as parents talk and share sandwiches under the trees, taking a break from the heat of the road.Nearing Tulsa from the east, Route 66 turns into what is now 11th street, and I admit I’ve never come into the city from that direction. I got to see my hometown from a new angle, maybe a long forgotten view that others used to love. Along the way I started to notice the old signs that have been kept and restored along the road, the funky looking little motor hotels, little diners, and the now deteriorating little filing stations that used to be buzzing with activity helping motorists fuel up and wind down from a long day’s drive. These things used to look like complete junk to me as a kid, but now I understand that they’re just well-loved old memories still hanging around. They’re special little hidden treasures to some people who are curious and patient enough to look for them.
But what I really learned that afternoon was that the real magic surrounding Route 66 is not the road itself, but the journey. Winding through “America’s Main Street” you’re forced to slow down, stop for a cheeseburger and a shake, maybe make new friends, and perhaps decide to spend an afternoon in a spot you’ve never been before.
I think Route 66 reminds us that the best part of life is not about getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible, but that it’s all about the journey in-between.
“Whee. Sal, we gotta go and never stop going till we get there.”
“Where we going, man?”
“I don’t know but we gotta go.”
– From On the Road, by Jack Kerouac
Footnote: If you’re interested in Route 66, I highly recommend the book “Route 66: The Mother Road” by Tulsa author and Route 66 historian Michael Wallis. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Wallis many years ago and enjoyed discussing his love of the Mother Road and Oklahoma history. Wallis has been a key proponent of the restoration efforts of Route 66 in recent years, and his book is a must-have if you’re interested in the subject.