I’m closely following National Geographic writer Andrew Evans’ trip on Route 66. If you aren’t following his Twitter account and his real-time posts from the Mother Road, you should. By my reckoning, he’s fired off more than 200 tweets — most of them with photographs — and he hasn’t even made to the midpoint of his journey.
During a recent post on his Digital Nomad blog while driving across Missouri, he met people who remembered all too well why Route 66 also was called “Bloody 66.” One of his musings — that “Route 66 represents America’s adolescence, a time of exploring and trying new things and forming our personalities” — shows why the magazine keeps him on its payroll.
But what struck me most was this observation:
It’s an odd time on Route 66 — we live in a time when some folks are marking history with new signs, while others are still busy tearing down the originals. As I move across this bit of Missouri, I feel the push and pull of past versus present. The urge to memorialize the best of Route 66 conflicts with the need to live in the present.
A few Route 66 purists may complain about new elements mixing with the old. Even this website feels the tug of memorializing the road’s past, while feeling a keen obligation to report on the many things that are happening on Route 66 now.
But this tension between past and present shows the old highway probably is as healthy as it’s been since it was decommissioned during the 1980s. Yes, an occasional landmark is lost. But, in recent years, a great deal many were saved or revived. And new businesses — such as Fanning 66 Outpost in Missouri, Pops in Oklahoma and 66-to-Cali in California — have popped up.
When I started traveling Route 66 about 15 years ago, its future was much more clouded. Route 66 saw a resurgence with the publication of the best-selling “Route 66: The Mother Road” by Michael Wallis during the early 1990s, but few seemed certain whether the uptick was sustainable.
Ironically, one of the saviors of this antiquated road was the rise of the Internet. During the early days of the World Wide Web, a Google search of “Route 66” produced fewer than 500,000 pages. Now it’s more than 75 million. The Net allowed people all over the globe to show and trade their photos, videos, stories, music and culture from the Main Street of America.
And I haven’t even delved into the significant impact of the 2006 Disney-Pixar hit movie “Cars” and the popular “Billy Connolly’s Route 66” miniseries on British television in 2011.
Route 66’s enduring fascination brings to mind what Route 66 historian Jim Ross said a few years ago:
“I keep waiting for this whole craze to hit a plateau, level off and reach a point where people are sick of hearing the phrase ‘Route 66.’ But it’s not happening. I now believe it’s not going to happen. I believe people today look at Route 66 or regard Route 66 as they would a national park or national monument. It’s become so ingrained in our lexicon. People (say) ‘Someday I want to go to Yellowstone’ or ‘Someday I want to do Disney World.” It’s like that with Route 66 now. I think it’s here to stay.”
This notion that Route 66 will last — and how it will evolve in the 21st century it plods toward its centennial — are what motivates me each day to see what’s happening. Challenges for the preservation of the highway and its landmarks will remain. But I’ve operated Route 66 News for almost nine years, and I feel as good about the Mother Road’s future as I ever have.
(Image of sunset on Route 66 near Cardin, Okla., by Chuck Coker via Flickr)