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Route 66 News

“Cultural Heritage Tourism: Why People Travel Route 66”

Nick Gerlich closer

A marketing professor revealed a little-known word — anemoia — he’d discovered only in the past year that probably explains why many people explore Route 66.

Nick Gerlich, a professor at West Texas A&M and an avid explorer of old Route 66, explained during his presentation Oct. 31 at the Miles of Possibility Conference in Edwardsville, Illinois, that anemoia — a wish to return to a past era that one hasn’t experienced — is different from nostalgia, a wish to return to something that one has experienced.

Gerlich also showed this video — uploaded less than a year ago by The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows — that delves into the anemoia phenomenon:

The distinction is important, because people long have thought nostalgia by aging baby boomers is a prime driver of interest in Route 66. But anemoia shows the appeal of Route 66’s historic sites is more broad and underlines the importance of heritage tourism. Indeed, some of Route 66’s historic sites predate the birth of its tourists by decades.

“We want to see the past before we ever came into it,” Gerlich said.

Gerlich augmented his position with a recent online poll he conducted of 155 aficionados of Route 66. Gerlich acknowledged it wasn’t a purely scientific poll, but it provided useful data.

Among the findings:

  • Many of the respondents had no strong longing for their childhood.
  • Many agreed with these statements: “I’m concerned with past times, even though I didn’t experience them.”
  • Many said they were emotionally connected to Route 66 and strongly identified with it.
  • A yearning to relive the past ranked low among many respondents.

Gerlich acknowledged he loved exploring old and obscure alignments of Route 66 because it inflames his imagination of what happened before.

“When I see an old culvert, I see the movement of people,” he explained.

Nick Gerlich, big screen

Gerlich said one of the most intriguing areas he’s explored is around Prewitt, New Mexico. There, a large concrete navigation arrow embedded in the ground guided air-mail planes during the 1920s. Nearby is the railroad tracks and Interstate 40. Also nearby is the oldest Route 66 alignment that was part of the National Old Trails Highway and a more-modern version of Route 66. Gerlich said these are within 200 yards of each other, and the site is a great example of multiple aspects of transportation.

Other results from the poll:

  • Most buy a lot of Route 66-related products — maps, books, souvenirs.
  • Most travel Route 66 by car, with motorcycle a distant second.
  • Most spend between $1,000 and $2,000 during their trips on Route 66.
  • Motels and hotels are the preferred mode of overnight lodging.
  • The top general interests of Route 66 are history, nostalgia and photography, in that order.
  • Only 53 percent of respondents have traveled the entire length of Route 66.
  • California and Illinois are the least-traveled Route 66 states, although the gap is only a few percentage points.
  • Route 66 was the primary reason for traveling it.
  • Respondents rank historic sites and monuments as the most important thing on Route 66.
  • Average age of the respondents was 55.
  • A majority have a college degree.
  • One in three respondents earn more than $100,000 a year.

(More stories from the Miles of Possibility Conference will be posted in the coming days.)

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One thought on ““Cultural Heritage Tourism: Why People Travel Route 66”

  1. CuriousTraveler66 (@CuriousTravel66)

    So: “California and Illinois are the least-traveled Route 66 states, although the gap is only a few percentage points.”
    I think this is explained by the fact that tourists mistakenly assume there is less of historical value to see in those states, especially in Chicago and L.A. — and those cities do NOTHING to disabuse them of that silly notion. And yet, if not for Chicago and L.A., there would *be* no Route 66. That sweeping arc was created for commerce, not for leisure travelers, even though travelers profited from it significantly (well, once it was finished, anyway). Meanwhile, the smaller towns do their damndest to steal tourists from Chicago and L.A., not realizing that if they all worked together *with* the two cities at either end, everyone located on the route would benefit far more than they do now.

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