The end … and the beginning

Today, 25 years ago, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials officially decertified U.S. 66 as a federal highway. In essence, U.S. 66 ceased to exist.

Although few would have thought so at the time, decertification became a good thing for the Mother Road in the long run. It’s a counterintuitive thought, but I’ll explain.

Much of Route 66 already had been supplanted by the interstates well before 1985. Had U.S. 66 continued to exist to the present day, it would have been piggybacked onto I-55, I-44, I-40, I-15 and I-5, and the old alignments would have been mostly forgotten. This occurred with many other major U.S. highways as well.

Instead, the decertification of U.S. 66 gave the old highway a huge amount of mystique. Sure, Route 66 garnered plenty of publicity over the years with Bobby Troup’s oft-covered song, the celebrated novel and Oscar-winning film “The Grapes of Wrath,” and the acclaimed 1960s television drama.

But when its decertification was reported by TV stations, radio and newspapers across the globe, it made countless people think: “I wonder what’s left of Route 66?” And so thousands upon thousands of road trips were born.

Many trace the renaissance of Route 66 to the 1992 publication of Michael Wallis’ best-selling book, “Route 66: The Mother Road.” And it’s true that volume sparked a huge amount of new interest in the highway, and continues to this day.

But the seeds of Route 66’s revival had been planted years before. Arizona, Missouri and Illinois formed their own Route 66 associations during the late 1980s, and other states followed. People such as Jerry McClanahan and Jeff Meyer were exploring the old road during the 1980s. Susan Croce Kelly, Tom Teague and Tom Snyder’s books predated Wallis’. So something clearly was percolating.

As it continued to gain in myth and stature, the old road also received a boost from a new medium during the 1990s — the Internet. Swa Frantzen’s site was Route 66’s first to take root in cyberspace, and the members of the Route 66 e-group (now on Yahoo!) played a key role in a number of efforts, including lobbying Congress to pass the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program. And the Mother Road continues to thrive on blogs, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

And we haven’t even factored in the impact of Disney/Pixar’s 2006 movie, “Cars.”

With AASHTO’s act a quarter-century ago, many thought the memory of U.S. 66 would fade and be forgotten. In fact, the opposite has occurred. I remember what Route 66 historian Jim Ross said in a documentary:

“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.”

While reading Kip Welborn’s new book “Things to Look Out for on Route 66 in St. Louis” (review is forthcoming), I noted that St. Louis also plays host to U.S. 61 (Blues Highway), U.S. 67 (Ozark Highway), U.S. 50 (Loneliest Road) and U.S. 40 (National Road). Yet none of these major and historic highways has the cachet of the decertified Route 66. Indeed, proponents of the Lincoln Highway, National Road and other historic roads look on Route 66 with a bit of envy.

Occasionally, someone suggests that Route 66 be recertified. But that idea invariably is shot down by the Route 66 associations and the program managers with the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program. It’s mostly for practical reasons, namely because many historic buildings and structures would be endangered by the road having to meet modern standards. But, unofficially, a loss of that mystique also has to be considered a reason.

To be sure, Route 66 continues to face challenges. Historic buildings and bridges fall under continual threats of redevelopment, natural hazards, neglect and sheer old age. But it’s encouraging to see new Route 66 businesses, such as POPS in Arcadia, Okla., and Gay Parita near Halltown, Mo., provide new traditions and quirkiness to the old road. And it’s young business owners such as Dawn Welch at the Rock Cafe in Stroud, Okla., and Dan Rice of 66 to Cali on the Santa Monica Pier that provide me optimism that Route 66 will continue to enthrall travelers for years to come.

It’s an old road … but it’s always finding new kicks.

UPDATE: Chris Epting at AOL News filed a story that echoes a lot of what I said.

3 thoughts on “The end … and the beginning

  1. My interest in Route 66 was first sparked by listening to Manhattan Transfer’s version of “Route 66.” I was excited to hear Oklahoma mentioned in it.
    However, it wasn’t until the last 10 years or so that I really began driving it. I drove between Oklahoma City and Tulsa in the ’86 Ford F250 that I owned then. I loved every minute of it.
    The rest is my history.

  2. Great write-up! As Seneca said, “Every new beginning comes with some other beginning’s end.” That is certainly the case for Route 66!

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