Why Route 66 became America’s most famous road
Why does Route 66 matter? “Hi. My name is Jean and I’m from France. And last year I went on a trip in the West
Coast, and we passed by Route 66.” “Our trip was from LA to Chicago all the way, taking the mother road, haha.”
“We would stop at all the museums on the way, we stopped at the one in Elk City, Oklahoma
and we stood on top of the train.” “I’m Fabian from Germany. Last year, I
was visiting my family in California. While driving on Route 66, I had to stop to take photos of the beautiful sunset.” “The plan of the trip is to have no plan
at all.” “My husband and I went back and even visited
Route 66 and Williams for our honeymoon.” “Hey.” Why is Route 66 not only famous, but internationally famous?
“Starting off Route 66.” The road starts in Chicago, slides down
the country, and ends up all the way in Santa Monica. Convert that distance to time and you get a different story.
In 1926, the road was commissioned. By 1957, the Interstate Highway System began,
and it bypassed the route by 1970. In 1985, Route 66 was fully decommissioned.
Route 66 has been in the shadows twice as long as it was in the spotlight.
But there’s still this energy around it. I talked to Ron Warnick, he’s the editor
of Route 66 News, which is an obsessive Route 66 site, and his articles just came alive
with people reminiscing about Route 66. “It was about Oklahoma Joes. It was this
dive bar in Albuquerque near the University of New Mexico campus. I put it out there,
and pretty soon, all sorts of people were exchanging their memories about the bar.” This road has three distinct eras. It’s got secrets, and surprises, and even a future. The Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo has a challenge: eat 72 ounces of steak and sides,
in under an hour, and you get it for free. I am going to switch to phone mode here. Alright.
Before you get to a cardiac arrest-threatening challenge like this, you actually have to go back more
than a hundred years. Before Federal highways, networks of largely
privately owned auto trails, like the ones on this 1920 Rand McNally map, were standard.
Look at the chaotic number of options in the legend.
As Federal highway funding laws were passed in the 1910s and 1920s, new maps planned a
linked highway system, like this one drafted by World War I General John Pershing.
This telegram from April 30, 1926, from Springfield, Missouri established Route 66 (they initially
wanted the nice round number of Route 60, but settled for 66).
Cyrus Avery is called the “father of Route 66” for helping create the highway to promote
his home of Tulsa and creating the U.S. Highway 66 Association the next year.
That connection from Chicago to Santa Monica was always a weird shape, and less intuitive
than a transcontinental road. But it had lobbying interest behind it and a good starting point
with existing roads. Texaco rated road conditions in maps like
this 1934 one. As the legend shows, Route 66 was just a graded road in parts, basically
flattened dirt. Look at the journey from Amarillo to Glenrio. There’s still parts of Route
66 that look like this today. But they finished paving the whole thing in 1937.
To get all that work started in the 1920s, the Route 66 association pushed stunts
and did publicity that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in the 1950s and 60s.
When a transcontinental footrace called the “Bunion Derby” was run, the association
made sure a big part of it took place on Route 66. But it was struggle that initially made Route 66’s reputation. “We’re going to California, ain’t we? Alright then, let’s go to California.” The Great Depression and Dust Bowl — a rut of drought and erosion — sent families looking
West for a better life. Route 66 was perfectly designed to scoop them
up, leading John Steinbeck to write that these migrants “come into 66 from the tributary
side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road,
the road of flight.” Though records show that highways 60 and 70
actually admitted more traffic to California, Route 66 had become the iconic “mother road.”
And then things really got going. Okay, I have a slight wait before I dine alone,
so there’s time for activities. That thing’s terrifying. “Oh, it is.” This boot’s a metaphor for steak — and boots. It’s time. I feel like the only way
to go mega-vi is to get that 72 ounce steak. OK, see that big 66 on there?
Amarillo, Texas, is a good example of a big Route 66 town.
They were already a transportation center. This 1926 map — the year Route 66 started
— shows Amarillo was a railroad hub. After World War II ended, that existing commerce
and Route 66 made it easy to add roadside attractions.
And it’s still that way today. Over time, Route 66 did this for towns a lot
smaller than Amarillo, too. This is the middle of the video, by the way.
Right now. Yeah. It also did it for Vega, Texas. Carolyn was nice enough to be my tour guide. She showed me her house. “This is Ben’s dad. And grandpa and me.” “Oh wow.” She’s very into dinosaurs. “Armorage and spikes. And teeth.” “And so where did you find these?” “Out North of Town.”
And she also showed me the Magnolia Gas Station, which got started just before Route 66 became
official. She actually helped restore the space, including the second floor, where people
used to live. “OK.”
“It’s a filling station, but somebody said at one time they also sold ice. I’m
not too sure about that part.” “The kitchen was green. The bedroom was
blue. See, I hung pans up there so you’d know it was the kitchen.” “Those pictures are neat because they show the horses pulling the cars out of the water.” To support all that travel and all those attractions, Route 66 had a unique motel culture.
Of course, even as it succeeded, Route 66 was limited by the prevailing prejudices of
the time. The Green Book was a traveling guide for black
motorists to find safe lodging. In Tucumcari, New Mexico, in 1960, listed options
were scarce. Route 66 made a culture, but it didn’t change
the existing one. And in the 1960s, just as the Route 66 road
trip hit its peak, the road was already being eclipsed. Today, Glenrio, New Mexico is a ghost town. It’s not alone. After the Interstate Highway Act of 1956, new, better funded interstates were built
for defense and infrastructure. In Texas and New Mexico, you can see how I-40
followed Route 66 in some spots, but also split away.
This is what that can look like. But it doesn’t have to. “We had the privilege of designing and creating two murals, one here in Joplin, Missouri, and
another in Galena, Kansas.” “We wanted to help revitalize and show off
our local area on historic Route 66.” “Route 66.” “I’m the president of the Oklahoma Statewide Route 66 association and I’m the chair of
the Tulsa Route 66 commission. About ten years ago, I sold everything I owned and left the
country and I backpacked for ten months throughout Southeast Asia and Europe. When I got home
to Tulsa, which is where I was raised, I thought Okay, I’ve seen all these amazing places,
what does Tulsa have? Of course, Route 66 goes right through Tulsa. I thought, well,
it’s been here the whole time, I haven’t really paid attention, and started exploring
it.” “I’m Larry Smith and I’m owner/operator
of the Motel Safari in Tucumcari, New Mexico, on historic Route 66.”
“Yeah, this is the motel I’m staying at.” “I’d hit a wall with my job at the time
and I noticed while I was driving 66 that the road was using a lot of that older generation.
It really needed the right people to own the businesses along the Route.” But saving Route 66 doesn’t answer the big question: why it matters. So I did not eat a 72-ounce steak. But I found somebody who did.
“This is the most excited I’ve been for an interview since I talked to an astronaut.”
“The story behind it is that I compete in track and field professionally, I throw the
shot. I was kind of injured at the time and I performed really terribly and we were gonna
drive through Amarillo. I heard about the steak, so I’m like, ‘I have to have one
win.’ And honestly, it’s not the fullness, it’s the chewing. By the end I was like,
I can’t chew anything else and I was drinking as much water as possible to get it down.
I’m glad I did it but I don’t know if I’d ever do that again. I mean, I do a lot
of ridiculous things. Hey, didn’t do well at this track meet? I’m gonna eat a 72-ounce
steak to prove to myself I can overcome something.” The Big Texan Ranch isn’t on Route 66 anymore.
The owner moved it closer to I-40 in 1970. And yet it still is Route 66.
We think of places on a map as dots. But maybe a place can be a line. “There was desert as far as the eye can see.”
“I was getting to the point where I needed a break from seeing patients in and out. So
I called up my friend from med school and said, ‘hey we have this window, would you
be interested in a road trip?’” “Route 66 kinda became a character in our
journey. It was kinda like the Oregon Trail with all the challenges popping up, and the
prize at the end was our new home at the end of the highway.”
“I had a flat tire. So I took my camera out and took some long exposure shots of
my car and the night sky.” “So the graduation gift to my three boys
as they exit high school is a 14-day driving trip out West — St. George, Utah
— to meet my biological family.” “My great great grandfather, Ramon Negrette,
emigrated from Mexico to a tiny town in Arizona called Williams in the early 1900s, before Route
66 was there. He painted the house yellow and it is still there today, the yellow house
in Williams. We think my great grandma still haunts the house? What I love about Route 66 is that
it’s not just a road that’s going through tiny towns and big towns in America. It’s
a road that goes through people’s histories and carries legacies of perseverance and hope,
and I think that’s what makes it so fascinating and so beautiful.” Alright, that’s it for this road trip along
Route 66. I’m about to read a couple of comments from the last episode all about why
every suburb looks the same, but first I just want to give a little plug for the Vox Video
Lab. In there right now I’ve got a special video that shows exactly how I did one shot
in the Route 66 video that you just saw. It’s an obsessive, nerdy, technical breakdown and
that’s the kind of behind-the-scenes stuff that you always get in the Video Lab, in addition
to supporting big videos like this one. Now let’s look at a couple of comments.
“As a European, it’s so weird to see streets without a pavement/sidewalk. Where tf are
you supposed to walk?” Yeah.
City Beautiful and Vox both made a video on this in the same day.
Yes. This is the craziest coincidence I’ve experienced in almost 100 videos. We turned
out to be video soulmates and we made this video very very close apart even though both
of us had been working on it for months. But the take home point here, besides a crazy
coincidence or glitch in the Matrix? City Beautiful’s an awesome channel if you’re
interested in urban planning. Go ahead and add them to your subscription feed if you
want more videos like that. That’s it for this one, the next episode of this Road Trip
edition of Almanac is the last one, and it tackles how roads can shape public policy
in really unexpected ways.