Route 66 in the Mojave Desert

Going Down the Road

Staff Writer

For years, every time I drove by a sign for “Historic Route 66,” I’d ask myself, “Why do people care?” and “Why so many people?” and “Why so keenly?”
I think I know the answer.

Winding from Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive to the Santa Monica Pier, Route 66 implies:

  1. a way out (historically, an escape west from the East of our parents and our own first mistakes),
  2. a way home (there’s a lane going in each direction) and
  3. the fact that we cannot drive forever. Like it or not, we all must confront the infinite — be it the Pacific Ocean or Lake Michigan.

In short, Route 66 has more to do with time than space, and more to do with aging than with “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Chick Kirk, a volunteer with the California Route 66 Museum in Victorville, cited a fourth reason for the highway’s appeal, especially to foreigners:

“It symbolizes the American Way of Life.

“A nice young man from France told me that travel bureaus all over Europe have posters celebrating Route 66 as the authentic America — the U.S. equivalent of cobbled stones as opposed to the autobahn.”

Since the museum opened Oct. 25, 1995, visitors from 42 foreign countries have signed the guest book. Zimbabwe, Bulgaria, Pakistan, Zaire — all are represented. But most foreign pilgrims come from Japan or Western Europe.

“Three weeks ago,” Kirk said, “a Japanese man bought $500 worth of Route 66 mementos in our gift shop. When I asked him why, he said he’s building a gas station/soda fountain in Tokyo. Its theme: the American Way of Life.”

Museum volunteer Francy Williams recalled two men from the Netherlands who had biked all the way from Chicago to Victorville, “without a flat tire.”

According to Betty Halbe, a third volunteer, “Germans bring their cars over here, drive Route 66 and then ship their cars back home.”

For homegrown Americans, the attraction is just as fervent and a tad more understandable: memories of promises made in a Plymouth’s back seat; regret for an era when nothing but guts and gas money stood between us and a brighter future.

The museum guestbook is thick with remarks like “Came through in 1941. Gas was 17 cents a gallon. What memories!” and “Great nostalgia. Came from Chicago in 1956. Even got a ticket.”

Two weeks ago, Ruth Nealy of Greeley, Colo., said she and her husband, Jim, owners of three ’57 Chevy Bel Airs, “drove along 66 from Kingman, Ariz., for the fun of it. We like the remembrance.”

“We went through the ’30s,” said James, 72. “And the ’40s and the ’50s.”
Kirk mentioned that most foreign visitors are young, “though some bring their parents.”

What about Americans in their 20s and teens: Do they also care about Route 66?

“Oh yes,” Kirk said. “They’ve heard stories from their parents and grandparents. And these days, everybody longs for a little peace and quiet — anything other than freeways.”

A consultant to the Museum of History and Art, Ontario, Michael Rounds, 45, said Route 66 mania begins with people of his father’s generation:

“Younger people pick up on the car culture — the ’50s, cruising. The leaders of the car clubs, some of whom were teen-agers during the 1950s, pass that along to the younger members.

“But mainly, cars are neat; and car clubs are about looking at each other, not the road.

“For the young, the highway is a way to connect.”

In the doctoral program at the University of California, Riverside, Rounds advises the Ontario museum on its Road Ways project, which uses the highways of Southern California as a way to study the impact of roads on local history and on American life generally.

“If I’m discussing the Road Ways project,” Rounds said, “the light comes on in people’s eyes once I mention Route 66.

“Then they tell me of something that happened years ago — maybe not a particular site, but a trip they took with their family, something from their personal mythology.

“Last summer, I drove Route 66 from here to Oklahoma. Frankly, it’s not all that inspiring. The Jack Rabbit Trading Post and other places that look so marvelous in books and videos — most are practically, if not entirely, in ruins.

“The Panhandle towns like Shamrock, Texas, are sad.

“But that doesn’t matter! It’s what you bring with you.”

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