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Past and Present

Past and Present: Route 66

Over the years, I have traveled down various segments of Route 66 that, taken together, have covered or paralleled nearly the entire length of “the Mother Road.”

A few weeks ago, however, I was able to have a truly intimate connection with this American icon. A high school friend, Charles Penny, owns a 1947 Buick Super four-door sedan, and I joined him on a road trip following the original path of Route 66, as much as possible, from Oklahoma City to Albuquerque.

Since its “rediscovery” in the 1980s and 1990s, Route 66 has been the economic salvation for many small towns and businesses. Tucumcari, N.M., for example, has preserved a number of roadside structures, including the Blue Swallow motel, where we spent the night.

Today, numerous guidebooks allow travelers to follow every turn and variation in the highway, pointing out places to eat, stay and visit along the way. At certain locations, however, it is striking how this late-20th-century fusion of preservation, tourism and nostalgia is, itself, starting to show its age.

Comparing this trip from my first forays about 10 to 15 years ago, I find that many places are alive and well, and a few new enterprises have sprung up. Yet, it is hard to ignore how many cafes, antique stores and gas stations that I once visited are now out of business, some now in ruins. Whole sections of Central Avenue in Albuquerque, once dotted with quirky motels with colorful signs, have been razed to make way for new construction.

Route 66 seems to be undergoing a transformation from location to symbol. Initially, preservation efforts built on the fond memories from those who remembered 1950s-era family vacations out West. For younger generations, experiencing of the Mother Road has derived from seeing the aging Radiator Springs in the movie Cars instead of staying in actual motels along a vibrant travel corridor.

Not surprisingly, the familiar shield and “66” has come to represent a more general sense of automotive history than a specific place. When Route 66 t-shirts can be obtained in nearly every major city in the U.S., and businesses from Florida to Hawaii use Route 66 in their name, the connection between this highway and the places it once served becomes ever more tenuous.

Route 66 is now a permanent part of American popular memory. Whether it remains a vital force in specific tourism and preservation efforts for communities on a line from Chicago to California may be another matter.


Link to some of the historical development of Route 66 in Kansas.