The Mother Road - Route 66!



Howdy and here goes another time travel piece. THIS time we'll be going back to a little over fifty years worth of nostalgia. Most of what I write or yammer on about in these ongoing diary of series covers the beat of the Colorado Plateau, whose turf is penetrated by Route 66, the aptly named Mother Road of America. I don't know if any of you out there are interested to know this, but one of my favorite eras given my lifetime tends to run the gambit from the mid-1940s and well in the 1960s. That being said, if there is any narrative, as stories told by others, I am eager to listen to, it's anyone who has ever lived or visited the American Southwest during this funky and casual period of modernity. Of course, so many of us, as baby boomers, remember traveling Route 66; at least passing through some of North America's desert terrain here and there punctuated by impressive chasms and rising laccolith landforms (mountain-like, though nonetheless volcanic in origin. (But not me, because I didn't come out West to live in this part of the country until late 1969. . .bummer!)

Anyway, for today I thought a diary on this celebrated road might interest some of you and that's what we're going to experience (vicariously) given this historical narrative: a trip through time on a very memorable road. Feel free to dress accordingly for this tour. I mean, colorful apparel, cat-eye sunglasses, straw hats, Bermuda shorts and penny loafers and maybe a dab of Brylcreem for the lads and a dab of Evening in Paris behind the ears for the lasses. I think you'll fit right in.

A stretch of Route 66 cuts through the I-40 corridor where some of the Southwest’s most scenic country spreads out on either side. It’s a celebrated road in America boasting a necklace of famous towns and places along the way, starting from Chicago. Commonly called the Mother Road, Route 66 totals 2,451 miles (3,945 km), ending in Santa Monica, California (at U. S. Route 101). The dates of its heyday ran from 1926 to 1964. Also known as the Will Rogers Highway, and named after the famous humorist, Route 66 was literally the Main Street of America. Road signs posted in 1927 listed the following state addresses – Chicago, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. The route even had its own song, written by Bobby Troup and originally recorded by the Nat King Cole Trio in 1946. The song was even featured on the equally famous “Route 66” television show in the 1960s. It’s one of those lyrical and jazzy songs that, once it gets into your head, keeps playing.

Over the decades Route 66 was subject to many improvements. These improvements not only included resurfacing portions of the roadbed, but also changing the routing and overall length. The improvements were intended to detour travelers around major congestion areas. For example, moving the western endpoint farther west from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica.

The other famous historical note about this highway was how ’66’ served as a major route for migrants headed east from, especially, Oklahoma during the dust bowl saga of the 1930s. The famed movie Grapes Of Wrath, written by John Steinbeck, features this road and the restive people who plied it, all looking for work and headed to the proverbial and of milk and honey, California.

The Mother Road
Possibly America’s most famous road, and despite its historical significance, Route 66 boosted the economy to business owners. It was certainly iconic in many ways. Not too long after the 1970s the country’s highway system literally headed off in a new direction. People preferred super highways, abandoning the two-way road network wherever these higher-speed thruways laid down their pavement. In time, the common designate ’66 was officially removed from the United States Highway System on June 27, 1985. The decision was based on an existing Interstate Highway System (I-40). Sectors of Route 66 were bypassed through some of the states (Illinois, Missouri, New Mexico and Arizona), while at the same time these portions were designated under a National Scenic Byway and given the appropriate new name, Historic Route 66. Many people simply called it the Mother Road of America. In California, some of the route’s sectors were designated State Route 66, while other sectors bear the more common Historic Route 66 designate.

So. . .can you name the characters, the TV series, and hum the theme song all-in-one? Oh, and one more piece of trivia: Who was the most famous artist who sang the song?

Historical Background
Long before there was a Route 66, or even a transcontinental interstate highway system, roads in the Western territory basically followed towns and places where railroads laid their tracks. These routs trace their origins to trailblazers, like Lt. Edward Fitzgerald Beale (1822 - 1893). The young and aspiring lieutenant had many years of experience in the West, first with the U. S. Navy in California, then with the famed scout, Kit Carson, along with John C. Frémont. At the time of his latest assignment by the War Department, Beale was a Naval officer in the service of the U. S. Army Topographical Corps. In 1857, he was ordered to build a government-funded wagon road across the 35th Parallel. This course would eventually become the third transcontinental crossing for the railroad, in this case, the route of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, now the Santa Fe line. That sector of tracks was laid between 1882 and 1883.

Before embarking on this assignment, he first had to survey the route. Beale followed a portion of the earlier pathway of Francis Xavier Aubry (1824 - 1854). He was also widely known as the legendary Skimmer of the Plains for making the fastest trip from Independence, Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Among his many daring adventures Aubry once covered portions of the Old Spanish Trail that led to California. In 1853, he had driven some thirty-five hundred sheep from Santa Fe to San Francisco by way of Fort Yuma and Los Angeles. On the return home, he planned to find a route for the second transcontinental railroad crossing that was superior to the already planned route by way of the Gila, in southern Arizona. He did so, he thought, with part of the way across present-day Peach Springs, Arizona, then to Flagstaff and points east. Parts of this trail were also used by the Spaniards centuries earlier which established a basis for the Old Spanish Trail’s heading into California. Alas, Aubry, upon presenting his evidence to Richard Weightman, the then editor of an Albuquerque newspaper who supported the Gila route. He was also New Mexico’s delegate to Congress who vehemently disagreed with Aubry’s conclusions. When the two later met, upon chance, in an Albuquerque saloon, and some say it was in Santa Fe, an argument broke out and ended in a duel. Weightman stabbed Aubry with a Bowie knife. He escaped penalty by pleading self-defense and was acquitted. In time, the 32nd Parallel was approved for the second crossing. Still, Aubry ended up having a well defined escarpment, the Aubry Cliffs, named after him, lining part of the way between Seligman and Peach Springs, Arizona.

Meanwhile, Beale, who was aware of the Old Spanish Trail route, and possibly influenced to some degree by Aubry’s earlier reports, began his surveys. The young and innovative lieutenant decided using camels were a better replacement for mules. He insisted these exotic desert pack animals could easily do the job. First, he would plot a route from Fort Smith, Arkansas through the Oklahoma Indian Territory, then to Fort Defiance (near present-day New Mexico and the Arizona border), and connect to Fort Mohave on the Colorado River, thence into California. From Fort Defiance to the Colorado River it was an exacting 1,000 mile journey, for which he employed twenty-five dromedary and bactrian camels (and by some historical accounts the number goes as high as twenty-nine). However, he used standard mules to pull the heavy wagons. Because the camels did not understand any commands in English, Beale hired Hi-Jolly (real name, "Hadji Ali") as the camel driver, who knew the only language camels understand: Arabic.

Lieutenant Beale obviously did his homework by selecting camels over mules and horses; at least for the role the camels played in this important undertaking. For instance, a horse needs 8 to 12 gallons (30 to 45 liters) of water at least two to three times a day while trekking in the desert. A camel, however, can go ten to twelve days without water! Horses, like mules, also require special food whereas camels can digest almost any desert vegetation. Neither do horses or mules perform well in extreme heat or cold. Another factor is that a horse can tote 170 to 250 pounds and walk 30 to 40 miles a day with stops and watering. Mules did better, though not nearly as good as camels. Camels tested over several days with increasing loads carried up to 1,256 pounds and covered 40 to 45 miles in a day, also at a continuous speed! They required only a day to rest thereafter. Usually, they carried a more comfortable 600 to 800 pounds load, and for several days. Thus the enlightened and innovative-minded lieutenant knew camels were the more superior animal for the trek, and mules and horses would therefore have it much easier.On August 27, 1857, Beale and his survey team of fifty men left Fort Defiance on horses, accompanied by about one hundred and fifty Mexican wooly sheep (slaughtered along the way for fresh meat and thereby not spare any time for hunting). They reached the Colorado River in late fall (1857). He roughly followed Lt. Amiel Whipple’s earlier route that headed west across the Arizona territory through the Flagstaff area, then further west and a little north through Peach Springs and Truxton Wash, then toward the Kingman-Oatman area, finally ending on the banks of the Colorado River. Along the way, his reputation preceded him, for he became a celebrity everywhere he went. He even sometimes dressed the part by wearing apparel (his own fashioned turban headdress) similar to what people wore in North African desert country while riding camels. For instance, people in Flagstaff, Ash Fork, Seligman and Kingman, Arizona stood and cheered him on, even though most thought he was an oddity. However, in the end he proved himself right: camels were more sturdy than mules in the harsh desert country he surveyed. The route became known as the Beale Wagon Road in the latter part of the Twentieth Century and lasted until the early part of the Twenty-First century.

Additionally, from Fort Tejon, California on the other side of the Colorado River, in 1857 and 1858 Lt. Beale made several trips across both Arizona and California improving and building his route. Parts of the famous route are still visible in many places throughout central Arizona. Route 66 also parallels the old wagon road.

From Primitive To Paved Highway
The wagon route that would eventually become ’66 was covered by three main highways. The Lone Star Route laid its paved bed through St. Louis (on its way to Chicago and Cameron, Louisiana). In time, Route 66 would cut off mileage and take a shorter route through Bloomington, Illinois instead of Peoria. Thus the National Old Trails Road (as the route was formerly called) ran from St. Louis to Los Angeles. However, the road followed the main route of the Ozark Trails system which ended just south of Las Vegas, New Mexico, some 60 miles (96 km) north of Santa Fe. It was later decided to make a shorter route by following the Postal Highway between Oklahoma City and Amarillo, Texas. Afterward, the National Old Trails Road’s foundation led all the way to Los Angeles. The shorter route between Chicago and Los Angeles was at last completed. The official numerical designation “66” was applied to the route in the summer of 1926. It became one of America’s primary east-west arteries. Until then major rural and urban communities along its course were not connected. Indeed, most smaller towns had no previous access to a major national thoroughfare.

Marking Route 66’s Birthplace
Although Chicago is the official start of Route 66, Springfield, Missouri gets the nod for its birthplace on April 30, 1926. It was here that government officials first proposed the name of the east-west highway. A placard commemorating this historic event still stands in Park Central Square.

Although not completely paved until twelve years later, ’66 was endorsed as a national highway system in 1927, its proposed numerical designate was “60.” Arguments soon erupted and delegates involved in the matter went to the table and argued their varying points. In the end, they settled on the double digit designation (which at the time was one of the few numbers that wasn’t already assigned to a roadway). It was also thought “66” was easier to remember, and pleasant to say and hear. Certainly, the composer of the eventual famous song and lyrics thought so.

The Latest And Most Popular Route In America
After World War I ended, people were on the move. This period marked the second greatest emigration of a population increase after the Nineteenth Century’s Manifest Destiny Out West inducement. Route 66 was a timely thoroughfare for Americans. Traffic exponentially increased due chiefly to the geography and terrain the route vectored through. Arguably, ’66 tracks through some of the most scenic country in America, at least by the West’s standards. Much of its network also passed through plain and flat scenery. Nevertheless, the overall topography proved a boon as a viable truck route. Even crossing the desert the route tended to remain straight and level until higher elevations starting in New Mexico, near Albuquerque.

Migrants headed west from Arkansas and Oklahoma during the 1930s used ’66 as the main route, because of the myriad communities, small and large, that created a mesh of locales between the blowing dust and the shimmering ocean at the other end of the country. These so-called Arkies and Okies sought work in the agricultural fields and orchards in California, but not all of them could make the trip in one journey. Indeed, some never made it all the way to that promising state of work and security for those who found it. Instead, the communities they passed through were like temporary or permanent havens, depending on who found what work and where. This, the Great Depression, was a time of great change, chance, and for those who outlasted these difficult years, a new opportunity to live and thrive in a new country whose geography and topography, along with a typically arid climate, was far different compared to where these excursions began.

Easily, the most renowned novel and movie defining the Great Depression Era:

Although the entire route was paved by 1938, there were places along the way that were perilous. Route 66 then became known as Bloody 66 and scores of people lost their lives because of dangerous curves and sheer drop-offs. For instance, one section of the highway just outside Oatman, Arizona through the Black Mountains was notorious for its hairpin turns. It was also the steepest portion. Its sector remained until 1953, though it is still open to traffic today as the Oatman Highway. Not just the scenery, as nature’s landforms, made parts of Route 66 memorable, but also the architecture of buildings along the way. Art deco design was common along the route as well pseudo-streamlined vehicles of this era. Quaint drive-up eateries, decorative gas stations, and so-called doo-wop motels, most with colorful murals, added to both the ambience and traveler’s comfort, especially in more remote desert stretches. The now famous and smaller towns generated a certain atmosphere that was ideal for the times. Traveling on the route was also slower compared to modern day four-lane highways. Perhaps it was the slowing down, and the unhurried pulse of a nation and its people driving across this part of America that makes Route 66 so outstanding as a nostalgic memory. The animation feature, CARS, by Pixar, is the latest attempt by movie makers to resurrect interest in the somewhat backroad ambience and nostalgia of Route 66.

An idyllic portrayal (but more truth than fictional nostalgia):

Times Certainly Were A-Changing
By the time of World War II, Route 66 was more than a road for vacation travel or migration from the Midwest to the West. It was deemed a necessary route for war-related industries in California; namely, a favored route for moving military equipment. Indeed, the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos (New Mexico) was key to the military operation and the precedence ’66 served. There were also a number of Army forts and Air Force bases strung along the route. After the war years, Route 66 became an even more popular vacation highway. This is especially the case where it passes through some of the classic scenic country in the Southwest. Tourism since the early 1950s was on the rise and has boomed ever since.

Matching tourism’s quest for scenic desert terrain usually accented by plateaus, mesas and buttes, were enterprises there to supply the people’s needs. Hotels, modern gas stations and auto repair shops, curio shops, many of them dedicated to Native American art and craft, frozen custard stands, even drive-up outdoor movies all cropped up along Route 66. Smaller towns, like Gallup, Winslow, Flagstaff, Williams, Seligman and Kingman all stood to gain from the hoards of travelers. Larger metropolises, like Albuquerque, practically doubled in size, both population increase and land expanse. People not only traveled through Route 66 country, but they also moved to select places. Land was cheap and work was plentiful. It was also, for the most part, wide open territory, and at times dusty. Yet the weather was mostly cooperative, meaning clement. By the early 1960s fast food restaurants, like McDonald’s anchored into the landscape and places to eat, sleep and fill up the gas tank were much shorter in distance than ever before.

Despite these attributes of the Mother Road, the changes during these years were also accelerating. Slow America gradually turned into a faster breed of people wanting to see and do more, but in less time. Route 66 was not only experiencing its constant changes of artificial attractions, but also people restless for faster roads. State highway engineers were right on top of it and sought more direct routes between cities and towns. Traffic had also increased to the point something had to be done to ease the problem. Illinois led the way when it began widening Route 66 to four lanes through most of its territory. From Chicago to just east of St. Louis travelers found the four lanes a convenience and wanted more of the same. Bypasses were eventually built around most of the towns, and by the mid-1950s Missouri had upgraded parts of Route 66 to four-lane thoroughfares. These wider roads became the precursors of super highways, or freeways as they were then called.

In truth, Route 66 was dying as a former slower highway. Travelers wanted faster four-lane roads to get from one point to another. They soon got what they wanted: an Interstate Highway System by which all else changed.

The Interstate System
In 1919, Dwight D. Eisenhower was influenced by his experiences as a younger Army officer crossing the country in a convoy on the Lincoln Highway which was the first thoroughfare across America. Later, as the 34th President of the United States, he was responsible for inaugurating the Interstate Highway System as authorized by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. Also known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956, on June 29 the bill was signed. Helping to influence his decision to commence building this vast network of connected interstate highways, Eisenhower, who was backed by the country’s automobile manufactures, was impressed by the German Autobahn system. He envisioned a need for building the highways as a means to shoring up America’s national defense system. Not only would travelers benefit from the highways, but the network would provide key ground transport routes for military troops and supplies and equipment across the country as based on a potential of foreign invasion. Long-bed Army trucks transporting missiles and a vast array of military vehicles was not an uncommon scene along parts of Route 66.

Ike's actions were about to erase a slow road and nostalgia for a super highway system. Just think: all these seeming backwater places were about to go by the wayside:

The Almost Total Eclipse Of An Historical Route
What began to happen across America was new routes that shortened older routes, or most of them did. The usual blacktop twin pavements, like Route 66, were replaced by faster four-lane highways. The Mother Road was replaced by a mother of a superhighway nexus, and for a time, history was bypassed. Former routes favored by Americans over the decades were completely abandoned. By the 1960s, Route 66 and all its businesses were in the throes of slow death. Business owners either closed their doors and moved away, or somehow managed to cling to their lifestyles and locations and barely get by, hoping and waiting for someone to exit the Interstate and support a dying industry that catered to travel. (The aforementioned CARS depicts this very theme.)

One of Pixar's best. . .wouldn't you agree?

A New LIfe For An Old Highway
In time, Americans, some of them, realized what was missing in modern travel. Even though the Interstate system spawned its own feeder industries, such as hotels, motels, restaurants, gas stations, along with a variety of curio shops, Route 66’s appeal to the masses returned, at least to some degree. Today, parts of Route 66’s most famous stretches are alive and well and continue to see an increase in visitors, especially foreigners. Places, like Gallup, Flagstaff, Williams and Seligman are high profile sectors of ’66 that have rebounded, mainly because of nostalgia and interest by some travelers to take the backroads for a change of pace and scenery. Other cities in other states claim the same advantage. The Mother Road is back in such sectors. Much of its former ambience and architecture style is alive and well. Route 66 is also popular for vintage car buffs. Except for the presence of modern day microwave towers, and all the electronic gadgetry that depends on its network, one hardly notices modernization in view of the restoration along preserved portions of ’66. Besides, the Interstate is close by, though still far enough way to preserve some of the nostalgia ’66 is famous for, including the admiration beyond America's borders this road network draws.

As a side note, and given my former ecotourism enterprise, as well as working for Yavapai College (Prescott, Arizona) and Northern Arizona University (Flagstaff), I used to cover the Grand Canyon "West" beat, and this town, Seligman, between Flagstaff and Kingman, is still one of Rt. 66's most famous stretches (even over the likes of Winslow and Williams). So, I'd share some photos of this colorful town that preserves the heart and spirit of the Mother Road. Of course, I suggest for those who want to see more of this road stretching through the south side of the Coconino Plateau that begins in this sector, west of Williams exit I-40 and slow down and enjoy the view and a bit of history. Beyond Seligman is Peach Springs, the tribal seat of the Hualapai Reservation, then Valentine farther down the road (also an historic motif), thence toward Kingman, where the legendary Andy Devine was raised. It's wide-open country all the way, but there's no need to do the pedal-to-the-metal thing.

Here's one place where you want to stop and treat yourself to an ice cream cone and other calorie-prone delectables (ah well, it's a vacation, right?):

Can you name the make of this car???

Miscellaneous (A Political Ploy & Musing)
When Route 66 was first laid out in 1926, people knew it would go through the capital of New Mexico and indeed it did. Historically, Santa Fe was always dubbed the place at the end of the Great Plains, dusty and downtrodden as its adobe appearance was when first discovered by Colonel Kearney’s Army of the West in June, 1846. Route 66 in this sector followed the Old Pecos Trail from Santa Rosa through Dilia, Romeroville and Pecos, then to Santa Fe. From Santa Fe its route headed over La Bajada Hill and down into the lower elevations of Albuquerque. The routing was aligned and constructed this way and it was supposed to remain a permanent pathway. However, that’s not the way things worked out for the old Mother Road. It turns out the change was made over a political squabble centered on a governor (Hannett) who lost his reelection bid. Blaming his fellow state politicians, he promised to have the last say in the matter, which he soon did. He rerouted Route 66 to Albuquerque, instead, which altogether bypassed the capitol city. To do so he had to build a road through the untouched landscape that proved formidable due to the brush and terrain chosen for Route 66’s alternate routing. The new route cut off some 90 miles of driving distance between Santa Rosa and Albuquerque. Indeed, the outgoing governor’s new route was a better route from an engineer's standpoint; a more direct route that cut out some treacherous road conditions. This pathway would also be followed by the modern Interstate in decades to come.

Back then, of course, the so-called Duke City was on the Route 66 map and no one complained about the trickery of politics that, for a change, worked to an advantage for this sector of the Land of Enchantment:

And so we come to the end of another trail, another armchair tour or special supplement. There will be other scenic places to tour and more supplemental topics to read and think about, so stay tuned for a continuation in this series.

As always, your thoughtful commentaries are welcomed.

Happy Trails!


P. S. Simply can't resist having you folks listen to one of the most famous versions and recordings of the Route 66 theme song. You'll find it at this URL: For the original television theme song, try this URL:

(Incidentally, if you didn't get the answer to the question I posed earlier, the song was written by Bobby Troup, in 1946. The original two actors on the television series were George Maharis and Martin Milner, respectively Buz Murdock and Tod Stiles. Later, Glen Corbett replaced Maharis and the show remained popular as ever.)