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Get Your Kicks on Route 66


A truck travels on U.S. Route 66 east of Galena, Kansas.

A truck travels on U.S. Route 66 east of Galena, Kansas.


From VOA Learning English, welcome to This Is America. I’m Steve Ember. Today, Barbara Klein and I take you on a ride through the colorful history of Route 66, a road that has been called "The Main Street of America.” Come along with us!

[Rosemary Clooney sings “Route 66”]

If you ever plan to motor west
Travel my way, take the highway that’s the best
Get your kicks on Route 66

The idea for Route 66 started in Oklahoma. Citizens there wanted to link their state with states to the east and west. By the 1920s, federal officials wanted to connect state roads to provide a shorter, faster way across the country. So a plan was developed to connect existing state roads into one long national highway.

United States Highway 66 was established on November 11th, 1926. It was one the first federal highways. It crossed eight states. It was 3,800 kilometers long.

Route 66 became the most famous road in America. It passed through the center of many cities and towns. It crossed deserts, mountains, valleys and rivers.

In the 1930s, people suffered through the Great Depression. In Oklahoma, many poor families lost their farms because of dust storms. So they traveled west to California on Route 66 in search of a better life.

In 1939, John Steinbeck wrote about these families in "The Grapes of Wrath." Author John Steinbeck, takes a rest from intense work on a new novel in an undated photo. (AP Photo)

Author John Steinbeck, takes a rest from intense work on a new novel in an undated photo. (AP Photo)

In his book, Steinbeck wrote: "66 -- the long concrete path across the country, waving gently up and down on the map ... over the red lands and the gray lands, twisting up into the mountains, crossing the Divide and down into the bright and terrible desert, and across the desert to the mountains again, and into the rich California valleys.”

Steinbeck wrote: "66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land … 66 is the mother road, the road of flight."

In 1946, the songwriter Bobby Troup and his wife drove across the country to Los Angeles. He wrote a song about traveling on Route 66. The song told people they could have fun, could get their kicks, on Route 66.

In Los Angeles, Bobby Troup took the song to Nat King Cole, who recorded it with his trio. It became a huge hit.

If you ever plan to motor west
Travel my way, take the highway that’s the best
Get your kicks on Route 66
It winds from Chicago to L.A.
More than two thousand miles all the way
Get your kicks on Route 66
Now you go through Saint Louis, Joplin Missouri
And Oklahoma City looks mighty pretty…

In the 1950s, holiday travel brought more and more families out West to explore. Route 66 represented the spirit of movement and excitement.

[Martin Milner (Tod) from TV Series “Route 66”]

Goodbye, Pittsburgh, Hello…Hello, World

In the 1960s, Americans watched a popular television series called "Route 66." It was the story of two young men, Buzz and Tod, driving across the country, and coming into the lives of those they meet along the way. Martin Milner, George Maharis, and guest star Ethel Waters from the "Route 66" episode "Good Night Sweet Blues"

Martin Milner, George Maharis, and guest star Ethel Waters from the "Route 66" episode "Good Night Sweet Blues"



[Guest star, jazz singer Ethel Waters and George Maharis as Buzz from the episode “Goodnight Sweet Blues”]

That music…

Oh, yeah, I’ll turn it off...

No, no sugar, it’s pretty...I thought I was the only one hearing it, but if you hear it too, that means I’ll be around a while longer. [She laughs, then gasps] I think I’m gonna faint. Don’t be frightened, son, don’t be frightened, it’s all right. If the lord’s callin’ me home, it’s as good a way to go as any, with music.

The show was filmed in cities and towns across America. Yet only a few shows were filmed on the real Route 66. That didn’t seem to matter, because the stories captured the spirit of adventure, of travel on the highways of America.

In real life, people were getting fewer and fewer kicks on Route 66. By 1962, parts of the road were closed because they were in poor condition.

The federal government was building bigger highways, on which cars and trucks could travel at higher speeds…and where they didn’t have to stop at traffic lights, or slow down for small towns. People started driving on these new interstate highways instead of the old Route 66.

Finally, in 1985, Route 66 was officially removed from the national highway system.

People have formed groups to save parts of the old 66 and many of the interesting places to eat, stay and see along the way.

Award-winning writer Michael Wallis is an expert on the historic highway. He is the author of "Route 66: The Mother Road."

Michael Wallis was born in Saint Louis, Missouri, right off the highway. He has lived in seven of the eight states along its path. His website, michaelwallis.com, has information and stories about the history of the Mother Road.

“ROUTE 66”/Chuck Berry

Now it goes through Saint Loius, Joplin Missouri
And Oklahoma City looks ooh so pretty
You’ll see Amarillo, Gallup, New Mexico
Flagstaff, Arizona


Now it is our turn to take a trip on Route 66. We will have to search for it at times. Many parts of the road have new names or numbers. Some parts of it are included in other interstate highways.
The Willis Tower, formerly known as the Sears Tower, in Chicago Illinois is 442 meters tall.

The Willis Tower, formerly known as the Sears Tower, in Chicago Illinois is 442 meters tall.

Our trip begins in the Midwest, in Chicago, Illinois. Almost three million people live there. Chicago is America’s third largest city.

You can learn more about Chicago by listening to our This Is America program about that city. You’ll find it on our web site.

From Chicago, the road goes southwest through many small towns in Illinois. One of them is Springfield, the home of America’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln.

Now we cross into Missouri. We drive through Saint Louis, the city known as "the Gateway to the West." More than 300,000 people live there.

There are many natural wonders to see in Missouri. One of the most famous along Route 66 is Meramec Caverns in Stanton.

Inside the cave, visitors see beautifully colored stalagmites and stalactites. These are mineral formations. Stalagmites rise from the floor; stalactites hang from the ceiling.

Long ago, local Indian tribes used the Meramec Caverns for shelter. A French miner named Jacques Renault discovered saltpeter in the caverns in the 1700s. The material was used to produce gunpowder.

Later, the outlaw Jesse James is said to have used the caverns as a hiding place.
A wall cloud forms near Purcell, Oklahoma. The state often has tornadoes and other extreme weather.

A wall cloud forms near Purcell, Oklahoma. The state often has tornadoes and other extreme weather.

From Missouri, our drive takes us for a very short time through the state of Kansas. Then we enter Oklahoma. Oklahoma may well be the heart and soul of Route 66. That is because there are more kilometers of the road in Oklahoma than in any other state.

In Claremore, Oklahoma, a statue honors a famous American, Will Rogers. Will Rogers was born in Claremore. He became a popular actor, radio broadcaster and newspaper writer in the 1920s and 30s.

We pass through many historic towns in Oklahoma. In Oklahoma City, we can visit the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center.

And in Clinton, we can stop at the Route 66 Museum. This official museum tells the complete history of the road and its importance to America.

Now we drive through the northern part of Texas. The area is called the Texas Panhandle. We stop near the city of Amarillo to look at some unusual art that celebrates Route 66. Welcome to Cadillac Ranch.

A Cadillac is a large, costly automobile. Cadillac Ranch has ten of them half buried in the ground. A wealthy farmer and art collector named Stanley Marsh created Cadillac Ranch to honor America’s roads.

Continuing west, we travel through the states of New Mexico and Arizona. We pass through some of the most beautiful country in the Southwest.

Petrified Forest National Park is one of the natural wonders of Arizona. Trees that are millions of years old have turned to stone in unusual shapes.

North of Route 66 is a desert known for its red and yellow sand and rocks. Its name is the Painted Desert.

“ROUTE 66”/John Mayer

We continue on our trip, driving on a winding road up and down the Black Mountains. We arrive at Oatman, Arizona. Long ago, Oatman was a rich gold-mining town. Everyone left the town when the mining ended. Today Oatman still looks like it did in the past.

Now we enter California. We pass through the Mojave Desert, some mountains and several interesting towns. The old highway gets lost among the modern road systems of Los Angeles.

Finally, we arrive at the Pacific Ocean in the city of Santa Monica. There, our trip ends. We watch the tide come in, and thank Route 66 for an interesting ride.
Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and Shelley Gollust.

With Barbara Klein, I'm Steve Ember, inviting you to join us next time for another “This Is America” from VOA Learning English.

If you’d like to learn about other interesting places to visit in the United States, check the “This Is America” section on our VOA Learning English web site.

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