On November 11, 1926, a 3,900-kilometer long highway was established in the United States.
It was not the first American highway. It was not the longest either. And it might not have been the fastest. But the road inspired musicians, writers and filmmakers. It appealed to explorers and dreamers. It’s known as Route 66.
How did this road become a major symbol of freedom and adventure in America? Why does this road, now unofficial, continue to draw so many onto its well-worn path?
VOA Learning English took the long drive from Illinois to California to find the answers to those questions. For the next three months, we will share what we learned when we motored west down "the highway that’s the best.”
A journey west
In 1946, the songwriter Bobby Troup and his wife drove across the country to Los Angeles on Route 66. Troup wrote a song about the experience. Singer Nat King Cole recorded “(Get Your Kicks) on Route 66.” It became a huge hit.
Route 66 crosses eight states, “from Chicago to L.A.,” as the song goes. Between Illinois and California there is Missouri, a little Kansas and a lot of Oklahoma. After a brief stretch in Texas come New Mexico, Arizona, and finally, California.
The road cuts through cornfields, deserts, mountains and unique red rock formations of the west.
As the scene outside the car window changes, so, too, do the people and cultures found along the road. Route 66 connects farm communities, small towns and major urban centers. For the traveler, it opens up the worlds of cowboy culture, Native American life, Mexican traditions and more.
From dust to road of dreams
The idea for Route 66 started in Oklahoma. Citizens there wanted to link their state with states to the east and west. U.S. federal officials also saw the benefit of connecting state roads to provide a more direct and faster way across the country.
Oklahoma businessman Cyrus Avery is credited with developing the plan to connect existing state roads into one long national highway. He is known as the father of Route 66.
It was disaster that fueled the road’s early success. A series of powerful dust storms in the 1930s destroyed a huge amount of farmland across the prairie states. Hundreds of thousands of mostly poor farm workers and their families began to leave.
The migrants headed west on Route 66, hoping the path would lead to a better life in California, the land of opportunity.
American writer John Steinbeck immortalized the road in 1939 with his novel “The Grapes of Wrath.” The book also gave Route 66 its most famous nickname, the Mother Road.
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."
The (car) king of the road
Exploring the open road has long been an important part of the American experience. And Route 66 became even more popular as the car culture exploded in the 1940s and 50s.
By the 1960s, large parts of Route 66 were not fit for driving. And by 1985, the road was officially decommisioned from the national highway system.
The U.S. government built bigger highways, with faster speed limits and fewer traffic lights. These new interstates bypassed small towns, the heart of Route 66. Many of these small towns had depended on Route 66 for business and income. The economies of bypassed small towns suffered.
When the traffic stopped on Route 66, so did many of the towns themselves. Along the road today, run-down motel signs, abandoned service stations, and empty houses are signs of these forgotten towns.
Jeannie Tait is from Lebanon, Missouri. She has lived her whole life right along Route 66. She remembers clearly what the road did for her small community.
"It changed a lot...it changed a lot of lives for Lebanon, because …so many businesses, it made the industry, it made it more attractive for industry. It made the city grow, because people wanted to be here. But its just, it’s one of the hotspots of Route 66."
Today, Jeannie Tait is concerned about an historic part of the road, the Hazel Green Bridge on the edge of town. The state of Missouri, she said, does not want to pay money for the repairs the bridge needs. It has been closed now for many months.
"I would like to see them repair it and not tear it down and build a new one. We need to hang on to what we have, even though it might not be as modern. But modern isn’t always the best anyway."
While most American motorists may have forgotten Route 66, foreign tourists have not. International interest in the road is growing each year.
People come from places as far as Brazil and Germany, Japan and China, to fulfill what they consider a lifelong dream.
Ednilso Gablak is from Brazil. We met him at the Santa Monica Pier, the official end of Route 66. He and 15 other Brazilians had just finished traveling the Mother Road.
“We just finish(ed) our dream trip. We start, like, 15 days ago. Well, it's kind of a dream. We saw movies, we saw on the television, magazines…saw photos. Today, we can see the Internet so many videos, so, I think everybody knows something about Route 66, right?”
Fran Houser has worked along the road for more than 20 years in Adrian, Texas. The town is considered the midpoint of the original Route 66.
Fran owns the Sunflower Station gift shop along Route 66. She said the number of tourists traveling the Mother Road has been growing year by year.
“It has grown bigger every single year. We are seeing this year tons of people from China, which we had not see a few years ago. We see them from Japan, New Zealand, Italy, as our friends back there are from. It's all over the world and it is wonderfully gratifying.”
Interest among American tourists is growing as well, thanks in part to the 2006 movie "Cars." Fran herself was represented in the film. She was the inspiration for the character Flo.
“We are now, because of the movie "Cars" seeing more and more Americans, all looking for Radiator Springs.”
'Very much alive'
Bryan Rodriguez works at a Route 66 information booth on the Santa Monica Pier. He recently took his first trip along part of the Mother Road.
“I ended up finding out that Route 66 is very much alive. It just kind of like is kind of like the movie Cars. He’s just racing in the fast world, and then he finds out about 66, and it teaches him to slow down. And in L.A., unfortunately, that's how the world is in L.A., everything is just so fast-paced. You forget to slow down, and enjoy the everyday life.”
For supporters of Route 66, its future is as important as its storied past. Small communities may have been bypassed by high-speed interstates, but the towns can still thrive.
Galena, Kansas, is an example of that. The small town went from a population of 1,500 in 2006 to a little over 3,000 today.
Melba Riggs lives in Galena. She and her siblings opened the Cars on the Route café in 2006. Melba knows people all up and down Route 66, both locals and fellow business owners. And people all along Route 66 know all about Melba, or “Melba the Mouth” as she is known. Her fast-talking ways earned her the nickname.
The people along Route 66 share a connection. Whether they live in California, or Texas, Missouri or Kansas, they support each other. They want Route 66 to thrive. Melba the Mouth sums up their common bond with these seven words: “Friends don’t let friends take the interstate.”
I'm Ashley Thompson.
And I'm Caty Weaver. Join us next week for a special report on Chicago, Illinois where Route 66 begins its journey west.
Ashley Thompson and Caty Weaver wrote this story. Hai Do was the editor. Adam Brock was the videographer.
Words in This Story
adventure - n. an exciting or dangerous experience
get your kicks - expression have fun
opportunity - n. an amount of time or a situation in which something can be done: chance
immortalize - v. to cause (someone or something) to be remembered forever
decommission - v. to officially stop using (a ship, weapon, dam, etc.) : to remove (something) from service
abandoned - adj. left by the owner
gratifying - adj. giving pleasure or satisfaction
fast-paced - adj. happening very quickly
thrive - v. to grow or develop successfully; to succeed