Feature Story

TRAVEL: GETTING YOUR KICKS

by Bob Hagin

July 24, 1998

I have to be honest and tell you that I wasn't a fan of the TV series "Route 66," an ongoing saga of two guys bumming their way across the U.S. in a Corvette. The show ran from 1960 to 1964 and the stars, Martin Milner and George Maharis never really hit the big time after that.

These facts make the current world-wide veneration of that now- dismantled cross-country highway all the more a mystery to me, but the truth is that Route 66 and its environs are very big deals. Much of the mystique of Route 66 is no doubt due to the ongoing popularity of the boppy tune by the same name. "Route 66" was written by songwriter Bobby Troupe while on the road to California in 1946 and recorded by Nat "King" Cole that same year.

But over the years, Route 66 and the American pastime of "cruising" have become intertwined to the point where they are synonymous with street rods and custom cars. Troupe's song says that the road goes through San Bernardino (Calif.) and eight years ago Dan Stark, a guiding force behind that city's Convention and Visitor's Bureau, had an inspiration. He envisioned a custom car and street rod "happening" that would include street cruises, a car show, a concert, vendor displays and a half-dozen other car-related venues to bring tourists and visitors into the city. His first "Route 66 Rendezvous" was held at a regional park and drew approximately 300 specially constructed vehicles and 4000 spectators.

But the Route 66 virus is infectious. The event is now sponsored by a Southern California grocery chain and the four-day 1998 event this September is expected to attract a quarter-million spectators. So many pre-1973 vehicles have signed up to be put on display, the field has been limited to "only" 2300 cars, trucks and motorcycles. The event has its own website (www.route-66.org) that lists the dates, times and schedules of events.

While I was nosing around on the internet exploring other avenues of Route 66, I stumbled on a website (www.route66.com) that caters to more hard-core Route 66 aficionados. The site is put together by TransCom Global, Ltd., a family organization that operates the site as a large, loose-knit cyber-club for like-minded enthusiasts. It is constantly updated and provides an ongoing and seemingly endless source of information on Route 66-oriented businesses, eateries, period motels and travel cabins, auto and memorabilia museums and other points of interest across the country. It has site spin-offs such as "Primarily Petrolina" (www.oldgas.com) which offers only gas station antiques.

Among the vintage-style cafes that were listed as "must-see" on the Route 66 site is the Sidewinder Cafe which was the film location for the Jack Palance mystical movie "Baghdad Cafe."

All of which lead me to wonder how much material is available on the history of Route 66. The well-know online book mass-merchandiser Amazon.Com lists 30 different books, video and audio tapes plus a myriad of current-year calenders that concentrate on the history and happenings of Route 66.

The reason for this vehicular veneration is the fact that Route 66 was the first transcontinental highway that actually linked together many somewhat isolated U.S. towns and cities by a single strip of two-lane blacktop. The concept was originally proposed before World War I, but it wasn't until 1925 that Congress enacted its plan for the construction of a national highway system. The numerical designation "66" was assigned to the circuitous route from Chicago to Los Angeles.

Unlike the relatively straight-line highways that were under construction at the time, Route 66 was planned to physically connect the main streets of towns and cities across the country with each other. Previously, the farmers and small manufacturers of Middle America were dependent on the various railroads to get their products to markets. With the advent of Route 66 and motorized transportation in the form of trucks, goods could be moved directly to smaller communities across the country.

With the advent of the private automobile, individual business and recreational travel was feasible and Americans could travel from Chicago through eight states to sunny California. The small businesses that sprung up along the way to cater to those travelers are the basis for the nostalgia that's built up around Route 66.

During the Great Depression, thousands of unemployed young Americans worked on Route 66 as a government project and the road was officially completed in 1938. Its importance to the U.S. was made evident a few years later with the need to move war materials quickly from coast to coast. But time and the need for six-lane linear superhighways finally caught up with Route 66 and its last active vestiges were replaced by Interstate 40 at Williams, Arizona in 1984. Today only remnants of the original roadway remain.

Among other things, the Route 66 website encourages responses from the public. I was amazed to see that thousands of tourists from overseas as well as from the USA, have traveled what remains of the road to savor the flavor of small-town America as it was.

For many thousands more, the Route 66 website is as close as they can come to actually being there, traveling, as the song says, from Chicago to LA.

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