I had the ride but not the road. I was a Westerner living in Tennessee and I’d bought my dream car, a 1963 pearl-white Thunderbird complete with a 390 cubic-inch Ford V-8 engine and black leather bucket seats. But what I missed was the Mother Road, Route 66. I had the car but not the highway.
If there’s any place to drive a 1950s or 1960s car, it’s on Route 66, which stretches 2,250 miles beginning in Chicago and ending in Los Angeles. No other highway has more legend, more scenery and more history than Route 66. It pioneered long-distance auto routes and became a victim of its own success in 1956, when Congress passed the Interstate Highway Act, dooming the two-lane blacktop with its mom-and-pop cafes to replacement by highway off-ramps, chain restaurants and motels with numbers, not names.
Four-lane interstate highways link big cities in straight lines. Route 66 sought to reach the heart of a unique and still-individualized America. It went through the small towns, not around them.
In the Southwest, Route 66 brought travelers out of the humidity of Oklahoma and Texas across the dry plains of New Mexico, the high deserts of Arizona, and finally to the promised land of California beaches and perpetual sunshine. Americans have always moved West. It’s in our blood and in our genes: In 1926, once Henry Ford had perfected the Model-A and the Federal Highway Act of 1921 combined rural roads, Route 66 was born.
In John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. families traveled together in crammed pickups on Route 66. Later, when Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road, he drove a Hudson. My dad preferred a big, ocean-green Packard Caribbean with a huge V-8 engine and three two-barrel carburetors.
World War II had ended and American veterans were out to see their country. Lately, I’ve been traveling Route 66 to Flagstaff and then to Williams and north to the Grand Canyon, trying to recapture automobile nostalgia. Much of Route 66 got bypassed when the interstates came through. Communities were forgotten as highway engineers diverted traffic away from small towns and their Main Streets. But a few businesses still cater to nostalgia-seekers looking for the Mother Road.
In Flagstaff, I stopped into The Museum Club, which is a quintessential log roadhouse built in 1931, serving the standard honky-tonk fare of cold beer, cheeseburgers and country music. The building’s entrance is beneath a large forked ponderosa pine tree and inside, every critter imaginable can be found hanging from the rafters or looking as if they’re about to pounce on the patrons –– stuffed cougars, elk, deer, caribou and assorted rattlesnakes, among other things. That’s where The Museum Club got its name.
Farther west in Seligman, Arizona, Angel Delgadillo carries on at a youthful 86 years old. As a boy he explains, “I saw the Okies migrating to California from the Midwestern States. I saw one-quarter of a million people moving West in the 1930s when the route was unpaved with no fences and few trees. I’ve seen soldiers hitchhiking during World War II.”
Then his voice drops and he relates, “I saw the day we were bypassed by the Interstate on Sept. 22, 1978. The town died for 10 long years. My family couldn’t afford to leave so we just stayed.”
But like other resourceful Americans, Delgadillo wasn’t about to give up his dream of a shop on Main Street. Instead he explains, “We asked the state to make it historic between Seligman and Kingman -- 89 miles -- to get the economy back.”
It worked. “I get to talk to people from all over who come to our store. This is like the America of yesterday. Today’s travelers love to be on Route 66.”
And why not? The big 18-wheel diesel trucks drive the interstate so segments of intact Route 66 are perfect for sightseers, motorcyclists and tourist buses. Delgadillo smiles, “It took me years to understand that people want what they have lost.” Once too poor to leave town, he sits outside his gift shop these days, and the world comes to him.
I wish I still had that T-Bird. I always wanted to drive west into the sunset on Route 66 and watch the last rays of daylight reflect off that half-acre car hood. But even if my vintage ‘60s ride is gone, I’ve still got the road: In fact, we’ve all got the Mother Road.
Andrew Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He is a professor of history and Environmental Studies at Fort Lewis College and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org