How We Lived On It (51) – Route 66: The American Road


The New York Times reported the other day, while talking with series co-star George Maharis (along with Martin Milner), that the complete four season series of Route 66, the iconic television show of the early 1960s is now available on DVD from the Shout! Factory. Post Kerouac’s On the Road, pre Ken Kesey’s Magic Bus, Tod Stiles and Buz Murdock drove their Corvette across America.

IF there is such a thing as a visionary time capsule, the newly released boxed set of “Route 66” is it. Watch these discs (from Shout! Factory) and you are transported back to a version of the United States that was still basking in postwar success, a country rich in blue-collar jobs and industrial production and somewhat oblivious to its problems. But while enjoying that return to America as it was, you may also be struck by how often this half-century-old black-and-white television series tackled issues that seem very 21st century.

“Route 66,” which ran from 1960 to 1964 on CBS, was an earnest, ambitious serial about two young men on a random journey across North America in a Corvette. It was shot on location, something hard to imagine given the bulkiness of equipment at the time. Viewed today, a scene on a shrimp boat in New Orleans or at the half-built Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona prompts admiration for the producers, camera operators, electricians and others who made the shots feasible.

The romance of Route 66 is not just American. When Julia and I drove its length in 2006 on the occasion of its 80th anniversary, we discovered first hand the well established lure of the road (and love of the TV show) for many Europeans. Common for groups of French, German, or Scandinavian romancers is to fly into Chicago en masse and rent a score of Harleys for the journey west. We crossed paths with several groups just on our trip. The following is an excerpt from the middle of our “The American Road: Route 66 at 80,” which appeared in the Winter 2007 issue of DoubleTake, the great magazine of narrative documentary journalism, founded by Harvard’s Robert Coles, unfortunately now defunct. You can read the ending here. Photography is by Julia Dean.

It is true that in the years before the opening of the route, there had developed the romance of train travel, and the train has its romancers still. Stand in so many small towns across America – a town, say, like Dwight, Illinois, through which Route 66 runs – and watch the train pass through, even now. Listen to its whistle. Hear it “moan mournfully,” as Thomas Wolfe’s Eugene Gant heard it. Far places, it says. Distant lives. The great, wide world. Teasing you with its call. Passing on. For so many who longed for experience, the train’s receding rumble, the lingering whisper of it gone, uttered the great paradox of the nation – that while one might live, it seemed, smack-dab in the middle of it all, one felt stranded so far from everything that was happening. To live in the middle, it turned out, was to reside at the edges. To move to the center meant to travel to the boundaries, because the boundary – the frontier – is where the “other” is, and the other is experience.

Before Route 66, in any of America’s countless small towns, with the train seeming to emphasize more the distance of it all than the nearness, it must have been hard, at times, to really comprehend it as one nation. Of the nearly 3 million miles of highway in America in 1920, only 36,000 had the all weather surface to sustain automobile traffic. Today’s interstates are massive arteries. The roads before 66 were capillaries, so small and spindly before the size of the country and the scope of its ambition, who could have truly imagined, standing in one of those towns and looking out, the extent and oneness of that to which, in fact, those roads did not adequately connect them.

Julia Dean 2006

After Route 66, though, small towns were never quite so much that again, because the highway not only takes you to the other; it brings the other to you. People passing through, people you would otherwise never have met, needing places to stay, to eat, to fill up on gas – even recreation, in odd, road side attractions: petting zoos, trading posts, statuary, motel rooms in teepees. Spend a dollar. Make a dollar.

The first of Route 66’s four distinct eras began with only 800 of its 2448 miles paved. The remainder was graded dirt, gravel, asphalt-covered brick, or even planks of wood. But those early travelers came.

Starting as far east as Chicago, they would drive through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. They traveled through the Ozarks, the Okalahoma prairie, the Texas Panhandle, the Great Plains, the Mountains of northern Arizona, the Arizona and California desert. They had to prepare for cold and great heat. On long stretches of road a Model T might be far from civilization in the midst of forbidding geography. Still it was an adventure, with picnics beside the car, for those picking up and moving, and for those inaugurating the tradition of the long distance road trip.

From the beginning, Route 66 was promoted across the nation. The National U.S. 66 Highway Association dubbed the route “The Main Street of America.” A marathon foot race, The Bunion Derby was organized to follow it in 1928. The soon to be famous sequential Burma Shave signs appeared along the route:

A peach

looks good

with lots of fuzz

but man’s no peach

and never was

Burma Shave

It didn’t hurt either that in its last years, a Model T could be purchased for as little as $290, only $3,000 in today’s money, or nearly three quarters the cost of that single 1860 stage coach trip to California – for a car that was your own and would last.

Julia Dean 2006

It wasn’t long before a new era dawned. The Depression put a crimp in road trip tourism, but it and the Dust Bowl sent new legions, from Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas onto the road. It was the single greatest migration in American history. John Steinbeck, who drove what he and others then called Highway 66, to research his book, memorialized the route in The Grapes of Wrath, providing it with a new, and its most resonant, name:

…and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.

Woody Guthrie sang:

Been on this road for a mighty long time,
Ten million men like me,
You drive us from your town, we ramble around,
And got them 66 Highway Blues.

In the end, one quarter of the Dust Bowl population uprooted itself and moved away. As many as 2.5 million people left the Great Plains, nearly 400,000 of them coming to California, and they did it along Route 66. As no road had been since the 19th century wagon trails, the mother road was at the center of the American story.


Enhanced by Zemanta

3 thoughts on “How We Lived On It (51) – Route 66: The American Road

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *