Why Route 66 became America’s most famous road

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00:00   |   Aug 16, 2019


Why Route 66 became America’s most famous road
Why Route 66 became America’s most famous road thumb Why Route 66 became America’s most famous road thumb Why Route 66 became America’s most famous road thumb


  • Why does Route 66 matter?
  • “Hi. My name is Jean and I’m from France.
  • And last year I went on a trip in the West Coast, and
  • we passed by Route 66.”
  • “Our trip was from LA to Chicago all the
  • way, taking the mother road, haha.” “We would stop at all the museums on the
  • way, we stopped at the one in Elk City, Oklahoma and we stood on top of the train.”
  • “I’m Fabian from Germany. Last year, I was visiting my family in California.
  • While driving on Route 66, I had to stop to take photos of the beautiful sunset.”
  • “The plan of the trip is to have no plan at all.”
  • “My husband and I went back and even visited Route 66 and Williams for our honeymoon.”
  • “Hey.”
  • Why is Route 66 not only famous, but internationally
  • famous? “Starting off Route 66.”
  • The road starts in Chicago, slides down the country,
  • and ends up all the way in Santa Monica.
  • Convert that distance to time and you get
  • a different story. In 1926, the road was commissioned.
  • By 1957, the Interstate Highway System began, and it bypassed the route by 1970. In 1985,
  • Route 66 was fully decommissioned. Route 66 has been in the shadows twice as
  • long as it was in the spotlight. But there’s still this energy around it.
  • I talked to Ron Warnick, he’s the editor of Route 66 News, which is an obsessive Route
  • 66 site, and his articles just came alive with people reminiscing about Route 66.
  • “It was about Oklahoma Joes. It was this dive bar in Albuquerque near the University
  • of New Mexico campus. I put it out there, and pretty soon, all sorts of people were
  • exchanging their memories about the bar.”
  • This road has three distinct eras.
  • It’s got secrets, and surprises, and even a future.
  • The Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo has
  • a challenge: eat 72 ounces of steak and sides, in under an hour, and you get it for free.
  • I am going to switch to phone mode here. Alright. Before you get to a cardiac arrest-threatening challenge
  • like this, you actually have to go back more than a hundred years.
  • Before Federal highways, networks of largely privately owned auto trails, like the ones
  • on this 1920 Rand McNally map, were standard. Look at the chaotic number of options in the
  • legend. As Federal highway funding laws were passed
  • in the 1910s and 1920s, new maps planned a linked highway system, like this one drafted
  • by World War I General John Pershing. This telegram from April 30, 1926, from Springfield,
  • Missouri established Route 66 (they initially wanted the nice round number of Route 60,
  • but settled for 66). Cyrus Avery is called the “father of Route
  • 66” for helping create the highway to promote his home of Tulsa and creating the U.S. Highway
  • 66 Association the next year. That connection from Chicago to Santa Monica
  • was always a weird shape, and less intuitive than a transcontinental road. But it had lobbying
  • interest behind it and a good starting point with existing roads.
  • Texaco rated road conditions in maps like this 1934 one. As the legend shows, Route
  • 66 was just a graded road in parts, basically flattened dirt. Look at the journey from Amarillo
  • to Glenrio. There’s still parts of Route 66 that look like this today. But they finished
  • paving the whole thing in 1937. To get all that work started in the 1920s,
  • the Route 66 association pushed stunts and did publicity that wouldn’t have seemed
  • out of place in the 1950s and 60s. When a transcontinental footrace called the
  • “Bunion Derby” was run, the association made sure a big part of it took place on Route 66.
  • But it was struggle that initially made Route
  • 66’s reputation.
  • “We’re going to California, ain’t we? Alright then, let’s go to California.”
  • The Great Depression and Dust Bowl — a rut
  • of drought and erosion — sent families looking West for a better life.
  • Route 66 was perfectly designed to scoop them up, leading John Steinbeck to write that these
  • migrants “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.”
  • Though records show that highways 60 and 70 actually admitted more traffic to California,
  • Route 66 had become the iconic “mother road.” And then things really got going.
  • Okay, I have a slight wait before I dine alone, so there’s time for activities.
  • That thing’s terrifying. “Oh, it is.”
  • This boot’s a metaphor for steak — and boots.
  • It’s time.
  • I feel like the only way to go mega-vi is to get that 72 ounce steak.
  • OK, see that big 66 on there? Amarillo, Texas, is a good example of a big
  • Route 66 town. They were already a transportation center.
  • This 1926 map — the year Route 66 started — shows Amarillo was a railroad hub.
  • After World War II ended, that existing commerce and Route 66 made it easy to add roadside
  • attractions. And it’s still that way today.
  • Over time, Route 66 did this for towns a lot smaller than Amarillo, too.
  • This is the middle of the video, by the way. Right now. Yeah.
  • It also did it for Vega, Texas.
  • Carolyn was nice enough to be my tour guide.
  • She showed me her house.
  • “This is Ben’s dad. And grandpa and me.”
  • “Oh wow.”
  • She’s very into dinosaurs.
  • “Armorage and spikes. And teeth.”
  • “And so where did you find these?”
  • “Out North of Town.” And she also showed me the Magnolia Gas Station,
  • which got started just before Route 66 became official. She actually helped restore the
  • space, including the second floor, where people used to live.
  • “OK.” “It’s a filling station, but somebody
  • said at one time they also sold ice. I’m not too sure about that part.”
  • “The kitchen was green. The bedroom was blue. See, I hung pans up there so you’d
  • know it was the kitchen.”
  • “Those pictures are neat because they show
  • the horses pulling the cars out of the water.”
  • To support all that travel and all those attractions,
  • Route 66 had a unique motel culture. Of course, even as it succeeded, Route 66
  • was limited by the prevailing prejudices of the time.
  • The Green Book was a traveling guide for black motorists to find safe lodging.
  • In Tucumcari, New Mexico, in 1960, listed options were scarce.
  • Route 66 made a culture, but it didn’t change the existing one.
  • And in the 1960s, just as the Route 66 road trip hit its peak, the road was already being eclipsed.
  • Today, Glenrio, New Mexico is a ghost town.
  • It’s not alone.
  • After the Interstate Highway Act of 1956,
  • new, better funded interstates were built for defense and infrastructure.
  • In Texas and New Mexico, you can see how I-40 followed Route 66 in some spots, but also
  • split away. This is what that can look like.
  • But it doesn’t have to.
  • “We had the privilege of designing and creating
  • two murals, one here in Joplin, Missouri, and another in Galena, Kansas.”
  • “We wanted to help revitalize and show off our local area on historic Route 66.”
  • “Route 66.”
  • “I’m the president of the Oklahoma Statewide
  • Route 66 association and I’m the chair of the Tulsa Route 66 commission. About ten years
  • ago, I sold everything I owned and left the country and I backpacked for ten months throughout
  • Southeast Asia and Europe. When I got home to Tulsa, which is where I was raised, I thought
  • Okay, I’ve seen all these amazing places, what does Tulsa have? Of course, Route 66
  • goes right through Tulsa. I thought, well, it’s been here the whole time, I haven’t
  • really paid attention, and started exploring it.”
  • “I’m Larry Smith and I’m owner/operator of the Motel Safari in Tucumcari, New Mexico,
  • on historic Route 66.” “Yeah, this is the motel I’m staying at.”
  • “I’d hit a wall with my job at the time and I noticed while I was driving 66 that
  • the road was using a lot of that older generation. It really needed the right people to own the
  • businesses along the Route.”
  • But saving Route 66 doesn’t answer the big
  • question: why it matters.
  • So I did not eat a 72-ounce steak. But I found
  • somebody who did. “This is the most excited I’ve been for
  • an interview since I talked to an astronaut.” “The story behind it is that I compete in
  • track and field professionally, I throw the shot. I was kind of injured at the time and
  • I performed really terribly and we were gonna drive through Amarillo. I heard about the
  • steak, so I’m like, ‘I have to have one win.’ And honestly, it’s not the fullness,
  • it’s the chewing. By the end I was like, I can’t chew anything else and I was drinking
  • as much water as possible to get it down. I’m glad I did it but I don’t know if
  • I’d ever do that again. I mean, I do a lot of ridiculous things. Hey, didn’t do well
  • at this track meet? I’m gonna eat a 72-ounce steak to prove to myself I can overcome something.”
  • The Big Texan Ranch isn’t on Route 66 anymore. The owner moved it closer to I-40 in 1970.
  • And yet it still is Route 66. We think of places on a map as dots. But maybe
  • a place can be a line.
  • “There was desert as far as the eye can
  • see.” “I was getting to the point where I needed
  • a break from seeing patients in and out. So I called up my friend from med school and
  • said, ‘hey we have this window, would you be interested in a road trip?’”
  • “Route 66 kinda became a character in our journey. It was kinda like the Oregon Trail
  • with all the challenges popping up, and the prize at the end was our new home at the end
  • of the highway.” “I had a flat tire. So I took my camera
  • out and took some long exposure shots of my car and the night sky.”
  • “So the graduation gift to my three boys as they exit high school is a 14-day
  • driving trip out West — St. George, Utah — to meet my biological family.”
  • “My great great grandfather, Ramon Negrette, emigrated from Mexico to a tiny town in Arizona
  • called Williams in the early 1900s, before Route 66 was there. He painted the house yellow
  • and it is still there today, the yellow house in Williams. We think my great grandma still haunts
  • the house? What I love about Route 66 is that it’s not just a road that’s going through
  • tiny towns and big towns in America. It’s a road that goes through people’s histories
  • and carries legacies of perseverance and hope, and I think that’s what makes it so fascinating
  • and so beautiful.”
  • Alright, that’s it for this road trip along Route 66. I’m about to read a couple of
  • comments from the last episode all about why every suburb looks the same, but first I just
  • want to give a little plug for the Vox Video Lab. In there right now I’ve got a special
  • video that shows exactly how I did one shot in the Route 66 video that you just saw. It’s
  • an obsessive, nerdy, technical breakdown and that’s the kind of behind-the-scenes stuff
  • that you always get in the Video Lab, in addition to supporting big videos like this one. Now
  • let’s look at a couple of comments. “As a European, it’s so weird to see streets
  • without a pavement/sidewalk. Where tf are you supposed to walk?”
  • Yeah. City Beautiful and Vox both made a video on
  • this in the same day. Yes. This is the craziest coincidence I’ve
  • experienced in almost 100 videos. We turned out to be video soulmates and we made this
  • video very very close apart even though both of us had been working on it for months. But
  • the take home point here, besides a crazy coincidence or glitch in the Matrix? City
  • Beautiful’s an awesome channel if you’re interested in urban planning. Go ahead and
  • add them to your subscription feed if you want more videos like that. That’s it for
  • this one, the next episode of this Road Trip edition of Almanac is the last one, and it
  • tackles how roads can shape public policy in really unexpected ways.

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Route 66 is iconic. Why?

Help us make more ambitious videos by joining the Vox Video Lab. It brings you closer to our work and gets you exclusive perks, like livestream Q&As with all the Vox creators, a badge that levels up over time, and video extras bringing you closer to our work! Learn more at http://bit.ly/video-lab

Route 66 has gained a reputation as the United States of America’s most famous road. How did that happen, and why does it still matter?

In this episode of Vox Almanac, Vox’s Phil Edwards explores the history of the road and the textures of its present, from the road itself to the roadside attractions along the way, to the people who enjoy its diversions and those who help maintain them. It reveals a road that’s changed a lot over the decades but remains vital in unexpected ways.

When Cyrus Avery helped found Route 66 in the 1920s, he strived to create a road that would connect the Midwest to the West, and he resorted to promotional tricks and wheeling and dealing to get it done. The road quickly became a key route for migrants escaping the dust bowl and depression, forming its early reputation as “the Mother Road.”

That’s because it’s a road that’s more than a strip of concrete (or gravel, or dirt). It’s a historical document of everyone who’s traveled on it — as the many contributions from Vox’s YouTube subscribers show, that keeps it going even as the interstates run alongside it.

The number of Route 66 resources out there is huge, but we found these particularly helpful.

Check out Ron's site!

The Curt Teich Archives
You won't find essays here, but you will find a treasure trove of postcards that we used in this piece, including tons of Route 66 arcana.

Route 66: The Highway and Its People
I got to speak with Quinta Scott about her gorgeous photographs of Route 66, as well as the interviews she recorded with coauthor Susan Kelly. This book is a pleasure to look at and is packed full of information and interviews that you just can’t get any more.

The Route 66 Road Ahead Partnership
If you’re curious about Route 66 preservation and revitalization, this group is one of the strongest interstate partnerships searching for new ways to promote and improve the road.

Our video about the Green Book, a critical resource for black Americans wanting to travel across the country on Route 66 and beyond in the mid-1900s. /watch?v=b33PN2NB2Do

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