US Route 66, & the History of the US Highway System

old route 66 sign against a carnival background

Photograph by Sam Howzit


Just as America saw mighty steel trains and messages via the telegraph dart across the country, these technological marvels of the time were matched only by the bicycle.

A contraption that allowed a man to turn himself, essentially, into a horse meant that the world was significantly smaller for everyone with the good fortune of owning a bike. The public’s interest in building roads across the nation was sparked, and as the 20th Century turned its lights on, as Henry Ford was capturing Edison’s last breath and the Model T was making it possible for everyday Americans to own and drive a car, so the highway bloomed.

Imagine following the Arrowhead Trail, setting off in the most basic of earliest automobiles, crossing the long, red desert stretching out between the Great Salt Lake and Los Angeles, in Hollywood’s infancy arriving out west in a vehicle with no trace of a roadside assistance plan save what you were man enough to drum up on your own. Imagine families leaving the skyline of Chicago behind for a trek on the Black and Yellow Trail across the Great Plains and on to Yellowstone National Park. Or make a real roadtrip out of it, and load the Mrs. up for a stroll down the Evergreen National Highway, from the rainforested tips of British Columbia to the border heat of El Paso, Texas.

These auto trails could perhaps be thought of as a sort of Wikipedia of their time, in that they were largely controlled and created by the people, by who might be holding enough paint to declare a road part of a particular trail. They were crowdsourced suggestions at where you might want to go, had you been wanting to go somewhere.

As 1921 reared up a New Year, as the Flappers opened up their minds and threw out their inhibitions, as jazz was filling up smokey lounges and prohibition gave rise to speakeasies and organized crime alike, the US Numbered Highway System, “the US Highways” for short, was already underway. Two lanes of freedom sprung up in Wisconsin, showing motorists long drives through hilly lake country. New England followed with it’s own competing system, and while over time the US Highways would dominate the various scattered auto trail and regional systems with their black and white shields and logical numbering scheme, the pattern for the American road trip was born. Along with it rose so many other truly American traditions. Silver diners and drive in movie theaters, roadside attractions, motels, hitchhikers, biker gangs and rights of passage, they all hail for the open road to taxi them into somewhere, some adventure.

By 1926, US Route 1 snaked down the Atlantic, from Maine and through Boston, into New York and on through the southern states, born to everyday watch the ocean rise over the ocean. Similarly, US Route 101 followed a similar, if not more drastic, more desolate route along the Pacific Ocean, likewise nightly watching as the same sun which rose over America now disappeared back into the sea. US Route 20 became America’s Longest Road at over 3300 miles of pavemented escape darting out of Boston and along the Great Lakes heading ever westward, amber waves of grain and purple mountains majesty until coming to an epicly beautiful stop in Newport, Oregon as the seals bark away the incoming fisherman.

old rusted out blue car in a field
Photograph by Bill Barber

These are the legends, the roads that defined what it was to be an American, the same roads that rock stars and hippies would roam, that called out to nearly every early twenty something to go, go West and find yourself. They made California possible for a girl from Michigan, and provided access to the Rocky Mountains or the southwestern deserts. Suddenly, the states were free to mingle, there was an open road, literally, before the nation.

And no other single road quite made an impression more so than US Route 66.

a white brick building, red and yellow trim, reads 4 Women on the Route 66
Photograph by Pete Zarria

The Mother Road was once the de facto roadtripping experience for anyone looking to truly traverse the heart of the country, to let loose in a Mustang and whatever may happen, well, that’s the point. Swooping from bustling Chicago through midwestern cities like St. Louis and Oklahoma City, on through artsy Santa Fe, hip Flagstaff, and finishing things up in Los Angeles. It was the dream drive, growing bawdy signs and painted enticements for an ever increasing number of motorlodges.

There were no cell phones, and significantly fewer people on the road, due to sheer population, than there are today. If you broke down, you’d do well to know how to fix an engine or at least swap out a tire. History was born almost every day, with nearly every car. Even if no one bothered to write it down.

Probably without even knowing it, the Americans of these days gone by were living out the last remaining moments of an era. Soon President Eisenhower would put through the funding for the Interstate Highway System, and this vast collection of US Highways weaving through the most beautiful of America’s offerings, serving as the slow and steady Main Streets for so much of the country, would be buried, bypassed and rerouted into obscurity in favor of 85 MPH straightaways that could accommodate a nation’s growing desire with the destination to seemingly spite the journey.

Just as trains disappeared with the advent of the car, never to fully rise again, so do the US Highways face an ultimate eventuality. They will never make another one of these black and white beauties again, even while they commonly upgrade them to Interstate status as time goes on and more traffic needs more lanes. But that is what’s so special about those that do remain, 101 through the Redwoods, 50 through Nevada, 90 through West Texas, 17 down South Carolina’s Coast and 6 through Pennsylvania…they are a piece of history that can be experienced today like no one will ever be able to quite experience it tomorrow, if the chance remains then at all. They’re a final lap around a memory of an America so vividly painted by Norman Rockwell but even still fading in our collective minds. And we’ve got the chance to take any of them we choose.

Alas, then along came Dwight D. Eisenhower and, well, with presumably good intentions as a World War faded into the Great Depression, with wide eyed hope that a national system of roads would build a stronger America, solidifying a super power and re-uniting a nation, the Interstate was devised and begun. How could he know that the beloved mom-and-pops that had fed, bed and lead us all along these beautiful two lanes would eventually succumb to the blight of chain hotels and fast food polka dot empires dotting nearly every exit approved by those in power. The effort was commendable, if the eventuality somewhat depressing in its own right. We now have a mighty national network of significantly higher-speed-than-typically-posted freeways, a project which has been called the largest public works program since the Pyramids of Egypt, and it does its vital part in keeping the economic wheels of this country spinning at a rate equivalent to that of our multitasking, ladder climbing lives, but at what cost?

Not all is bad news when it comes to the freeways though. As dwindling as the US Highways might be, they have nearly as often been blessed with allowing the small towns they run through to remain largely unscathed by time; the farmlands they wander through are typically devoid of heavy traffic; their two lanes typically completely absent of tractor trailer traffic. Tractor traffic, perhaps, but not of the big rig variety. And for that, at least, we can nod back at Eisenhower as both a deliverer of the future as well as a preserver of our past.

Indeed though, as the United States Government began subsidizing roads, sending grants to states who could match them, using it eventually as leverage over a national drinking age and perpetually and again for other purposes, so set another tradition: welfare. As Republicans and Democrats are aflame over whether we as citizens should allow government to control such a vital aspect of our lives as health care, the reality that we put our lives into the hands of the government everyday by participating in one of the original forms of welfare: these free, government funded roads. It’s a tax I, for one, am happy to pay.

The effects of the US Highway System, particularly of the Interstate freeways, wraps like twine through and around the bail of hay we call our homeland. Where the two lanes meandered through small towns and big city downtowns, showing American motorists the heart and soul of what this nation had to offer, the Interstate evacuated them in and out of downtowns, and completely around small towns.

Bustling Main Streets died out as the freeway cut them out of passing motorists conscience altogether. Thriving downtown neighborhoods saw the massive migrations of anyone with any amount of money at all into the suburbs, leaving our cities to ghetto and neglect. Even as quickly as it was now possible to get from one side of Chicago to the other, shopping malls sprung up, displacing smaller urban businesses. At the same time, particular towns saw the advantage as their citizens, watching the times changing at 55mph and faster, made concerted efforts to preserve their history, their small town charm.

In the earliest half of the last century, riding via train&151;whether commuting from Portland, Oregon to the Pacific Ocean for a Saturday afternoon on the beach or from New York City to Washington, DC for enterprise class power lunches&151;was a common occurrence. Trolleys shuttled city residents around town. The debonair sipped cocktails aboard passenger cars and a nation was proud of its history of having built a transcontinental railroad and all that came with it. The only thing, it would seem, that Americans could love more than their trains, were their cars. Now transportation became a thing of independence. No waiting for others to get on and off, no crowded cars, no interaction. As the Big Three came to dominate the business world, so did they help to ensure that our personalized means of moving about the world would send the train to its current home of freight and amusement.

Even as our President touted the benefits of highspeed trains&151;safer, faster, logically more enjoyable than sitting in a cramped seat with no way to stretch out&151;we turned him down. America will love its cars, and no amount of rhyme or reason will change that anytime soon.

That is not an insult exclusively, though. It is simply an observation. One could tout environmental concerns, the fact that automobile accidents are consistently topping the list of most likely way to die of accidental death, or simply the effects your modern day gas pump will have on a man’s wallet. These are irrelevant, however, because we have come to know, from the moment we’re born practically, that here in the US it is freedom above all else that is important. And the automobile and the system of roads we’ve built across this country give us that in a way that very little short of bungee jumping off of the moon can.

No road quite shares the glory of this legacy of fuzzy dice and best friends, of thumbs in the air and cigarettes out the window as much as Route 66. Officially, while one of the original and most fabled of all of the US Highways, the road has been decommissioned since 1985. Signage in gas stations, kitsch boutiques and KOAs alike however, not to mention officially designated “Historic Route 66″s in many of the states it once passed through, beg to differ.

Yes, it’s blatantly found its way into America’s culture with full on references in the well known “get your kicks on…” tune covered by everyone from Tom Petty to punk rockers to Nat King Cole to karaoke stars across the world. Who doesn’t think of that very road when Don Henley tells us about standing on the corner in Winslow, Arizona? It serves, in Grapes of Wrath, as the source of hope and seed of despair as the Joad family seeks better luck next time. Or Tod and Buz in their Corvette, for you old timers.

Nothing can strip away the route completely though, short of digging up the entirety of the original more than 2000 miles of concrete spanning from Chicago to St. Louis through the deserts and on to California. While you can change a sign, you can’t change a plan, a desire, an inspiration to move and see, be and do and not just read about or think you understand. It used to be known as the Mother Road, and truth be told, without even trying, on my very first roadtrip I caught up with the general gist of the old road somewhere just south of Chicago and&151;again, this is all by accident&151;wound up following it well into California. It’s simply a natural way to move across this country.

Chicago itself is, in my opinion, the most American of cities. It wears neither the flagrant disregard for compassion and elbow room that New York seems to boast nor the exorcism of reality that LA seems so desperate to Botox, laser lipo and bleach blonde away. The collar only gets bluer as you find your way into Missouri, passing through the gateway into the midwest but avoiding a healthy dose of that Kansas/Nebraska highway hypnosis. As Texas turns New Mexico goes Arizona, the desert seems less something to fear as much as revere. And then it’s all off into the sunset.

Born from bicycles, pulled together out of necessity and then exploded into Superhighways, our continental system of roads is as complicated as the legacy behind the nation itself. It is simultaneously responsible for more deaths and more intense feelings of carte blanche than both the destruction of this land’s native people and first trips to the moon. There will never be another history of the highway quite like it, because we are the inventor of both what it means to drive the automobile as well as what we’ll drive it on. It is a moment in time that, in 2012, we can both still experience the 1916 variety on roads like US Route 50 as well as the eight, twelve lane fiascos of modern day commuting, say in such places as Miami, Florida. If you’ve never known travel, if you’re itching to find out what it means to be out and about, why so many people put so much emphasis on this “seeing the world” thing, where better to start than the closest, longest two lane highway you can find?

Point your hood ornament west and don’t turn around until you hit the ocean.