Highway 99 History like an Armchair Road Trip

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), November 16, 2003 | Go to article overview

Highway 99 History like an Armchair Road Trip


Byline: Bob Keefer The Register-Guard

Growing up in 1950s Southern California, Jill Livingston and her sister enjoyed the heyday of pre-interstate car culture.

Their family took lengthy road trips in a '53 Ford and a Rambler American, passing neon-signed motels and kitschy roadside attractions. One time they drove all the way to the Seattle World's Fair.

That trip would have taken them up Highway 99, the original two-lane highway that still runs - in much altered form - from Mexico to Canada through the three West Coast states.

It's against that family background that the two women this year published the third in a series of books they've written and photographed over the past eight years about the highway, its culture and history.

``That Ribbon of Highway III: Highway 99 Through the Pacific Northwest'' - now in its second printing - traces 99's development from an unrelated series of roads and trails at the beginning of the 20th century to its glory days in the middle of the century and its eventual overshadowing by Interstate 5.

But that description doesn't do justice to this quirky and appealing little book, which is really more of a love letter to America's highway past. It starts with a combination of good writing - unusual in a self-published book - and solid photography.

With that, the 252-page book meanders happily through the development of the original Pacific Highway, as 99 was once called here, exulting in roadside vernacular architecture - those restaurants and gas stations shaped like little brown jugs or cowboy boots - and the promotional literature of the early highway era.

In a 1931 ``Town Tourist Guide of the Pacific Highway and Old Oregon Trail,'' for example, Grants Pass boasted "the lowest wind velocity in the United States." Eugene claimed, "To live in Eugene is to really live."

And Salem touted this wonderful distinction: "When you visit Salem, you can truthfully say, `I am now in the center of the greatest long fiber flax growing district in the United States.' '

Livingston said the book grew out of those long family trips.

"As children we traveled up and down Highway 99 quite a bit," she said by phone from her home in Klamath River, Calif. "It's a highway that goes all the way from Mexico to Canada. It left an impression. How different travel was back then. We were traveling in a '53 Ford Ranch Wagon with no air conditioning up and down the Central Valley of California."

About eight years ago, Livingston and her sister stumbled across an old stretch of the original 99 near her home.

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