Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Narratives of the Mother Road: Geographic Themes along Route 66

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Narratives of the Mother Road: Geographic Themes along Route 66

Article excerpt

Connecting Chicago to Los Angeles, Route 66 is a symbol of American identity, a pilgrimage site for personal voyages of self-discovery, as well as an economic resource for local communities, nonprofit organizations, and government entities who have opened a series of museums and interpretive sites near the highway. A recent study noted the annual direct economic impact of Route 66 is about $132 million with an economic multiplier effect of $262 million, including 2,400 jobs created along the roadway (Listokin and others 2011). Both Americans and international tourists alike drive sections of Route 66, stop at roadside attractions, visit historic and interpretive sites, and meet the colorful personalities along the road. For many, Route 66 is a reflection of American culture and a window into the past.

In 1926, Federal officials designated U.S. Highway 66 (commonly called Route 66). The road was a 2,400-mile diagonal route that connected Chicago, St. Louis, Tulsa, and Oklahoma City before turning west towards Amarillo, Albuquerque, and Los Angeles. As states paved sections of the road, boosters quickly promoted the highway as the "Main Street of America" (Wallis 2001; Cassity 2004; Dedek 2007). Periods of boom and bust followed.

By the mid-1930s, Highway 66 became a road of economic desperation as Dust Bowl migrants moved to the West Coast. John Steinbeck captured the essence of this movement when he described Okies funneling "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" (Steinbeck 1939, 151). After World War II ended, tourism along 66 increased as the road acted as the main corridor connecting the Midwest and Southern California. Businesses vied to provide increased services to consumers and large neon signs attempted to woo customers away from competing businesses (Scott and Kelly 1988; Dedek 2007). The post-World War II euphoria surrounding Route 66 was captured by the hit song "(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66," written by Bobby Troup and first recorded by Nat "King" Cole in 1946. Complete with references to major cities along the highway, Cole's hip, jazz-infused interpretation of the road anthem helped to make Route 66 an American cultural icon (Krim 2006).

The post-World War II euphoria surrounding Route 66 ended when state and federal officials formulated plans to replace the road with interstate highways. The new four-lane, limited-access super slabs were built in sections over the next several decades and portions of Route 66 were either dismantled or marginalized as access roads, while businesses astride the highway stagnated (Scott and Kelly 1988; Ross 2011). Ironically, during this transition Route 66 gained additional notoriety thanks to the weekly CBS television show Route 66. Millions followed the escapades of Tod and Buz as they drove around the country in a new Corvette convertible while completing good deeds and making difficult moral decisions (Krim 2006).

After the federal government decertified Route 66 as a functioning roadway in 1985, nostalgia quickly grew and the highway cemented its place as an iconic national symbol (Krim 2006). Today, Route 66 remains firmly entrenched in the American imagination and the road has been introduced to a new generation thanks to the success of the 2006 animated Pixar film Cars. Because of the emergence of Route 66 as an American cultural icon and an economic resource, nonprofit entities, state governments, and individuals have operated a series of museums and historic sites near the highway.

This study analyzes how interpretive sites in the eight states Route 66 passes through--Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California--portray the history of the road to tourists (Figure 1). While we were interested in uncovering regional differences in historical memory, we primarily looked for themes that transcended regional classification and unified the tourist experience along Route 66. …

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