Historic Route 66, from Chicago to Santa Monica, has captured the imagination of everyone from Steinbeck to the Stones.
Route 66 was first called the Mother Road by John Steinbeck in 1939. In his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, the Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck wrote poignantly about a migrant family fleeing Dust-Bowl era hardship in search of a better life in California.
Route 66 has come to symbolize a pioneering and adventurous spirit. Its appeal is reflected in a host of American song lyrics, soundtracks, posters, movies, murals and museums.
Route 66 – the Music and the Magic
In the music world, two American stars in particular helped capture and stir the spirit of Route 66: Bobby Troup and Nelson Riddle. In 1946, songwriter Bobby Troup composed the contagiously upbeat melody and lyrics to “Route 66,” with its iconic line, “Get Your Kicks on Route 66.”
The song was an instant hit when recorded the next year by Nat King Cole. Countless interpretations have been recorded by diverse stars, including:
- Chuck Berry
- Natalie Cole
- Perry Como
- Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters
- Bob Dylan
- Jerry Lee Lewis
- The Manhattan Transfer
- Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
- The Rolling Stones
The song came to epitomize the free-spirited appeal of the open road and the adventure of taking “the highway that is the best” … “if you plan to motor west.”
The popular “Route 66” television series was launched in 1960. Nelson Riddle composed, arranged and performed the show’s hit instrumental theme song. (The Nelson Riddle Orchestra also recorded popular soundtracks for other popular TV shows, including My Three Sons and the Andy Griffith Show.)
The Route 66 television series was filmed on location. It followed the adventures of Tod Stiles, played by Martin Milner, and Buzz Murdock, played by George Maharis. When Tod inherits a flashy new Corvette, the two embark on a carefree American road trip. The show featured many sites, states and stars, including Robert Redford, Martin Sheen and Ethyl Waters. By 1963, Maharis was replaced by Tod’s new sidekick – Lincoln Case, played by Glenn Corbett.
In 2006, the Disney/Pixar movie “Cars” captured much of the same friendly and free-spirited Route 66 experience. The animated car characters include Lightning McQueen, a hotshot, always-in-a-hurry rookie racecar. McQueen is forced to slow down his pace after an accident while en route to a prestigious race. The movie portrays the character, characters and charisma of Route 66. It tells the story of McQueen’s perspective-changing detour to a humble, off-the-track town called Radiator Springs. It’s “the cutest little town in Carburator County,” according to Tow-mater, a rusty and personable tow truck.
Route 66 – the Cars and the Kitsch
Route 66 parallels America’s automobile history and experience. Once Henry Ford streamlined assembly lines and brought newfound mobility to the nation, Americans were eager to explore.
In the 1960s, cars took on more horsepower, new colors and styles, and plenty of chrome. It was the era of Mustangs, T-Birds, Cadillacs, Cameros, Corvettes, hardtops, ragtops, fastbacks, coupes and convertibles. Cars were big, roads were clear and gas was 30 cents a gallon.
Much of America’s pop culture revolved around cars. There were drive-in movies, drive-up windows, and drive-in restaurants with carhops balancing generous trays of malts, onion rings and burgers. There were fuzzy dice, chrome that sparkled, and drivers wearing cool shades, poodle skirts or leather jackets. There were full-service gas stations, friendly roadside cafes, and clever signs, from Burma-Shave ads to star-struck neon or towering “muffler men.” It was all part of a newly mobile era.
Route 66 – In the Interstate’s Shadow
Over the years, Route 66 was improved and realigned, often taking more efficient or less heavily trafficked routes. But in 1956, the National Interstate Highways Act threatened to pull traffic away from Route 66. Small businesses along Route 66, history buffs and fans of the Mother Road fought to protect it. However, by the 1980s, transportation officials had taken Route 66 off of the U.S. Highway System. Other highways and Interstates soon took its place. Sections of Old Route 66 were abandoned, rerouted or replaced by other highways, but many portions of the original road still remain.
Route 66 Road and Scenic Byway Make a Comeback
Fans and friends of Route 66 still work to preserve, protect and promote the road and its relics. Thanks to their efforts and further fueled by the popularity of the “Cars” movie about Route 66, the road is making a comeback.
Historic Route 66 still draws adventurers, vacationers, day-trippers, caravans and convoys of cars and motorcycles. The annual Route 66 festival in Springfield, IL, still attracts thousands of fans and is increasingly popular. Parts of the original road in Arizona are designated as a National Historic Landmark. Other sections are official state or national Scenic Byways.
Distinctive brown highway signs mark the Route 66 trail. Special maps and directions are available and new maps are starting to trace the trail once again. After all these years, Route 66 still inspires pioneers, wayfarers and pop culture fans from all walks of life to “get their kicks on Route 66!”