'66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert's slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there. From all of these the people are in flight, and they 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.'
- from The grapes of wrath by John Steinbeck, 1939
In 1983 two momentous things happened to me: 1) I discovered a love of Louis Armstrong's music that later turned into a lifelong affair with New Orleans-style jazz, and 2) I fell in love with Route 66, a feeling that would forevermore embody my idea of freedom, wanderlust and adventure, and kickstart a lifelong yearning to travel the road myself to experience that.
I'd always wanted to travel, right from when I was about 8 years old. For some reason, I never really did, though, other than little trips around New Zealand by myself. I would squirrel money away and save for a perpetual 'rainy day.' That never came. Finally, I got to 31 years of age (5 years ago) and realised that I'd never travelled because I'd been waiting. For what I'm not sure. Then, at 32, I decided it was do or die, and booked myself a return trip to New Orleans as a 33rd birthday present, a place I'd wanted to visit since the first time I could remember hearing Louis Armstrong. My trip, in 2009, was everything and more I could want it to be, so much so, in fact, that I'm booked to go back in Feb 2012. This time with a sibling. 1983 was also the first time I heard - and felt an affinity for - Nat King Cole's version of 'Route 66' and, much like Louis Armstrong, I decided then and there that one day I would drive it. Something I plan to do for my 2013 international trip. It seemed as good an excuse as any to go a little crazy with research - the good, the bad and the ugly of Route 66. I requested everything even remotely Route 66-related that we have in our libraries (including a book that features a pair of road-inspired socks, I kid you not) and spent the last week going through each book to get an idea of the history of the road, why it was so important, whether or not it still is, and the state of things now. You can bet that I have read everything big, small, fantastic and tacky. And oh! What fun I had! Yeah sure, my trip is two years away, but I doubt my excitement will abate a whit before then. Roll on 2013!
Opened in 1926 and trekking its way across eight US states, Route 66 is, undoubtedly, one of America's most famous highways. For many people the road was a means to an end and allowed them to get away for family holidays. For others it was a pathway to relocating and making new beginnings, new homes and new memories. Over time newer, bigger and improved highways - soulless pavements, as one author put it - saw to the eventual decline of the old route. A move that local businesses and towns felt especially deeply. But the spirit of the road, the heart of it, the legend of it, refuses to die. All of these books (yes, even the grimly cynical account) go a long way toward preserving and recapturing that same feeling and hope. As Bobby Troup wrote (and Nat King Cole recorded) I can't wait to get my kicks on Route 66.
Query: Have you travelled Route 66? Have you ever wanted to?
Note: I'm in the middle of watching a 5 DVD set called Route 66 : marathon tour Chicago to L.A. which is, so far, spectacular. Just make sure you have a fair bit of time set aside to watch it. It hasn't been included in this post as a recommended title simply because I hadn't finished it by the time this post went live.
Route 66 : the mother road / Michael Wallis
Wallis (Oilman) has spent some 17 years researching and writing this nostalgic revisiting of a road that more than any other kindled the wanderlust after WWII. It was a route that symbolized long- distance auto travel. Here are some 220 period and contemporary photos (190 in fair to fine color). His text covers the history of the road, the hustlers, the builders, the small businessmen that depended upon 66 to bring the customers.
Route 66, lost and found : ruins and relics revisited / Russ Olsen. Vol. 2
For half a century, Route 66 was the main thoroughfare from Chicago to Los Angeles. Built largely from portions of old wagon trails, the 2-lane highway zigzagged through eight states: south from Illinois and slicing southwest through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and finally, into California. Going town by town, Olsen revisits the mid-century road side cafes, motels and service stations that thrived along the old route, juxtaposing his own photographs with vintage postcards or archival photos of each building in its heyday. The result is an illustrated catalogue of 75 buildings in various states of renovation, expansion, desolation and decay. For example, the Painted Desert Trading Post in Navajo, Ariz., pictured with busy motorists filling up on gas in 1942, is today windowless and surrounded by sagebrush, its painted stucco exterior scoured by decades of desert sand and wind. Meanwhile, the Riviera tavern in Gardner, Ill., still sits open, its white clapboard exterior and Schlitz beer sign remarkably unchanged. Olsen intertwines the highway’s history with the personal stories of the owners and patrons who recall vividly when the new 4-lane interstate system put the old road on the path to obsolescence. But before its decline, it served as "The Mother Road" for those fleeing the Dust Bowl, a main artery for WWII military transport and arms production and later, a sunny vacation route for hordes of post-war tourists. For those unable to get their kicks in person, this virtual road trip preserves the memory and adventure of Route 66.
Travelling Route 66 : more than 2,000 miles of motoring history from Chicago to L.A. / Nick Freeth
This guide to the Mother Road takes you on an illustrated 2,000-mile journey down a highway that has rapidly become part of the American Dream. Complete with detailed travel notes, colour photographs of landmarks, quotes, anecdotes, and recipes from the road, this is the ideal guidebook.
Tosca's comment: A cute little book that manages to tie-in what the road used to be with what it is more-or-less now, so you get an idea of the advertising of the time, the cars they drove, the roadside attractions and even a comparative look at iconic buildings then and now.
Legendary Route 66: A journey through time along America's Mother Road / Michael Karl Witzel and Gyvel Young-Witzel
"It started in the heartland and ended in Los Angeles (not, contrary to myth, at the ocean). It carried truckers crossing the country, Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl, vacationers seeking the sun. It was America's Main Street, the Mother Road, the Will Rogers Highway, and, at its dangerous curves, Bloody 66. Get your kicks on Route 66 with this wonderfully illustrated tribute to the best-loved highway in this car-loving nation. Michael Witzel, whose collection of Route 66 memorabilia surpasses any other, shares his expertise and wealth of images in these pages, offering a nostalgic tour of the charms and oddities of this road through American cultural history. Starting in Chicago and running to L.A., this book highlights the sights along the highway with historic and current photos in then-and-now pairings, and includes Route 66 postcards, road signs, trinkets, maps, brochures, and advertisements. Here we see Route 66 as it was in its heyday and as it is now, the neon glamour of yesterday versus the ghost towns of today. Witzel and his wife, Gyvel Young-Witzel, recount the highway's history, its role in popular culture, and its demise, as well as the individual stories of famous sights. Several profiles of those with close ties to the Mother Road, including the woman who played Ruthie Joad in the The Grapes of Wrath film, are included" -- Publisher's description.
Tosca's comment: Beautifully, big book that traces the history of the road with images and memories. Does a fantastic job of capturing the spirit of the route for those seeking adventure, a new home or new lives.
Route 66 adventure handbook / Drew Knowles and Road trip USA : Route 66 / Jamie Jensen
Tosca's comment: I know, I know! I've cheated and listed two books at number one but it was for one very good reason: both titles manage to contain bite-size chunks of information without leaving anything out and still remain readable and humorous. They're the kind of books I would take with me on my trip. As much as I love the huge pictorial books about Route 66, they're not titles I can easily cart around.