The Mother Road’s Youngest Tell Its Story

Five millennials document their kicks on Route 66.

By Zach Mortice

Morgan Vickers at Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas. Photo by David Kafer.

Route 66, the nation’s first all-paved national highway connecting the Midwest to California, is best read as the first draft of contemporary America. Its establishment in 1926 definitively ended any notions of an untamed Western frontier, and it signaled the beginning of America’s total transition to a nation defined by settlement, landscape, and automobile obsession.

So much of Route 66’s cultural resources and history are dedicated and scaled to the car: motels, highways, bridges, gas stations, drive-in theaters, and oddball curios that read well from a speeding Ford. Its 2,400 miles cut through eight states and 300 towns, from Chicago to Los Angeles. It channeled migrants to the fertile coast during the Great Depression and soldiers and equipment to the Asian front during World War II.

But Route 66 eventually fell victim to the car’s success. In 1945, 65,000 cars were manufactured in America. Three years later that number had grown to 3.9 million. Cars became so omnipresent that this two-lane road was soon superseded by four-lane interstate highways. By the time it was decommissioned in 1985, Route 66 had been replaced by sections of I-55, I-44, I-40, I-15, and I-10. Overshadowed by the interstate system, the communities that had sprung up around the route were cut off from the lifeblood of commerce that it supplied them.

Earlier this summer, the National Trust for Historic Preservation began a campaign for historical recognition and preservation of the businesses, signage, and landscapes of Route 66. Permanent recognition as a National Historic Trail would mean that establishments and sites along the route could  get more access to financial and technical expertise from the National Park Service and other entities, easing access to grants for funding preservation and rehabilitation of private properties, signage, and road segments. (A bill to accomplish this has already passed the House with bipartisan support.) Named to the 2018 National Trust for Historic Preservation 11 Most Endangered List, Route 66 would be the first national historic trail recognizing modern-day motorized traffic, containing 250 sites that are individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Instead of filing another report on the endangered cultural heritage of the route, the National Trust wanted to curate a living, first-person experience that could introduce Route 66 to a new audience. They wanted to show “this quintessential American road trip that’s been written about and celebrated for decades, [and] tell it through the eyes and ears and Instagram photos of a new generation,” says Jason Clement, the director of marketing campaigns for the trust.

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The Trust hired five millennial “roadies” (a term of endearment for Route 66 aficionados) to traverse the route from July 2 through August 3. Along with a photographer and a handful of National Trust staff, the roadies rotated into an Airstream trailer one at a time, each assigned a specific stretch of road, to document their trip through words, images, and social media posts. Presented as something midway between an expediently organized college road trip and the glossy staging of a lifestyle magazine, the project offered a blue-skied optimism with Polaroid photos and decadent pie Instagrams essential to the shared narrative of Route 66. Each day the roadies set up the Airstream for meet-and-greets at route attractions, a stack of petitions supporting the National Historic Trail designation at the ready. (The entire campaign has collected 39,000 signatures so far). They drove approximately 66 miles each day, across prairies, the Great Plains, deserts, mountains, major cities, small towns, farmland, state parks, and a national park.

Morgan Vickers, a summer intern at the National Trust’s field office in Denver, was one of the five roadies; her stretch of the route took her from Clinton, Oklahoma, to Albuquerque, New Mexico. These landscapes were “diverse and constantly changing,” she says, “and I think the communities really modeled themselves to those evolving landscapes.”

Vickers was taken by the otherworldly rocky outcroppings of eastern New Mexico, amid orange clay and green vegetation. In southwestern Oklahoma, Vickers was amazed by the rolling High Plains hills of countless grazing cattle, with a pond at the base of each mound. “Growing up on the East Coast, I don’t think Oklahoma was a place I ever really thought of going to,” she says. But: “I have never seen anything as green and lush in my entire life.” She texted a friend, “Why would anyone want to be anywhere except in Oklahoma?” It was, “for lack of a better word,” she says, “perfect.”

Route 66 was cobbled together in 1926 from existing local, state, and national roads, but it wasn’t completely paved until 1938, largely by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal Civilian Conservation Corps. The economic displacement and hardship caused by the Great Depression paradoxically caused a surge of commerce across the route, as torrents of people moving westward passed through. But after World War II, Route 66 transitioned from a Dust Bowl era landscape of desperation, as it was for John Steinbeck’s beleaguered Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath, to the sunny road trip of Bobby Troup’s jaunty cruisin’ jam, “Route 66.”

The template for the contemporary gas station was largely formed along Route 66, but the road and its suite of traveler amenities mostly took shape at a time before corporate standardization made everywhere look like the same sort of nowhere. This process was encouraged by the mobility that Route 66, in all its eccentric charm, cherished. Per a National Park Service narrative, these mom-and-pop shops “reflected the independence of the operations, a general absence of standardization, and a decentralized economic structure.”

Roadies recorded the histories of roadside motels and glowing neon confections, log cabin museums, and the world’s largest catsup bottle in one roadie’s hometown. The spaces in between these places are ad hoc, vernacular landscapes, mostly untouched by formalized landscape designers, but central to the American experience. Landscape preservation here is less about design curation and more about commercial activation.

At first, Vickers says much of her stretch “seemed like places on the way to somewhere else.” And many places along the route have always been that way. There’s an entire world of kitsch and monuments urging travelers to pull over at this stop, at this town, at this statue of Paul Bunyan holding a hot dog. And it looks to remain that way. “There’s a lot of new attractions that are being built along Route 66 that carry that same idiosyncratic culture that the route was born out of,” says Clement. One example:  the LED-lighted minimalist sculpture of a 66-foot soda bottle at POPS, designed by Elliott + Associates Architects.

Vickers remembers the Midpoint Café in Adrian, Texas, where a dotted line in the road delineates the halfway point of Route 66. She pulled off the road for a photo, but ended up lingering in conversation with locals and other travelers. “The draw is the kitschy things on the side of the road, but what keeps you there is the conversation with the people,” she says.

The roadies worked to find conversations with seldom-heard voices and to uncover hidden histories. They chronicled extant and extinct gay bars along the route, and the history of the Green Book, which guided African American motorists to safe filling stations and lodging in an era where a wrong turn in hypersegregated towns could be a death sentence. (Several editions quoted Mark Twain’s gem, “Travel is fatal to prejudice.”) These stories highlight the ways the path has been used to divide people (sections run concurrent with the Trail of Tears used to forcibly remove Native Americans from their land in the early 19th century) and ways it can still pull us together, like the thriving Vietnamese enclave in Oklahoma City.

And these granular, ground-level details are more likely to snap into place at Route 66’s leisurely pace. Clement says that it provides a more revealing and authentic experience of the landscape and urban fabric. It provides a sense of intimacy at slower velocities you can’t get from the interstate “boring through the country,” he says. “When you’re on Route 66, you curve around mountains, as opposed to going directly through them.” And given the fragmented and occasionally disused nature of the road (conditions run the gamut from overlap with the interstate to dirt roads), a primary goal of any historic trail designation is to install a consistent, national signage system. “You have to really work at staying on it, because it’s such a hodgepodge of roads,” Clement says.

Automobile dominance is in no danger of disappearing overnight despite Route 66’s struggles, but it’s not the way forward. This acknowledgment will have to be part of any comprehensive rehabilitation of the road. But Route 66 is emblematic of a mode of travel that is increasingly rare: travel that is about the journey as much, if not more, than the destination. “You don’t get that on an airplane,” says Clement, a seasoned business traveler who navigates airports three weeks out of each month. Route 66 is a continuous, analog experience, in contrast to the segmented, digital nature of air travel: flitting from one place to another in a hermetically sealed steel tube at great altitude that severs any connection to the ground experience. It offers a “sense that you actually go through communities and support them, as opposed to bypassing them,” says Clement.

“I really felt the deep sense,” says Vickers, “that I was in someone’s hometown [with] every single place I went to.”

Credits: All slideshow photos by David Kafer.

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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