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Historic US Route 66 Still Sparks Wanderlust

Route 66, the legendary highway from Chicago to Los Angeles, offered a road to a better life for many Americans, and became a symbol of wanderlust in 20th century. The highway, called the main street of America, is the focus of an exhibit in Los Angeles.

Route 66 covered nearly 4,000 kilometers of the American heartland and West, and generations came westward on this route long before it became a paved highway.

The writer John Steinbeck called it the "Mother Road," and it became a symbol of freedom for 1950s Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac, author of On the Road.

Great migration

His manuscript, typed on a 35-meter scroll, is on display at the Autry National Center of the American West, which has put on the Route 66 exhibit.

Also there is Woody Guthrie's guitar. The folk singer was one of many who celebrated the highway, which offered an escape from drought-stricken Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s.

“That 66 highway is mighty hard. All day you're hot, all night you freeze. But we've got to have work so we're taking a chance from old Oklahoma to Los Angeles,” sang Guthrie.

Jazz musician Bobby Troup was another who celebrated the highway, with this 1946 hit. “It winds from Chicago to L.A. More than 2,000 miles all the way. Get your kicks on Route 66.”

Cross-country expansion

Curator Jeffrey Richardson said much of the country's growth in the west during the 1940s and '50s happened along the highway.

“In the explosion in American society that took place in the post-world War II period, an explosion of economics, of people, Route 66 really became both a major thoroughfare to move people across the country, but it was also a popular tourist destination,” he said.

The road captured the country's imagination in the 1960s television series Route 66.

But by then, the highway's importance began to fade. President Dwight D. Eisenhower spearheaded the construction of a national interstate highway system in the 1950s and as the system grew, it bypassed more and more sections of Route 66. In 1985, the route was officially decommissioned, but much of the old road still exists.

For most who travel the route west, the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica, California, is the end of the journey.

Dan Rice sells Route 66 souvenirs on the Santa Monica Pier, and has traveled on the road many times.

“I've done it 29 times now. That's from beginning to end, Chicago to Los Angeles. If we were counting just the times that I did it through the Southwest, I can't even count. I've done it a lot,” he said.

Romantic travelogue

Rice said Route 66 still draws tourists who want to drive the route and others who want to enjoy its romance.

“To get out in the middle of Kansas and Oklahoma and the Panhandle of Texas and New Mexico, and just see the land rolling on and on and on, and nothing but you and the sky and the wind in your hair, it's pretty great,” said Rice.

Autry Center curator Jeffrey Richardson said Route 66 is an American symbol around the world.

“And since we've put this exhibition on, I've had friends and colleagues who have traveled across the world, who have sent me pictures of Route 66 shields and other things in cafes in Paris,” he said.

Dan Rice has met tourists from Norway, Saudi Arabia and Australia who have come to make the journey. And for people in Los Angeles, the westward end of the highway, the freedom and adventure of Route 66 still beckons.