Long, Strange Trip
Eric Jones on the quintessential American road trip
Iconography of the American Highway.
By Arthur Krim.
Center for American Places. 220 pp. $35
How did a 2,448-mile-long highway across some of the country’s most unforgiving and sparsely populated territory become the road Americans think of when they dream of really going somewhere? That’s the question geographer Arthur Krim takes up in a book that is neither traditional road guide nor comprehensive history, but an account of the real-world origins of Route 66 and its development into a national symbol of democratic freedom, boundless promise, and westward-rolling self-exploration.
Following the pattern of Alan Trachtenberg’s Brooklyn Bridge: Fact and Symbol (1965), Krim begins by examining the “idea” of Route 66 in its many prefigurations, from Native American footpaths to emigrant wagon trails to 19th-century railroads. Then he describes the “fact” of the road, its physical presence as a series of two-lane regional auto trails across Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, the Texas panhandle, New Mexico, Arizona, and California that became a single highway when the federal system of numbered routes was established in 1925. Finally, Krim turns to the symbolic importance of the road, as reflected in such disparate cultural artifacts as John Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl novel The Grapes of Wrath and a 2000 billboard advertisement for Kmart’s Route 66 clothing line.
In that third, and longest, section of the book, we learn just how large Route 66 has loomed in the American imagination. Bobby Troup, discharged from the Marines after World War II, made a seven-day trip with his wife to Los Angeles in February 1946, following U.S. 66 all the way from St. Louis to California. By April, Nat Cole’s trio had recorded three different versions of Troup’s “(Get Your Kicks On) Route Sixty-Six!,” the postwar anthem that effectively changed the name of 66 from “highway” to “route” (always pronounced with an eastern inflection: “root”). In the 1969 biker film Easy Rider, an acid-dropping Captain America played by Peter Fonda crossed the Colorado River into California on the U.S. 66/I-40 bridge, as his own father, Henry Fonda, had done playing Oklahoma migrant Tom Joad in the 1940 film adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath. The road has meant a good deal to real-life capitalists too: In 1975, Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded Micro-Soft (later de-hyphenated) in an Albuquerque office building on U.S. Highway 66.
And just how did Route 66 come by its magically incantatory double sixes? In 1925, a planning committee of state highway engineers designated the route U.S. Highway 60, one of nine transcontinental roadways whose route number ended in zero. But Kentucky governor William J. Fields, stung by the absence of a national “zero” route through his own state, successfully lobbied Washington for a U.S. 60 across Kentucky. To maintain a cross-country tourist route from Chicago to L.A. identified by a single number, highway officials from Illinois, Missouri, and Oklahoma agreed in 1926 to give up their coveted zero, and adopted—for reasons shrouded in mystery—the number 66.
With enactment of the Interstate and Defense Highway Program 30 years later, states set to work on a national network of high-speed, limited-access freeways that, in just a few decades, bypassed U.S. Highway 66 or supplanted it entirely. Long stretches of its original roadbed were obliterated, and much of what remained was in disrepair. In 1985, it was decommissioned as a federal route.
For younger readers, Krim’s history might assume too much familiarity with a road that was, for much of the last century, the route to the promised land of California. But for those who remember Bobby Troup’s near-perfect rhyme of “Winona” and “Arizona,” Route 66 is a fascinating account of the real people and real events that built a fabled road in our minds.