In recent years the term “cottage industry” has been used to describe the surge in businesses and related services that are resultant of the resurgent interest in Route 66. Well, I am not exactly sure what that means but do know that from Chicago to Santa Monica this old road is fast becoming a gold mine for the mom and pop entrepreneur that has imagination and ambition as well as a desire to find enjoyment in their work. For those who are enamored with this iconic highway and that make regular pilgrimages along it, this translates into an ever changing kaleidoscope of sites, sounds, and tastes. It is also transforming the highway into a linear community of friendly neighbors who warmly greet visitors. Whether you are an old veteran intimately familiar with the charms and nuances of life on Route 66, or are new to its wonders, I am quite sure you will find excitement all along this highway in the months to come. The long anticipated Pontiac-Oakland Museum in Pontiac, Illinois is now open. It joins a prestigious list of attractions awaiting discovery in this beautiful little town. The date for the Route 66 Association of Missouri’s 22nd Annual Motor Tour is fast approaching. Scheduled for a kick off on September 9, this event will combine the very best of the Route 66 experience – cars, good food, scenery, fun, and friends, old and those yet to meet. On November 11, Needles in California along the Colorado River is the place to be. A gala 85th anniversary Route 66 celebration is in the works and it promises to be a very memorable event. Jumping to next year the big event is shaping up to be the 2012 International Route 66 Festival in Rancho Cucamonga, California, and a caravan running west from Chicago that will coincide with the event as well as the opening of Cars Land at Disneyland. This link provides more details in a video from Michael Wallis of the Route 66 Alliance. The animated film Cars, released in 2006, fueled the resurgent interest in Route 66 like gasoline on a fire and its astounding international popularity introduced an entirely new audience to the wonders only found on this amazing highway. If you are curious about the people and places on Route 66 that inspired the creation of the characters and Radiator Springs, this link for an older post on Ron Warnick’s Route 66 News provides an excellent overview. Chillin on Beale Street, in the historic district of Kingman, Arizona, one block north of Route 66, is scheduled for the evening of August 20th. This open event is part cart show, part block party, and a whole lot of fun. Dining choices in the immediate area are many; Redneck’s Southern Pit BBQ, a favorite of our international visitors, legendary Mr. D’z Route 66 Diner, Dora’s Beale Street Deli, and El Palacio are just a few. I am still unsure what “cottage industry” has to do with Route 66. Perhaps as you take to the road this summer you can find out and explain it to me.
As exciting as the modern era is with its mind boggling advancements in technology, I doubt if there will ever be anything to equal the that amazing fifty year window in time between 1880 and 1930. If time travel were possible, you could transport an individual from Colonial America to the western frontier of New Mexico in 1880 and adaptation to the new surroundings would be relatively easy. You still traveled by horse, still farmed with mule and plow, still needed the services of a blacksmith, still used lamps or candles to ward of darkness, still had a life expectancy of around forty years, still hunted game (with some seriously improved firepower), and still used wagons to haul things from point “A” to point “B”. Now, if you transported this individual into the city or a more urban setting there would be a bit of culture shock. Trains, the telegraph, and similar wonders would be truly mind boggling but the core of the society remained the same; blacksmiths, apothecary’s, hatters, tailors, tinsmiths, etc. The world of 1930 was as far removed from the world of 1880 as the moon is from San Francisco. Telephones, electric lights, airplanes, and automobiles transformed the very fabric of the American society and even its lexicon with words like motel or gas station. For those of us who were stumped by the complexities of programming the VCR these are truly times of awe, of wonder, and of incredible stress. But imagine what it must have been like in 1930. Consider the fact Wyatt Earp lived in Los Angeles during the 1920s and that Buffalo Bill Cody purchased a two cylinder Michigan in 1903. Imagine a man like Geronimo making the transition from nomadic warrior living a centuries old tribal life style to riding in automobiles and signing books at the world’s fair. People who came west in covered wagons along the Santa Fe Trail were driving east on Route 66. People who endured ocean crossings that lasted weeks must have stood in awe to read of the Atlantic crossing by airplane in mere hours. My stepfather, born in 1917, told me that as a young man in Iowa, he skipped school to see a plane that had crash landed in a corn field. He rode the pony he used for transportation to school to the crash site. In ten short years the automobile had progressed from a fad everyone should see before it faded away, as Montgomery Ward saw it, to a multi million dollar a year industry. In one short decade the automobile had moved from bothersome curiosity to modern gold rush that most everyone wanted a part of. Almost every town in America wanted to have an automobile manufacturing company. Enid, Oklahoma had the Geronimo, Phoenix, Arizona had the Copeland, Tulsa, Oklahoma had the Lone Star. Companies abandoned decades old success in the hope of striking it rich with the automobile. A major manufacturer of bird cages and ice boxes transformed itself into Pierce-Arrow, one of the world’s most prestigious manufacturer of automobiles. A major plumbing supply company that had pioneered the method of affixing porcelain to cast iron was sacrificed for the creation of a company named Buick. The worlds largest manufacturer of horse drawn vehicles joined as partners with Thomas Edison to build an electric automobile and abandoned the manufacture of carriages for horseless carriages and the Studebaker became an automotive legend. Livery stables and stage stations gave way to garages and bus stations. Inns and taverns succumbed to motels and road houses. It was truly a heady time, those years when the world stood poised with one foot in the stirrup and one on the throttle. In retrospect, I suppose what really separates those exciting times of change with these exciting times of transition is the technology. The modern incarnation of technology is cold and impersonal even though it links people together as never before. We sit in a lonely cubicle with the ghostly flicker of unnatural light casting our face in shadow as we impersonally chat and imagine a world of friends. With the technology at the turn of the last century there was something magical as it inspired awe and enthusiasm, as well as a child like hope that through technology all things could be made well. Drive a 1916 Hudson Super Six and then drive a new hybrid. Both represent cutting edge technology but only one will quicken the spirit.
The quest for information spawned by the current project, a Route 66 encyclopedia and atlas, has led to some quite fascinating discoveries, a few of which are in my back yard. As an example, while sorting out the various alignments of Route 66 between Williams and Ashfork, I discovered the Johnson Canyon railroad tunnel.
This tangible link to the frontier era in Arizona is also a link to the origins of Route 66. It is also a perfect little side trip for that Route 66 adventure if you don’t mind stretching your legs a bit. Long before Route 66 became a destination, back when it was still the highway folks cursed as they pulled the Ashfork grade behind a string of trucks, I ran the Williamson Valley Road from Seligman to Prescott or the Perkinsville Road from Williams to Jerome. The old bridges that spanned chasms on these lost highways provided a scenic link to the era when the Model A represented the latest and greatest from Ford Motor Company. Amazingly many of those old bridges are still there. With the exception of the one in Hell’s Canyon, they still serve the original purpose of making it possible to cross a canyon without detours of thirty miles or more.
I suppose if you are out of style long enough you will be out in style. Now when I drive the old roads it seems there is always company. Now when I drive the not so forgotten lost highways in search of answers there is most often some one already there who has the answers or that is seeking them as well. As with so many things in this old world, the increasing number of people seeking the back roads and lost highways isn’t a good thing or bad thing, it is somewhere in between. For folks like me who seek the back roads for the solitude and scenery as much as the history, it is a bit of frustration. However, to balance that I have met some of the nicest people in the most remote places, fine folk who truly take pleasure in these old roads, the bridges, and other remnants that hearken to another time. And on more than one occasion, the resultant conversation around the campfire or from the tailgate ends up being a lesson for this old dog. The haunting beauty of the abandoned Johnson Canyon railroad tunnel is but one of many discoveries made as a result of a shared back roads adventure.
Perhaps the most surprising, and embarrassing, of these was a magnificent segment of the National Old Trails Highway in the Black Mountains of western Arizona. I have wandered these barren, rock strewn hills for more than four decades. I was even privileged to have “Ed” Edgerton of Ed’s Camp as a guide. But it was a chance encounter with an amateur historian in Warm Springs Canyon that helped me to see a road long ignored out of ignorance was in actuality a very rare link to forgotten history. In all things there are lessons to be learned. For me, these encounters taught me that I can be frustrated with the changes that have resulted in the invasion of my sanctuary or I can see them as the opportunity to learn, to share, and to meet new people. As usual, the choice is mine and I prefer the later. In my world curiosity and a chance to learn trumps grumpy and bitter.
It will be a working holiday, a whirlwind tour of Route 66. It will be a 9.5 day drive to Chicago and home again, with a 200 mile detour to my dad’s house in Michigan, several meetings and stops to photograph seven hundred sites. It will be delightful. Of course that is based on the premise that the worst day on Route 66 is better than the best day at work, unless Route 66 is your work. The desire to photograph neon at night will provide the excuse for refreshing the fast fading nightmares of long nights with only the glow of the dash lights and the mournful tunes of old crooners broadcast over KOMA to keep the cold, empty night from engulfing me. The quest for fall colors at sunrise to frame the haunting emptiness of John’s Modern Cabins or the Chain of Rocks Bridge will surely negate the need to find motels offering a continental breakfast. Somewhere between the neon lit night, and the soft warm glow of an autumn sunrise, we are eagerly looking forward to immersing ourselves in the comforting time capsules that line this old road; the Blue Swallow, the Wagon Wheel Motel, the Cactus Inn. Coffee and road food at the Midpoint Cafe and the Palms Cafe, Lou Mitchell’s and the Ariston Cafe, will provide sustenance and solace for a weary soul. On this adventure savoring the wonders of Route 66 will be a luxury and instead we will step back in time to drive it as though it were still the Main Street of America, and we had a deadline to keep. It will be like old times but this time the journey will be shared with my dearest friend, the friends we visit along the way, and the friends we have yet to meet. If only I had a 1950 Hudson, 1940 Buick, or 1956 Rambler wagon for this journey. Then this adventure would truly be one across time as well as across the nation. In my head I still see the man of twenty that I once was. However, it seldom takes long for the reality that sixty is fast approaching at the top of the hill and that fifty is fading from view in the mirror to chase the illusion away. There was a time when the run to Michigan from Kingman was a two and a half or three day affair. Years have passed. Common sense has chased away foolish testosterone fueled bravado and feats of endurance. The importance of balancing the goal of reaching a destination with enjoying the journey along the way has replaced the fevered hurry of youth. So, our October trip will be quite interesting. The old and new will collide as flit between the past that is Route 66 and the present that is the interstate. The vision of a youth that once was will meet the reality of age.