Technically the most famous highway in America does not exist as U.S. 66 vanished from maps almost a quarter of a century ago. Today, as in the era between the end of the first world war and the dawning of the U.S. highway system, legendary Route 66 is a series of state and county roads, unsigned dirt tracks with conflicting names, and city streets.
If this were any other highway a fair bet could be made that few, if any, would try to unravel its twisted course. But this is Route 66, a highway unlike any other and as a result, seeking the various alignments, deciphering its evolutionary course, and unlocking its secrets is part of its allure and charm.
If this were any road but Route 66, the intertwining attractions and distractions that line its disjointed course across the heartland of America would discourage all but the most hearty and adventuresome traveler. However, as this is the legendary Route 66, these too become a part of the charm that entices travelers from throughout the world to make the pilgrimage at least once.
Oddly enough, there was a time not so long ago when U.S. 66, in spite of the promotion and hype, was often the inspiration for a litany of curses. In the not so distant past Route 66 was legendary but not for what makes it legendary today.
From this perspective it seems quite fitting that Route 66 and the ’57 Chevy share center stage in the pantheon of modern American icons. In 1957, dealers lamented the warmed over 1955 models masquerading as new cars and buyers avoided Chevy showrooms in droves. In 1957 the cacophony of voices screaming for modernization, for the replacement of Route 66, were reaching a crescendo.
How the highway signed with two sixes, or the ’57 Chevy, was transformed into a beloved American icon may never be explained or understood. Likewise with the passionate reverence both now receive.
Still, there is no denying that both long ago transcended their orignal purpose. Nor is there any denying that in them the line between myth and reality is blurred.
To analyze the reasons for the popularity of the highway, or the car, is akin to reducing the Mona Lisa to a study of brush strokes. Route 66 is now a national treasure, a delightful treat to be savored and longed for.
The vintage motels with garish neon and empty gas stations, gift shops and museums, ancient bridges and broken asphalt stretching to a distant horizon across a desert plain, ghost towns and diners, original and recreated, are woven into a colorful tapestry that awakens the senses. The people who preserve the roads history, refurbish its time capsules, and that serve the pie and coffee are the symphony that stirs the soul.
Just as it is impossible to capture the awe inspiring majesty of the Grand Canyon with the lens of a camera or with a painters eye, Route 66 must be experienced to be understood. And as with the Grand Canyon, one visit or one hundred is never enough as the beauty, the sense of renewal draws you back time and again.