Okay, first a confession of plagiarism (the title for today’s post was borrowed from the introductory publication of the recent Route 66 symposium in Anaheim). Still, I couldn’t think of a better title as the time is at hand to focus on the future of Route 66, and that is the subject of this mornings discussion.
Consider this, officially Route 66 ceased to exist almost twenty years ago, yet it remains as one of the most popular attractions in America. As evidence, I present you with this interesting statistic – of the 101 million out of state or international visitors in Illinois in 2012, 74% noted that Route 66 was a primary attraction.
This leads us to a question. Will this popularity continue to swell through the highways centennial and beyond, or will it wane?
My reason for asking is two fold. The overwhelming majority of Route 66 enthusiasts at this time are Caucasian and over fifty years of age.
That means by 2026, the centennial year for the double six, many of today’s leading proponents and enthusiasts will be elderly at best. More than a few will be the people enshrined in memorials.
That means there is a pressing need to build enthusiasm and excitement for the road, as well as a hunger for preservation, in a younger demographic. How do we ignite that passion in people that have endured years of having history presented as something as exciting as dry toast or a three day insurance seminar?
Compounding the problem is the fact that for many of the people in this demographic there are no memories of family road trips. Adventure is the quest to overcome an alien enemy or solve puzzles in a virtual world crafted by Nintendo, not a drive across the Mojave Desert on two lanes of sun baked asphalt just to see what is on the other side of the hill.
The secondary aspect of my question is as much about preserving the history of Route 66 as it is about restoring a few lost chapters in the history of that storied road. When you attend a car show it is easy to develop the impression that in 1957, Chevrolet dominated the market. This is the type of illusion that develops when we look back in time without historical foundation or perspective.
Likewise with Route 66. If we see the road stretching back into the mists of time without historical context it would be quite easy to develop a sort of color blind perspective. It is not only important for the future of Route 66 to incite interest in the road among ethnic minorities, it is also important to include those minorities in the roads history.
This aspect should be much easier to resolve than courting a younger audience, unless you tie the two together in something such as an educational program for schools. As an example, you could then present the history of Route 66 in the context of civil rights development in America.
The various facets of this could include information about Nat King Cole, the African American who with one song transformed Route 66 into America’s most famous highway, and the fact that when he traveled the road there were few motels or restaurants available to him. To balance the story you introduce people like Alberta Ellis and Victor Green who capitalized on this national tragedy by catering to the disenfranchised.
There are a multitude of ways to build on this and spark interest in traveling the road. There is the story of former slaves that moved to the Indian Territories that became Oklahoma, and with the advent of the Ozark Trails Highway, later Route 66, built a prosperous service station and garage. That often overlooked little treasure still stands along highway near Luther.
What about Murray’s Dude Ranch, proclaimed to be the “world’s largest Negro dude ranch?” In this story you have overlooked cinematic history in the filming of singing cowboy horse operas “with an all negro cast” as well as World War II history, and people who crossed the racial dividing line for the music.
What are your thoughts? What are your ideas? How do we ensure the wonderful Route 66 story doesn’t end when the best is yet to come?