The dark ages on Route 66 commenced in the mid 1960’s. As development of the interstate highway system replaced long segments of U.S. 66, road side businesses turned toward meeting the needs of a more centralized local market to survive. Compounding the problems these struggling businesses faced was the rise of chain restaurants and motels, and an evolving American society that was more interested in the destination than the journey.
The downward spiral continued through the 1970’s and 1980’s. The American roadside was transformed into a generic, bland world of chain restaurants that mimicked classic road side diners, or pirate ships at Disneyland. Hotels and motels offered cookie cutter amenities that provided travelers with assurance of standards but further watered down the thrill of adventure that had been the hallmark of the classic American road trip. Even the service station experience evolved from that of an interactive business to a cold, impersonal self service transaction.
For all of its problems, warts, and associated dangers, the essence of travel on Route 66 was interaction with fellow travelers, the locals in towns large and small, and business owners. In 1959 a trip from Chicago to Santa Monica on the double six was fraught with white knuckle driving, bad food, good food, lumpy mattresses, neon lit nights, flat tires, sweat soaked shirts, cold soda pop, ringing gas station bells, quirky attractions, traffic, trucks, narrow bridges, strings of stop lights, accidents, laughter, and memory making adventure.
In 1979 a trip from Chicago to Santa Monica was usually made in an air conditioned cocoon. Days were spent driving as a herd along a safe but bland four lane track. Evenings were spent huddled around a television watching the same programs watched at home in a room no different from the room where you watched television the evening before.
Dinner usually consisted of burgers from a sterile industrial type facility identical to the restaurant you stopped at in Joliet or Tulsa, and you never had to leave the car. If by chance you decided on a more traditional dinner, chances are you would have the menu memorized by the end of the trip as the one in LA was identical to the one in Kingman or Albuquerque.
Fast forward a couple of decades plus a year or two. Route 66, a highway that doesn’t technically exist any longer, has morphed into a living, breathing time capsule as well as America’s longest attraction. Legions upon legions of international adventurers in search of an authentic American experience flock to a dusty Arizona town to bask in the warm smile of a humble barber. In the tarnished old mining town of Galena, a fast talking, always smiling spitfire of a gal is a celebrity known throughout the world. A stretch of brick covered highway in Illinois is a destination. Likewise with a ghost town astride the Texas and New Mexico border, a neon framed motel in Tucumcari, a hippies school bus turned home in Pontiac, a bridge on the Mississippi River, and a family run cafe in Oklahoma. Thousands of enthusiasts from most every corner of the globe descend on Kingman, Arizona, in August, for an oversize family reunion, a party, and a bit of Route 66 business. A Norman Rockwell portrait of small town America made manifest in a quaint festival in a town named Cuba attracts people from Texas and Arizona, Massachusetts and California.The Route 66 renaissance is unfolding with blinding speed. But with the rebirth, with the tsunami of fascination that translates to a crush of visitors and travelers there are challenges, pitfalls, and problems that threaten the old roads future. How do you preserve the authentic American experience but cater to an international fan base? How do you maintain the historic infrastructure integral to the roads character but ensure safety? How do you meet the future needs of travelers but preserve the essence of a road trip on Route 66 during its golden years? How do you bridge the chasm that is the diversity of communities and their needs? It begins at the grassroots, just as it did during the creation of the National Old Trails Highway, establishment of the various Route 66 associations, and the Route 66 International Festival in Kingman. Now, however, if the renaissance is to flourish we need to harness the power of that grass roots movement and to build a community with a unified sense of purpose. Examples of fledgling efforts to accomplish this abound. There was the World Monument Fund symposium in Anaheim last November. There was the unprecedented Route 66 Crossroads of the Past and Future Conference during the 2014 Route 66 International festival. There is Rich Dinkela’s donation in the form of the Events on Route 66 website (under development). Now, the World Monument Fund has facilitated establishment of a steering committee to evaluate means for further development of this unified sense of community to ensure the essence of Route 66 survives to the highways centennial and beyond.From its inception Route 66 has been an ever evolving highway. In the past that evolution never was fast enough to keep pace with changing needs. Will that historic trend with the evolution of the renaissance?