Route 66 enthusiasts from New Zealand gather in the showroom at Dunton Motors in Kingman, Arizona, to listen to author and historian Jim Hinckley. (Judy Hinckley)
A quick glance at the guest books in cafes, museums, parks and diners, as well as the registration at motels between Chicago and Santa Monica leave little doubt that Route 66 is more than a mere highway.
Peruse the reports on visitor numbers provided by Pontiac, Kingman, or Clinton and it is easy to see why Route 66 is often referred to as America’s longest attraction.
Literally tens of thousands of travelers from throughout the world and the United States travel this iconic old highway every year in search of an authentic American experience.
None of this, however, adequately explains why a highway that officially ceased to exist more than three decades ago is so popular. Nor does it present an accurate picture about what Route 66 has become after ninety years, what it is becoming, and the implications of its popularity.
Route 66 is not the nations most historic highway, or its most scenic. However, from its inception it has always had the best press and publicity. It also had passionate people to promote it and to preserve it, colorful characters to give it a memorable sense of vibrancy, and people who saw the opportunities it presented.
Members of the Czech Route 66 Association stop in Kingman, Arizona.
This is not to say that the nature of Route 66 hasn’t changed in nine decades. In the 21st century, those people are as likely to speak Dutch or German as they are English.
There has been another change since U.S. 66 debuted in 1926, and this one is societal. In the modern era of photographs shared instantly with friends, social media, smart phones, and a creeping sense that the world is a much, much smaller place resultant of the Internet, there is an impersonal feel to life.
On Route 66, however, it is still 1968, or 1952, or 1936. The motel isn’t part of a franchise, it is a family run operation where the owners remember you on a second or third visit, and will assist with a vehicle repair, or will provide a lift to the store.
Angel Delgadillo and Peter Cambell-McBride of the UK Route 66 Association
On Route 66 the same family has provided service to locals and travelers alike for generations at the restaurant or diner on the corner. It was founded by an immigrant from Germany or Greece or the Netherlands.
In some instances, a new generation has refurbished a classic diner or restaurant, or transformed an ancient bank into a uniquely styled cafe, and is making memories for Route 66 enthusiasts young and old.
Gatherings of enthusiasts at events or festivals in Kingman, Arizona or Cuba, Missouri or Edwardsville, Illinois or in Ofterdingen Germany or at de Prael in Amsterdam become a family reunion. Memories are shared, trips are planned, and assistance is given.
What makes Route 66 special? What sets it apart from any other highway? It is the people. It is the people you meet along the way, and the friends you make. It is the memories made and the people you share them with. It is the folks that you help, and the folks who help you. It is the adventure, the adventure inspired, and the adventure shared.
Route 66 is not a mere highway, it is an experience. It is the best of Mayberry and Norman Rockwell prints. It is America at its finest. It is a magical place that transcends barriers of language or culture. It is a grand adventure.