For a brief moment in time it was designated U.S. 60. But by the time that signs had been placed along the highway that connected Chicago to Los Angeles a political compromise had given it a new identity – U.S.66.
Exactly when Route 66 morphed from highway to icon can’t be pinpointed with certainty. But from its inception this highway billed as the Main Strret of America and the Mother Road has benefitted from brilliant marketing campaigns, being profiled in books, and being linked to the Olympics, to movies, and to television programs. And that is one reason it is, perahps, more popular today than at any time in its history even though it doesn’t officially exist.
That is also why the fast approaching centennial in 2026 offers communities along that highway corridor, both large and small, with unprecedented promotional opportunities. And in turn this can result in tourism related economic development as well as historic district revitalization opportunities.
Many states bisected by Route 66 including Illinois, Missouri, and Oklahoma recognized the opportunity quite sometime ago. They formed Route 66 centennial commissions, initiated programs to bolster tourism in the years leading to the centennial, and developed an array of diverse cooperative partnerships. Those endeavors are already paying dividends.
Meanwhile, surprisingly, there are still a few communities that yet to launch centennial initiatives. But, to be honest, some communities along Route 66 only make a half hearted effort to capitalize on assets ideally suited for tourism development. Meanwhile towns like Pontiac, Illinois and Tulsa, Oklahoma are selling everything on the hog including the squeal. Other towns such as Tucumcari and Springfield, Missouri are on the fast track to tapping into this potential goldrush.
It is difficult to find words that adequately describe what makes a Route 66 odyssey special or unique. I have explored a number of old highways, most recently U.S.6. These old highways are peppered with an array of living time capsules. But they lack the infectious magic.
Route 66 is no mere highway. It is the ultimate American road trip. But there is more to this story. It is also the American experience personified. It is opportunity limited only by the imagination, and adventure without equal.
Yesterday’s episode of Coffee With Jim, the audio podcast developed by Jim Hinckley’s America, is example of what makes a Route 66 experience unique. And it is also an example of why I am starting to think that the centennial year will be a 2,200 mile block party of epic proportions.
When you listen to the passion that owner Beth Hilburn has for the Hi Way Cafe near Vinita, Oklahoma, it is hard not to get excited. And when you listen to her families work to use the cafe to build a sense of community, and her story about the cafes fascinating origins, it is impossible to not be inspired.