American Icons: Route 66

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Route 66 Diner SignThe Mother Road

What began as a plan to connect many smaller roadways to one major route from Chicago to Los Angeles became a work program for the unemployed during the Great Depression. Upon completion, it connected two halves of the United States, and for many years it was the route to take when driving cross-country.

Today it lives on as a symbol of freedom and of a simpler way of living.

Route 66 is an enduring American icon.

In a previous post, we talked about Route 66: Then and Now. While we discussed the rich history of Route 66, we need to touch on the lasting impact the highway has had on people’s hearts and minds.

> Read the history of Route 66

Many people alive today still remember traveling along Route 66 with their families. They stayed at some of the roadside motels, many of which had goofy names like the Pig Hip Restaurant (Broadwell, IL) and even goofier gimmicks, like cottages built to resemble tepees (Wigwam Motel in Golden, CA). There was so much more to these trips though. They were family holidays spent driving cross-country with all of the intimacy that kind of time together entails. Few families vacation like this anymore. Most trips nowadays involve getting on a jet airplane to some location, whether it’s a theme park or cruise, and spending the days involved in organized activities.

My folks were very keen on car trips and I remember many miles of the games played to keep four kids from getting too rowdy in the Ford Country Squire station wagon. We played “I Spy” and sang songs. It didn’t hurt that my mother packed small paper bags with simple dime store activities and bubblegum to keep us busy. Because my parents kept things simple, we really thought we were living high when we pulled into a motel. This was an exciting adventure to stay over some place other than our own home.

John Steinbeck first referred to Route 66 as the “Mother Road” in his novel, “The Grapes of Wrath”. Following the book’s publication there was a massive migration westward to California by refugees of the Midwest Dust Bowl. Many personnel were stationed in California during WWII and stayed on after the war was over. California became known as the land of opportunity and many people wanted to be located on the pathway leading there, to get their share of money spent by the many travelers. After the war Americans found they had more leisure time and began to travel and sightsee along the US roadways.

In 1946 the American songwriter Bobby Troup released the song, “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66”. This song glorified the Mother Road, with lyrics that included the names of towns along the route from Chicago to L.A. The idea for the song came to Troup as he traveled westward along the route himself. The popularity of the song served to further romanticize the idea of the highway for the public.

Route 66 no longer appears on modern roadmaps, but remnants of the roadway still exist. There are motels, hotels, restaurants and old filling stations from the original road sprinkled along the way. Some are still operating today, many are gone and still others remain as abandoned markers of the old two-lane road. Route 66 continues to live on in many different ways. One of these is through recipes passed on from restaurants that were and still are along the old route. Posted online are recipes for dishes such as Route 66 Chili, and Café Peach Cobbler. There are many nostalgic websites dedicated to the memory of Route 66. There are great photos of some of the ghosts of the old roadway. These are memories of an incredible phenomenon in America’s history. It may be in our past, but Americans have a real taste for nostalgia and a fondness for anything retro. A lot of what was once there is gone, yet there is still a sense of mystery and excitement about it that still captures the imagination today, making Route 66 a true American icon.

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Last updated: Jun 01, 2009
Filed under: American Icons Tagged with: Route 66, Rt 66, Rte 66, The Mother Road