Communication Currents

Route 66 and the Road to Ruin

April 1, 2010
Critical and Cultural Studies

Route 66, America's "great diagonal highway" stretching from Chicago to L.A., has long represented two seemingly different ideas: the freedom of the open road and the potential for genuine community. More than a means for getting from place to place, the famed highway has become a medium for communicating American values.

Only now, Route 66 is becoming a national simulation of itself. Responding to tourists who crave safely accessible and easily consumed experiences of roadside Americana, preservationists and entrepreneurs are transforming the highway into a winding empire of signs and souvenirs. The question remains: Is it such a bad thing that Route 66 is becoming "Route 66"?

The original highway--dusty and occasionally dismal--was immortalized in John Steinbeck'sThe Grapes of Wrath. Then and now, the road has always been more fantasy than reality. Just consider the many lives of Route 66: WWII military artery. Postwar tourist highway, ‘60s-era television setting. Like layers of paint on the same aging canvas, each version of Route 66 builds upon itself under a glowing necklace of neon signs.

Established in 1926, the highway has evolved via a patchwork of communication texts through songs like Nat King Cole's version of "(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66" and Stirling Silliphant's Route 66 television show. How has it changed itself through the years? Just peer a bit beneath the surface to see. "Route 66" Songwriter Bobby Troup switched the order of Arizona towns Winona and Flagstaff to create a clever rhyme. And Route 66 duo Tod and Buzz drove pretty much everywhere in the United States (and once in Canada) except on Route 66 during their television adventures. From the start, the road was an idea more than a place.

Today, Route 66 (the road) continues being bypassed by Route 66 (the idea). To understand how, let's take a brief roadtrip following the route to tour some examples. Starting in the Land of Lincoln, an Illinois Standard Oil site, once a gas station, now a museum, has been used as a backdrop for a wedding. Another gas station, this one in Missouri, sells no gas, but features a fellow who performs a popular role as a 1950s-era station attendant for tourists. Heading into Kansas, which only contributes 13 miles to the route, we can stretch our legs a bit.

Back on the road, we find an Oklahoma restaurant called Lucille's Roadhouse that duplicates the original Lucille's that closed upon its beloved owner's death. The new Lucille's is a replica, attracting more crowds than the original because of its convenient proximity to the interstate. Turning west, a Texas rest area reminds I-40 interstate motorists that they are driving along the old Route 66, though older stretches of the highway remain nearby. A New Mexico casino goes further, recreating the entire road as a giant collection of icons and postcards (and gaming devices), a place so vivid that visitors need never see the actual highway to collect enough photos to fill a scrapbook. Getting tired? Let's refuel and stock up on snacks. We've got two more states to go.

Heading toward the Pacific, we visit an Arizona town that has created a street corner to attract fans of the rock group Eagles who dream of "Standin' on a corner in Winslow, Arizona."Driving toward the sunset, we learn that a California preservation group has even erected a new Route 66 "End of the Trail"sign at the Santa Monica Pier, though the actual road ended in a far less photogenic location a few blocks away. When a New York Times reporter asks why the sign was placed at the pier, Route 66 Preservation Foundation chair James M. Conkle offers a compelling answer: "It's a myth . . . but it is a myth added to all the other myths of Route 66."

He's right. Along its nearly 2,500 miles, many of which are still drivable as frontage roads and occasional two-lane highways that meander far from the interstate, tourists encounter ruins and ghost towns, and sparkling new attractions. What's more, a new generation is discovering Route 66 through the Disney/Pixar movie Cars before searching the real highway for rusting boom trucks festooned with oversized eyes that remind them of the movie's loveable Tow Mater. [Here's a hint, make sure you've got your camera ready when you get to Galena, Kansas. All the while, each stop becomes a portal leading away from its surrounding location, so that eventually every locale becomes another place to buy the same Route 66 merchandise.

Purists say their beloved Mother Road shouldn't be replaced by media fantasy or consumer mentality, and that people should remember the road as a conveyer for cars before it became a backdrop for Cars. But practical-minded preservationists reply that folks making their living along the highway have always done whey they must do to survive. Sure, they're selling the road. But that's no reason to accuse them of selling out.

The reality of this place has always been the promise of collective escape evoked through songs, postcards, and television shows. Indeed, many Route 66 tourist-traps, some built long after the old road was decommissioned in 1985, draw visitors nearer to a world of dedicated preservationists, souvenir hawkers, and their fellow travelers than genuine deteriorating relics can allow. How? By responding to tourists' desires for easily consumed and shared versions of Americana, the sort of easy-on, easy-off interstate experience that, for all its faults, never lacks for convenience. In this way, the road that Bobby Troup labeled "the highway that's the best" endures by perpetually transforming itself to meet the evolving needs of its visitors.

So, is Route 66, that symbol of freedom and community so beloved by tourists that it is becoming a 2,500-mile gift shop, headed for ruin? The answer depends on what you've come to see.