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Route 66: Finding the Mother Road

Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford

Marilyn Monroe epitomizes the lost world of the 1950s with fast cars, sweater girls, and malted milkshakes. Here she poses on the Main Street of Seligman, Ariz., as if she were looking for a ride.

I had the ride, but not the road. I was living in Tennessee, and I’d bought my dream car, a Big Bird or 1963 pearl white Thunderbird complete with a 390-cubic-inch Ford V-8 engine, brushed aluminum cockpit interior and black leather bucket seats. But what I missed was the Mother Road, Route 66. I had the car, but not the highway.

If there’s any place to drive a 1950s or 1960s car, it’s on Route 66, which stretched 2,250 miles across the continent beginning in Chicago and ending in Los Angeles. No other highway has more legend, more scenery and more history than Route 66, which pioneered long-distance auto routes across America but was a victim of its own success when Congress passed the Interstate Highway Act in 1956, dooming the two-lane blacktop with its mom-and-pop cafés to replacement by highway off-ramps, chain restaurants and motels with numbers, not names. Novelist John Steinbeck quipped that with the new interstate highway system you could drive the length of the United States and never see a thing.

Four-lane interstate highways linked big cities in straight lines. Route 66 accessed the heart of America. It went through small towns, not around them.

In the Southwest, Route 66 brought travelers out of the heat and humidity of Oklahoma and Texas across the dry plains of New Mexico, the high deserts of Arizona and finally to the promised land of California fruit trees, beaches and perpetual sunshine. Americans have always moved west. It’s in our blood and in our genes. Once Henry Ford perfected the Model A and the Federal Highway Act of 1921 combined rural roads, Route 66 was born in 1926. Within a few years, thousands of busted small farmers who had been “tractored out” would drive the road in their jalopies toward the setting sun.

Steinbeck chronicled the saga of California-bound Okies leaving the Dust Bowl. “Okie” became a generic term for displaced internal migrants and was not limited to farmers fleeing Oklahoma. In The Grapes of Wrath, families traveled together on Route 66. Later, Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road. Kerouac drove a Hudson. My dad preferred a big, ocean green Packard Caribbean with a huge V-8 engine and three two-barrel carburetors.

It was the 1950s, and the Depression was over. World War II had ended and American veterans were out to see their country. We took Route 66 to Flagstaff, Ariz., and then to Williams and north to Grand Canyon. Lately, I’ve been on the same route trying to recapture some of that automobile nostalgia from the days of family vacations when everyone piled into the sedan or station wagon.

Much of Route 66 was bypassed and forgotten when the interstates came through. Communities were left high and dry, as highway engineers diverted traffic away from small towns and their Main Streets. But a few businesses still cater to nostalgia-seekers looking for the Mother Road, and almost every state along the route has its own guidebook. Two of my favorites are Nick Freeth’s Traveling Route 66 (University of Oklahoma Press) and Hip to the Trip: A Cultural History of Route 66 by Peter B. Dedek (University of New Mexico Press).

In Flagstaff, I stopped into The Museum Club, which is a quintessential log roadhouse built in 1931 serving the standard honky-tonk fare of cold beer, cheeseburgers and country music. The building’s entrance is beneath a large forked ponderosa pine tree, and inside, every critter imaginable can be found hanging from the rafters or about to pounce on patrons, including stuffed cougars, elk, deer, caribou and assorted rattlesnakes and reptiles. Hundreds of taxidermied animals including bobcats, bears, owls and peacocks gave The Museum Club its name.

Traveling musicians have set the stage from Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings to Bob Wills & the Texas Cowboys and Asleep at the Wheel. Dancing the two-step gets interesting, not just because of the animal audience, but also because of upright, shellacked pine trees, which hold the roof up from the middle of the dance floor. Exuberant cowboys have to be careful not to swing their partners smack into a ponderosa pole and knock them out.

The popularity of this vintage Route 66 roadside attraction is attested to by the 5-foot long urinal in the men’s room, booths with local cattle brands burned into table tops and mountain bikes locked to the hitching post out front.

Farther west in Seligman, Ariz., Angel Delgadillo carries on at a youthful 86 years old. If any person in the Southwest embodies Route 66, it’s Angel.

“My dad came to Seligman in the winter of 1917. He was just one step ahead of Pancho Villa,” says Angel, who proudly tells me that he started cutting hair at 9 a.m. May 22, 1950, and he hasn’t stopped since. Born on Route 66 in 1927, Angel took the Mother Road west to barber college in Pasadena, Calif.

As a boy, he says, “I saw the Okies migrating to California from the Midwestern states. I saw a quarter of a million people moving west in the 1930s, when the route was unpaved with no fences and few trees. I’ve seen soldiers hitchhiking during World War II.”

Then his voice drops, and in almost a whisper he says, “I saw the day we were bypassed by the interstate on September 22, 1978. The town died for 10 long years. My family couldn’t afford to leave so we just stayed.”

But like other resourceful Americans, Delgadillo wasn’t about to give up his dream of a little shop on Main Street.

“We asked the state to make it historic between Seligman and Kingman – 89 miles – to get the economy back,” he says.

His pleas and his letters went nowhere, but “finally, we got people’s attention,” he says. Then, the task turned to telling the world that Route 66 wasn’t dead. It worked.

“I get to talk to people from all over who come to our store,” he says. “This is like the America of yesterday. Today’s travelers love to be on Route 66.”

And why not? The big, 18-wheel diesel trucks drive the interstate so segments of intact Route 66 are perfect for sightseers, motorcyclists and motor coaches full of tourists. What was once gone has not been forgotten.

“It took me years to understand that people want what they have lost,” a smiling Angel says from his packed T-shirt shop. “It just gains momentum. In October 1985, they took down all the Route 66 signs between Chicago and Santa Monica, but now there are 13 gifts shops in Seligman.”

His brother built a business, too. Delgadillo’s Snow-Cap, which serves snowcones, milkshakes, burgers and soda, was constructed of scrap lumber discarded by the Santa Fe Railroad. Once too poor to leave town, Angel now sits outside his gift shop and smiles as the world comes to him. He continues cutting hair.

I wish I still had that T-Bird. I always wanted to drive west into the sunset on Route 66 and watch the last rays of daylight reflect off that half-acre car hood. My taillights looked like gleaming red tubes of lipstick or the afterburners of jet engines. But if my vintage ’60s ride is gone, I’ve still got the road. We’ve all got the Mother Road.

gulliford_a@fortlewis.edu. Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College.

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