When it comes to legendary roads, few hold the mythos of Route 66, and certainly no other American highway matches it in sheer nostalgia.
But Route 66 was not the first national highway to cross multiple state.
It’s not the longest.
It’s not even fully cross-country, starting instead in the Midwest before rolling out to the Pacific.
So, what exactly is it that makes Route 66 so beloved?
Why does it remain the Main Street of America instead of the U.S.’s longest highway (U.S. Route 20) or U.S.’s first cross-country highway (U.S. Route 30/Lincoln Highway)?
Just why is route 66 so famous?
Well, while we can’t say for certain why Route 66 has become the road of roads in American history (we’re not sure anyone can), we do have a few ideas as to how Route 66 became so legendary and why its influence has lingered long after it was passed over by more modern, faster roads.
What Makes Route 66 Famous
While it wasn’t the first or longest highway when it was first commissioned, Route 66 had two claims to fame even as it was being built, and has earned a third claim to fame in the nearly century since the first cars rolled down it.
These claims to fame are:
- The freedom it represented.
- Its role in its peak eras.
- Its immortalization in the cultural canon.
Route 66: A Gateway To The West
(The freedom it represented.)
First up on Route 66’s claims to fame is the freedom the road represented.
When Route 66 was first commissioned in 1926, it was with a very specific purpose – to reduce the distance between Chicago and Los Angeles, making it easier for the industrial trade of the East to move to the West.
It was built as an opportunity road, paving the way to the greater settlement of western cities.
But not only was Route 66 the shortest route between the Midwest and Southern California, it was also drivable year-round, unlike the cross-country roads to its north.
This opened up possibilities for motorists who wanted to drive cross-country and made Route 66 the most popular route for the journey.
Route 66: A Path Of Hope
(Its role in its peak eras.)
Route 66’s second claim to fame was its position and that it served as a direct route to Los Angeles.
Two things were happening at the time of Route 66’s commissioning in 1926 – the United States was experiencing a time of unprecedented prosperity and the movie industry was taking on a life of its own.
With silent films turning into talkies and film actors turning into movie stars, the largely uninhabited West was becoming a place of not just industry, but of glamour.
At the same time, the middle class was seeing incredible growth in their incomes and net worth, which increased consumerism.
And one of the hot new things on the market to buy?
Mass-produced cars, straight off of Henry Ford’s assembly lines.
From the beginning of the 1920s through the end of the decade, the number of registered drivers in the U.S. nearly tripled.
Now, twenty-three million people had a license to drive, many with access to wheels to put down on Route 66, and Southern California, with its miles of beaches and movie stars, was the place to go.
Route 66: A Legendary Road
(Its immortalization in the cultural canon.)
It may be that very connection to Hollywood and the opportunity of the West that started Route 66’s legend in American culture.
But what if that legend had been left to die?
What if Route 66 was merely a road that served the people of its time, then was overwritten by newer, more streamlined roads?
Would it still hold the nostalgic appeal it does today?
We’ll never know.
Because Route 66 was a player in some of U.S. History’s most indelible moments and a road many artists (based in or headed to Los Angeles) traveled.
It served migrants who fled west during The Dust Bowl of the 1930s (most famously immortalized in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath) and carried military equipment east from California during World War II.
As the most popular East-West thoroughfare during times of both prosperity and hardship, Route 66 earned its place in American history and culture.
Maybe that’s why it’s had songs both written about it and inspired by it.
Why it’s been depicted in TV shows and movies.
Would Route 66 be so beloved today if Disney-Pixar’s Cars franchise didn’t immortalize it as recently as 2017 (and have a spin-off series coming this year )?
There’s really no way to know.
Because ever since Route 66 was first designated, not a decade has gone by in which it hasn’t been re-immortalized in some large or small away.
And when you hold something so firmly in the collective memory, it can never truly die.
Further Route 66 Reading
Want to learn more about Route 66?
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