Thinking West: Route 66

Route 66 (NPS.GOV)

Route 66 ran 2,448 miles. The iconic highway stretched between Chicago to Los Angeles (NPS.GOV)

There are few highways that have the iconic, near mythic status that Route 66 holds in American culture. Route 66 stretched some 2,500 miles between Chicago, Illinois and Los Angeles, California. Route 66 became a symbol of the open road. It was America’s Pilgrims’ Road, where folks in the East or Middle-West could escape to the western reaches of the United States. In Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, Route 66 offered Okies a way out of a state ravaged by the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. Jack Kerouac mentions the iconic highway in On the Road. Large swaths of Route 66 have since been absorbed by five Interstate Highways (55, 44, 40, 15, and 10). Although Route 66 is no longer with us, its legacy still lingers in the West.

Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (Chapter 12):

HIGHWAY 66 IS THE main migrant road. 66—the long concrete path across the country, waving gently up and down on the map, from the Mississippi to Bakersfield—over the red lands and the gray lands, twisting up into the mountains, crossing the Divide and down into the bright and terrible desert, and across the desert to the mountains again, and into the rich California valleys.

66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert’s slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there. From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.”

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