Route 66 had a folksy flavor that beat the homogenized interstates of today

December 22, 1991|By Mark de la Vina | Mark de la Vina,Knight-Ridder News Service

Forget the Autobahn. Block out the Appian Way. Try not to think about any other celebrated roads and get hip to this tiny tip.

There's no cooler highway around than U.S. Route 66, the lore-loaded, 2,448-mile asphalt serpent that will turn 66 next month.

Sure, the last segment of Route 66, for decades a link between California and the eastern United States, was decommissioned in 1985, but about 90 percent of what author John Steinbeck called the "Mother Highway," still exists, though without the historic number. And few roads can rival its history, color and roadside culture.

"There's no highway in America that creates visions in people's minds like Route 66," said Laura Bergheim, who wrote about Route 66 in the 1992 Rand McNally Road Atlas and in a commemorative Route 66 map just published by the company.

In its heyday, Route 66 was the pathway to the Pacific, the first highway to an area that, before 1926, was inaccessible by paved road. Along with connecting Santa Monica to Chicago, it became an inspiration for a television series, a gas station logo and countless tales.

While some of Route 66 has been modernized and renamed Interstate 40 or 44, other portions of the highway have been abandoned, overrun by weeds and used by filmmakers for location shooting.

However, motorists can still sample the old road, much of which is navigable.

Route 66, like a strand connecting semiprecious stones, linked innumerable small towns like Shamrock, Texas, and Cuba, Mo. Gas stations grew into cities once the highway opened, and towns like Amarillo and Flagstaff became immortalized in "Route 66," the perennially popular song.

If a family drove along Route 66, children almost always had their list of mandatory pit stops.

"Parents wanted to get to Grandma's house, but kids had their agenda," Ms. Bergheim said. "They would get to sleep in the wigwams [at motels in Holbrook, Ariz., or San Bernadino, Calif.], go to the Blue Whale Amusement Park [off the highway in Oklahoma] and eat frozen custard at Ted Drewes' [soft custard stand] in St. Louis.

"In those days, one of the most compelling things Americans could think about was traveling. And everyone knew what Route 66 was."

Although the highway was ultimately replaced by the wider, flavorless interstates -- which, unlike Route 66, run around towns rather than through them -- the old highway continues to spark people's minds.

"That's the great thing about Route 66," Ms. Bergheim said. "It's chock-full of legends. On the 13 miles of Route 66 in Kansas, there were all those gangster fights, and I think Bonnie and Clyde were killed around there."

Other Route 66 notables are:

* Stanley Marsh's Cadillac Ranch. Just south of Amarillo, this collection of half-buried Caddies sprouts from the earth.

* Quapaw, Okla., where a mysterious phenomenon called "spooklights" occurs along the bluff at Devil's Promenade. Depending on whose explanation you want to believe, these Southwestern Tinker Bells are UFOs, the side effects of a magnetic field or the headlights of ghost cars.

* Galloway's Totem Pole Park near Foyil, Okla., which features bizarre, 60-foot Day-Glo totem poles. One man's offbeat vision remains a permanent monument to gaudiness.

* El Rancho Motel in Gallup, N.M., where rooms are named for celebrities who supposedly lodged there. The Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy rooms are adjoining, while the suite named for Ronald Reagan is the priciest in the place.

While traveling Route 66 isn't the experience it once was, many remnants of its glory days are still intact.

"Today, the interstate way of life is too homogenized," Ms. Bergheim said. "You might as well fly. Route 66 is about experiencing everything that's on the way."

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