As pointed out in this Vox video exploring what made Route 66 America’s favorite road, the highway has essentially been defunct for twice as long as it was an active part of American transportation routes. So why, then, do we keep featuring stories related to the Mother Road?
Is Dan planning a Route 66 trip of his own? Is he being paid off by the Route 66 lobby? Is it just because Route 66 stories play well to this audience? Well, no, no, and partly.
It does still capture the imaginations of plenty of people looking to discover “the real America” or the American dream, however one wants to define those. Photographers drive it scouting for subjects to shoot. Europeans and other international visitors explore it in search of an explanation for the country at the heart of so much geopolitics. Retirees and vacationers amble upon it hoping to revive their memories of an America gone by. And plenty of local tourism and economic development boards still see its potential to revive the slice of rural America through which it runs.
But if I can step in to answer the question that Vox’s Phil Edwards raises in his video, Route 66 is uniquely American, not just in the landscape or the chintzy baubles one picks up as souvenirs along the road, but also in the way it has become legend.
Every country, every culture, sees its history become mythologized in some way as its stories get told and retold. Route 66 has a certain set of facts that it seems everybody feels obligated to tell when reciting the Route 66 story: 1926, Cyrus Avery, dirt roads, the Green Book, the Okies and “The Grapes of Wrath,” the bypassing and the decommissioning, the ghost towns, Cadillac Ranch and the roadside attractions, the revitalization attempts.
But what makes the retelling uniquely American is the plurality of voices telling the story and the perspectives they bring to it. Shing Yin Khor saw in the legend the story of the immigrants who make up the fabric of the country and who now make the towns along Route 66 their home. Edward Keating saw, just past the theme-park aspects of the highway, a rural America in which “forgotten” people “settled wherever their bones and their broken cars dropped them” and dealt with the shattered promises of capitalism. Candacy Taylor saw how segregation made the American dream relevant to only some Americans. The lowriders of Albuquerque see an integral part of their culture. The people of Tulsa and other locations along the highway see a need to preserve the unique and vernacular structures that gave the road its hodgepodge mid-century aesthetic.
Perhaps none of them tell the story of Route 66 in its entirety. In their own personal legends of Route 66, they adopt, reinterpret, and recast the story in their own way. Even Edwards puts his own spin on it. And that’s great. We already have a textbook history with all the facts; what makes the story of Route 66 captivating and particular to American mythology – what separates it from the stories of the thousands of other ribbons of road in the country – are the many retellings of that story from diverse viewpoints and backgrounds overlaid on top of that textbook history.
Route 66 itself is just a strip of dirt, gravel, concrete, and asphalt, and the stories of these common materials don’t matter at all if we don’t take into account the stories of the people – of all the people – whose lives Route 66 has touched. So, in the end, we shouldn’t just tell the story of Route 66 once; we have to let everybody tell their own Route 66 stories.