Museums don’t always have to come in the shape of white-columned buildings, with underground parking garages and yellowing parchment behind thick glass. They can be a ribbon of pavement that meanders through cornfields and scrub, a celebration of Americana in the form of gaudy neon motel signs and shiny diners with butterscotch malts on their menus.
Stretching nearly 2,500 miles from Chicago to Santa Monica, Route 66 is indeed a museum, a trove of quirky culture venerated in song, cinema and literature. Nat King Cole’s discography wouldn’t be the same without “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66.” The Joads rumbled their teetering jalopy down Route 66 in Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath.” Even Disney’s animated smash, “Cars,” owes the inspiration for its Tow Mater character to a rusted tow truck parked by an abandoned gas station in Galena, Kansas.
That’s the way we view the “Mother Road,” which is why we think its yesteryear feel should continue to be preserved—and promoted.
In two years, the National Park Service’s Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program expires. Money earmarked for that program has hardly walloped the federal budget—just $2 million since 2001, when the program began. But that money has paid for nearly 150 projects along the roadway. It’s not just federal money that goes to those projects—the federal share has been matched by $3.3 million from business, nonprofits and local governments.
None of those projects are extravagant in scope: a revamp of the Rialto Square Theater marquee in Joliet, Illinois, restoration of neon signs for the Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket restaurant in Hinsdale, Illinois, and the Donut Drive-In in St. Louis; a fix-up of the Baxter Springs Independent Oil and Gas Station in Baxter Springs, Kansas; roof repairs at the Navajo County Courthouse in Holbrook, Arizona. They’re not massive overhauls—imply modest spruce-ups that keep intact Route 66’s kitschy feel.
A bipartisan bill now in Congress would designate Route 66 as a National Historic Trail. That would ensure preservation funds are allocated for roadway projects every year. And it would ensure that Route 66 remains the storied tourist destination that it is now, drawing tens of thousands of visitors annually from every corner of the world—Brazil to Russia, Germany to China. Congress can also reauthorize the corridor preservation program as it did in 2009, when it gave the program 10 more years. We prefer the National Historic Trail option, since it doesn’t carry an expiration date.
There was a time when Route 66’s purpose was very different. It opened in 1926, part of the country’s first federal highway system. During the Great Depression, the road gave Dust Bowl victims an escape hatch westward. With America’s entrance into World War II, Route 66 served as a vital corridor for troops and supplies moving between military installations, and for job seekers headed toward West Coast defense plants. With President Eisenhower’s start of the U.S. interstate highway system in 1956, traffic took to the new expressways, and Route 66 began to wither. Communities dotting the road struggled economically. Many became ghost towns.
Tourism became the road’s salvation, and it’s what keeps the communities alongside Route 66 alive today. Many of them are Main Street USA throwbacks, a time-travel back to an era of mom-and-pop gas stations and motels aglow in neon. Our favorite: the Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico, which beckons with the pitch, “100 percent Refrigerated Air.” It all adds up to a time capsule well worth cherishing — and keeping alive.
Editor’s note: Editorials from other newspapers are offered to stimulate debate and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Tribune.