Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
For a brief time in American tourism, travel was about the journey. Here's how it came to be about the destination.
Today, Route 66 is yet another decommissioned U.S. highway, mostly crumbling, partly inaccessible. Yet the 2,400 miles winding from Chicago to Los Angeles once connected hundreds of the West's small towns, opening them to travelers like never before. What brought the decline of "America's Main Street"?
On view through January 4 at L.A.'s Autry Museum, the exhibit Route 66: the Road and the Romance reveals a complicated story with extraordinary objects, from Kerouac's original On The Road scroll to a jukebox filled with 120 renditions of "(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66."
Born in 1926 out of the Good Roads Movement (a push for improved national highways championed by bicyclists and city boosters), Route 66 was among the original highways of the U.S. system. "Highways in the early 20th century were designed to connect urban and rural communities, and break the monopoly of the railroads," says Jeffrey Richardson, Gamble Curator of Western History, Popular Culture, and Firearms at the Autry. "With its strange, sickle-cut path, Route 66 did just that."
The road's efficacy was tested early on as a thoroughfare for refugees of the Dust Bowl and the Depression, who traveled westward for better lives (an experience mythologized in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, of which a handwritten manuscript page appears in the exhibit).
But it wasn't until the post-war era that the "Mother Road" hit its heyday. An unprecedented economic boom meant more Americans had the means and leisure time to buy cars and travel with them. Route 66's roadside communities catered to these consumerist impulses, playing up the scenic charms (and racialized Native American tropes) of the West in hotels, restaurants, and knick-knackeries.
During this period, from the late 1940s to early 1950s, American travel was more about the journey, and less about the destination. The road was not completely open for everyone, however; the exhibit includes brochures made for African-American travelers noting "sundown towns"—places to avoid getting harassed (or even killed) after dark. Still, this was a unique, brief time in tourism when an American vacation meant infusing time and money into small communities rather than corporations.
But in 1956, Eisenhower's Interstate Highway System effectively bypassed Route 66. As CityLab has written before, the straight-lined, speedy interstates often bifurcated cities. They also cut paths far from Route 66's small, idiosyncratic towns. The rise of modern air travel also diminished the appeal of the winding, open road.
Yet it was not only new modes of transportation that faded Route 66; it was also a changing definition of "vacation." Disneyland and Las Vegas staked their claims to the American travel budget in the mid '50s. Suddenly, the "there" took precedence over the "getting there."
Richardson mentions that he recently asked a group of students at the exhibit if they'd rather spend a week traveling to Disneyland or playing at Disneyland. "And of course they say it's more exciting to spend the week there," he says. "The interstates were designed to move people to these places as quickly as possible. Travel was no longer about communities or people."
Route 66 fell into a long decline and disrepair, until it was officially decommissioned by the federal government in 1985. Its legacy dwindled into trinkets from Americana stores and a line of denim from K-Mart.
But that's been changing, slowly. In 1999, President Bill Clinton signed the National Route 66 Preservation Bill, which provided funding to save historic landmarks on the road. The 2006 Pixar film Cars also revived interest in the highway and its neon-lit glory days.
And though Route 66 is no longer fully continuous and requires some navigational prowess to trace, "I think we are seeing more people taking to the road," says Richardson. "I've met a lot of visitors at the exhibition who are foreigners and who have [traveled the route]. For them, the way to see America is to do something like Route 66, through the heartland of the country. They're seeking that quintessential experience. "
Which is to say, they're driving just to drive, and traveling just to travel: An American pastime, for better or worse.