It took five interstates to wipe Route 66 off the map, but the cracked asphalt of the old road is still there, winding alongside and under the dual highways. Empty of more purposeful traffic, the road is now traveled by a caravan of American dreamers and hucksters, some selling nostalgia, others reveling in it. That caravan will reach full force this summer when Michael Wallis tools a red 1964 Corvette down Route 66 from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean promoting Route 66: The Mother Road (St. Martin’s).
Wallis, a former Marine turned journalist who has lived in seven of the eight Route 66 states, has written what his editor calls a love letter to the road. He wraps the history of the route around pictures of it and lets the people who have traveled and lived along the Mother Road tell their stories. He also tells some of his own.
If the 165 Tulsans who recently showed up on his doorstep to get their copies autographed are anything to go by, Wallis’ book tour should bring a lot more traffic onto the route. The eight Route 66 states have formed associations to hold dances, create halls of fame, and stage vintage-car rallies, all timed to his arrival. Small towns are celebrating with 8K runs and barbecues. In Oklahoma, folks are making the largest fried-onion burger ever. In Arizona, they’re building permanent dirt-bike trails on otherwise impassable old sections of the road. Seligman, Ariz., is holding a Miss Route 66 pageant. Peddlers who continually travel the road in vans will hawk Route 66 T-shirts, bumper stickers, and Wallis’ $29.95 book. In St. Louis, Ted Drewes will bag little pieces of the road to give out with his famous roadside frozen custard.
Wallis insists that the road still represents something Americans believe in. ”It’s a heritage, sometimes of adverse circumstances, sometimes of pleasant,” he says. ”The road symbolizes going someplace. It’s a ribbon that ties histories and locales together. I felt an obligation to sum up the past as we approach a new century.”
The road’s legend — as the last exit from poverty in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, as the place to get your kicks in Bobby Troup’s famous song, and as America’s Main Street in the ’60s TV program named after it — remains very much a part of its allure.
”The two lanes of Route 66 mean America, before we became generic,” Wallis says, ”before we drank mountain water from a bottle and knew what fax machines and portable telephones were. Before we’d even heard of cholesterol. We drank water from a tap and tea brewed by the sun and ate pie baked by that woman sweating in the kitchen back there and not shipped in from six states away. And it took five napkins to eat a cheeseburger.”
Wallis says a new generation of travelers is returning to the route to relive childhood vacations, and merchants have hung out the neon to greet them. Norma Lee Hall still charges only 99 cents for breakfast at Norma’s Diamond Cafe in Oklahoma. Ron Chavez continues to serve food made from 400-year-old Native American recipes at the Club Cafe in Santa Rosa, N.M. The El Rancho Hotel, ”home of the movie stars,” in Gallup, N.M., has been polished up. And here and there you can sleep in newly renovated wigwams.
Of course, the freewheeling passion for Route 66 that inspired Michael Wallis to write his book also threatens to steamroll the very qualities it celebrates. This is America, after all, and in America local color often comes down to a fast-food franchise done in Mississippi riverboat style here or Santa Fe style there.
Wallis maintains that the Route 66ers won’t let fast food and malls take over. ”The small towns are so zealous about protecting the integrity of the Mother Road. They know that what makes Route 66 special is the variety. Some of the little towns had started to fall asleep; they had their five o’clock shadows. Now they’re picking up cans and cutting weeds.
”I tell them they don’t want to spiffy up too much. There’s nothing worse than a spic-and-span barbecue. You need the layers and layers of smoke and the old tattoos in the wood. Without it, you run the risk of making it look like the Golden Arches.” And making Route 66 look like I-66.