U. S. Route 66 is the highway that wouldn't die. The last stretch of Route 66 was decommissioned by the Federal government in 1985, and the historic road was officially replaced by Interstate 40. Almost twenty years later, Route 66 lives on in books, songs and in the American imagination. Today, "Historic Route 66" signs have sprung up along the route, historic buildings and even their neon signs are being restored and preserved.
Route 66 began in 1925 with an act of Congress. Many existing roads, from Chicago to Los Angeles, were joined to create the new highway. By 1938, it was "continuously paved." Millions streamed west along Route 66, from the Dust Bowl refugees typified in John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" to wartime job-seekers. A new generation of tourists joined them - those who traveled by automobile. National icons sprung up in their wake - tourist camps (later called motels), gas stations, diners and ever-present corny roadside attractions.
In 1946, Bobby Troup wrote a song about Route 66, Nat King Cole recorded it and Route 66 took a permanent place in our national lexicon:
When you make that California trip!
If any Joe . . . tells you to go . . . some other way,
Get your kicks . . . on Route 66!" -- Bobby Troup
Imitative structures sprung up along the new highway, and Route 66 travelers could stop at the Iceberg Gas Station or dine in a giant hat at the El Sombrero Restaurant. A few of these structures survive today, such as the mushroom gasoline pump canopy at 2455 Isleta SW in Albuquerque, but one of the best is the Wigwam Motel in San Bernardino, California and its twin in Holbrook, Arizona, now renovated and filled to capacity almost every night.
By the 1980s, the new Interstate highways replaced the more intimate roads that preceded them. Safer, but less colorful, the interstates once prompted commentator Charles Kurault to comment, "Thanks to the interstate highway system, it is now possible to travel across the country from coast to coast without seeing anything." Perhaps it's the desire to "see something" that keeps Route 66 alive.