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Born to be wild on Route 66

Despite being officially removed from the US highway system, romantic Route 66 is still alive and kicking on its 90th anniversary. Norman Wright gets his motor running…

GET YOUR motor running, head out on the highway.” When Steppenwolf’s driving beat and lyrics to Born to be Wild launched the title sequence of the film Easy Rider in 1969, it encouraged a generation around the world to dream of taking to the road – the road to freedom.

The highway in the film and in most of those dreams was the legendary US Route 66. Of course, on the screen freedom was crushed by reactionary opposition. And in the real world not that many actually pursued the hippie trail west to California on Route 66.

The Sixties dreamers ended up as jobbing journalists, nurses, supermarket managers, teachers, accountants wearing collar and tie rather than flowers in their hair.

Now, maybe finally achieving a different sort of freedom in retirement, they can actually sample the romanticism of Route 66 in this its 90th anniversary year – born to be wild… eventually.

Route 66 caught the imagination right from the meeting on November 11, 1926 which signed off plans for connecting routes in all 46 states including the 2448 miles designated 66 from Chicago, Illinois, to Santa Monica, California, passing through eight states and three time zones. From that moment, it became part of 20th century culture and began to build its legends.

The pioneers in their wagon trains were the first cross-continental travellers. They established routes like the Oregon Trail and the Santa Fé Trail, battling against the dangers of desert, freezing mountains, marauding Plains Indians, disease and shortage of food and water to reach the promised land of the West Coast. It was the Wild West era which included the Gold Rush in 1849, the Gunfight at the OK Corral in 1881 and the formation of the Wild Bunch with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1896.

By the turn of the 20th century rural settlements were established along those trails and across the vast plains stretching from the Great Lakes to Texas. Agriculture and local transport was still mainly horse-powered so there were few paved roads. Cross-continental travel, passenger and commercial, was by railway which had quickly superseded the wagon train and the stagecoach.

The internal combustion engine and Henry Ford changed all that. Ford started to mass-produce his affordable Model T which meant lots of cars but not many miles of suitable roads to drive them on. That drove the planning and funding of interstate routes, basically to connect the main streets of the towns to give them access to each other and, in Route 66’s case, the Midwest to the West.

The work created jobs as building started, although the route was not fully paved until the mid-Thirties.

Demand for grain increased to export and feed both the growing US population and a Europe devastated by the First World War. The settlers on their 40-acre Great Plains plots in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Northern Texas, Eastern Colorado and New Mexico ploughed up more and more of the natural grassland.

Better transport links led by Route 66 only hastened this trend. Many were sharecroppers who didn’t own the land but farmed it on behalf of the owner for a share of the crops they raised. The increased demand encouraged the sharecroppers to invest in early motorised agricultural equipment.

The bubble burst quite quickly with the world economic crash of 1929 that heralded a decade of economic depression. Then there were four periods of drought during the Thirties that shrivelled crops and reduced the soil to fine dust.

When the winds whipped across the Great Plains, the soil – no longer anchored by the native grasses of the buffalo prairies – rose in huge dust storms that turned day into night and left vast areas bare of topsoil. The bread basket of America was transformed into the Dust Bowl.

Landowners wanted to combine those 40-acre holdings into farms 15 times the size and employ low-wage labour to work them using caterpillar tractors and the like. Lenders foreclosed on the debts sharecroppers had incurred trying to keep up with modernisation.

Hundreds of thousands were simply evicted from their traditional land and homes with nowhere to live or work often at short notice.

Route 66 was then seen as their salvation. Nobel Prize winning writer John Steinbeck described it in his novel The Grapes of Wrath as the Mother Road and the Road of Flight. The evicted families, known collectively and disparagingly as Okies, piled their meagre possessions and hopes on to rickety trucks and headed west on Route 66 for what they thought was work in the vineyards, citrus orchards and salad fields of California.

The novel starkly revealed the true story of this immense migration of more than a quarter of a million people. The journey was incredibly hard for already malnourished people, especially the young and elderly. The migrants were resented and harassed by local workers when they did get there, frequently being resisted violently. The ones who did find work were more often exploited on wages that could not sustain their families. The resulting attempts to unionise and fight for subsistence wages caused more violence – a truly shameful episode in the USA’s history.

The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939 and the film of the book, still a classic starring a young Henry Fonda, followed quickly in 1940.

By then the crisis was easing but it took the catastrophe of the Second World War to turn the economic tide. Demand for war materials boomed as the USA produced armaments for the Allies in Europe and started to build its own stockpiles in case it was directly involved.

The jobs provided by the arms factories were then boosted by millions of jobs in the military following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941.

If the Thirties were the road’s darkest era, the post-war years into the Sixties were Route 66’s heyday. Commercial transport, leisure and business travel and babies boomed and so did the towns along the route. Motels, service stations, diners and stores appeared and did well. The Fonz and the characters of the TV hit Happy Days would have felt completely at home.

In truth by the Sixties the old road, dubbed the Main Street of America, that ran through the centres of towns was beginning to be superseded by the ribbons of concrete that were the new multi-lane Interstates – the bypasses of America. But old Route 66 became a symbol of freedom in the tumultuous times that built up to the 1967 Summer of Love and then into the protests and conflicts that didn’t follow the mantra of peace and love.

However, it did spawn road movies like Easy Rider and Two Lane Blacktop in 1971, Paris, Texas in 1984 and Thelma and Louise in 1991. Steinbeck and those road movies gave Route 66 iconic and romantic fame, which didn’t prevent it being officially removed from the United States Highway System in 1985.

When they were bypassed by the new Interstate Highways, a lot of the enterprises that served travellers withered and died; many motels, diners and service stations were abandoned and are still there, falling to pieces.

Route 66 refused to die, however, and many sections throughout its length are designated Historic Route 66, attracting tourism and nostalgia for its golden age. About 85 per cent of the old route is drivable.

You can drive it in everything from a Thelma and Louise Ford Thunderbird convertible (theirs was a 1966 marque) to a Harley Davidson motorcycle. Or you can take a coach tour.

Several operators offer a range of Route 66 holidays: one of them, eShores, has created a guide to celebrate its new Route 66 road trip which was launched for the 90th anniversary. There is information on the diners and attractions in the guide.

The guide includes a Spotify playlist almost 30 hours long, which lasts the entire 2448-mile drive, an interactive visual guide to Route 66 (complete with points of interest and facts about the trip), and a written guide which goes into detail on the best things to do, see and eat in each state the route takes you through.

You can access the guide and details of the self drive road trip at the website: ( Route 66 offers many fascinating facets – here are some from each of the states it passes through. You can find many more in the guide.

Have you travelled Route 66? Got some pictures to show off?

Let us know what you think and share your experiences with us and others. Just follow us on FacebookTwitterGoogle+, Instagram and YouTube

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