'The Highway That's The Best'

When I first heard about the thousands of fervent Route 66 enthusiasts, I wanted to like them, but I had my doubts. It wasn't a question of their judgment. Route 66 is America's most famous and most fabled highway, hands down. It would be almost unpatriotic not to like it. No, the problem is that, strictly speaking, Route 66 no longer exists.

In highway-commissioner parlance, the road was "decertified" in 1985. You can't find it on any current map. Stripped of its highway signs, potholed and crumbling, the roadbed of what was once called "America's Main Street" now serves mostly as frontage road, running alongside the interstate that has replaced it from Chicago to Santa Monica. In a lot of places it does not exist at all.

So what, its partisans say. It's going to take more than a government edict to kill this highway. The people who still drive Route 66 these days do it mostly for pleasure, but they are serious about their fun: since 1983 they have founded a national organization and separate associations in every one of the eight states traversed by the old highway. There are even clubs in England, France and the Netherlands, a next year the Dutch club plans to send more than 200 classic cars for a Route 66 motor tour. All of the stateside groups promote preservation efforts, support legislation to maintain the road and lobby local governments to mark the route with historic markers.

Road lovers even have their own magazine, The Mother Road Journal, not to mention a shelf's worth of guidebooks and histories and even a bicycle-trail guide. And wait! Stop! See the paraphernalia! Besides the usual commemorative T shirts, shot glasses and key chains, you can buy fake Route 66 highway signs (metal or neon), Route 66 tiepins, Route 66 socks and Route 66 underpants. You can even buy a bottle of Route 66 wine.

This week the highway will be 66 years old. Its boosters have been whooping it up all year, with car rallies, motor tours, sock hops and birthday bashes up and down the route. Flagstaff, Ariz., changed the name of its main drag to Route 66, and nearby Winslow celebrated with the Miss Flatbed Ford Contest. Route 66 fans are a varied lot. Some are old, some just got their driver's licenses. Some are car buffs, some are amateur historians and preservationists. A lot are nostalgists, like Vivian Davies, a member of the California club who recently organized a car caravan that drove the length of Route 66. "People want to get back to the sweet 1950s," she explains, "when things were a little slower and a little sweeter. Back when a slice of pie was a quarter of the pie. I'm not out here to show off an antique car. I'm coming in a different door. I'm here because I love that road. If we just stood beside the highway and waved our arms, it would still be alive." She grinned. "And I'm back to get that quarter of a pie."

After I listened to a dozen or so similar testimonials, the rap began to sound a little pat. To clear my head, and to find out what these people were talking about, I drove from Oklahoma City to Flagstaff, traveling on as much of the old highway as I could find.

I discovered two things. First, the old route is crammed with beauty, some natural and some man-made. It's a national treasure hiding in plain sight. Second, the highway is so strewn with busted dreams that, aside from the occasional souvenir shack, it leaves little room for camp or sentimentality.

These days, driving Route 66 is like having your own private highway. There are no trucks, no traffic, no hassles. Motoring west through rural Oklahoma, even when the interstate roared not an acre away, I felt as though I was in a world out of time. Trees shaded the old highway. Cows grazed right up to the shoulder. The earth there is a rich umber, and where the dust has blown across the highway and coated its surface, the road is pink. The interstate, because it is so huge, always shaves away the particularities of the countryside. But Route 66 was built for comfort, not for speed, and its contours and character reflect the territory it inhabits. You can't help getting visually educated about the places you're passing through.

A melancholy number of small towns along old Route 66 are boarded up. The biggest buildings in these towns are always defunct motels, cafes and garages, and when the interstate passed them by, they died. A few towns on the old route, like Tucumcari, N.M have managed to survive. I spent a night there, at the Blue Swallow Motel, a vintage motor court where every room comes with its own garage. But the motel's chief attraction is its proprietor, Lillian Redman, a kind but plain-spoken 83-year-old who came west as a child in a covered wagon, and who has served travelers along Route 66 for most of her life. "In the years after World War II," she says, "Route 66 was like a little river, and everybody in every town got to know everybody that came along. Everybody was neighbors."

What she sees today distresses her. "With the interstate, they just tool on by, and they don't get acquainted with the towns. Travelers have a set path, and they use any means to get there and they don't tolerate anything that interferes with 'em. So we've lost a lot of things that make life worthwhile."

Not everything is lost. Route 66 is still a trove of roadside attractions, some corny, some sublime, from the Meramec Caverns in Missouri to the Petrified Forest of Arizona. The best sights creep up on you, like the majestic art deco gas station and cafe in little Shamrock, Texas, or the candy company in Oklahoma City called Snacks With Love or the gaudy El Rancho Hotel in Gallup, N.M., where rooms are named for movie stars and the sign advertises THE CHARM OF YESTERDAY, THE CONVENIENCE OF TOMORROW.

The old towns are like architectural museums. As I eyeballed the diners, the baroque movie-house marquees, the tepee-shaped curio shops, it was like watching the history of mid-century travel and tourism invent itself before my eyes. It is a good way to understand that highway culture is a recent phenomenon. Before the '20s there were few paved roads anywhere outside cities; people traveled only when necessary. Thus roads like Route 66 were not merely the backdrop to epic migrations like the dust-bowl exodus. They helped inspire our footloose culture.

"The writers left the Algonquin round table in New York and went west one by one to work in Hollywood," says Tom Snyder, founder of the national Route 66 Association and author of the invaluable guidebook "The Route 66 Traveler's Guide." "The radio writers came out west, the songwriters, movie directors, and everybody had Route 66 as part of their experience. Go back and listen to the old radio dramas. Route 66 crops up all the time. Bobby Troup did his most famous song about it. It wound up as the name of a television series. So really, Route 66 is a media legend. It became part of everybody's experience."

The mystique of Route 66 amounts to more than just a handful of gossamer images from Hollywood. The scenery, the architecture and the unhurried hospitality of innkeepers are real enough. But Hollywood, Calif., the Promised Land-however intangible, that is a big part of the road's allure. To this day nearly all the guidebooks about the highway have an east-to-west orientation.

"If Highway 66 had gone to San Francisco or Portland, it never would have been as famous," says Stanley Marsh 3, a wealthy, eccentric Amarillo, Texas, native. Marsh is known for underwriting outrageous, prankish abstract art in public places, and his most notorious project is the Cadillac Ranch on Route 66. Now so famous that it rates a spot on Rand McNally's maps, the Cadillac Ranch was created in 1974 by a group of artists known collectively as the Ant Farm. Located on the western outskirts of Amarillo, the ranch is 10 Cadillacs lined up and angled into the ground, their tail fins pointing heavenward. An unsuspecting driver encountering this spectacular vision arising from the monotony of the Texas prairie would surely think he was hallucinating, which, according to Marsh, is part of the point. "They're made for people who don't know they're here," he says. "It's an unanticipated reward."

The buried Cadillacs look like the tombstones of the American age of excess. But, while you can read into it what you want, Marsh says, gloom played no part in the original recipe. "The Ant Farm wanted the Cadillac Ranch right here on Highway 66 because they were all from the East Coast and they all dreamed of getting Cadillacs and hitting the road, going to Las Vegas, breaking the bank, going to Hollywood, getting a blonde and being a movie star. This is a monument to the American Dream."

Springing from the earth like a crop of corn, the Cadillac Ranch is a durable reminder of America's love affair with the car. As such, it is also the perfect symbol for Route 66. Both are showing signs of age, but both endure to remind us of a time when traveling was slower but almost sinfully luxurious. They remind us, too, that the act of getting there can be as much fun as wherever you might be going.

With that in mind, I'd have to say that the quintessential leg of my trip was a bone-rattling stretch near Flagstaff. Following a shopkeeper's directions, I picked up old 66 and drove for miles into the high desert. Before long, the pitted pavement became a gravel road and that in turn gave way to what looked like a cow trail full of rocks the size of grapefruit. On I went, for what seemed like days, into the brush, under scrubby trees, swallowed up by the immense landscape, until I bounced down a short hill to the lip of a yawning gorge. Off to my right, high above me, was the bridge over the interstate. My little trail went left. And so, despairing, went I. Before too long there appeared what must have been the original bridge for 66. For all I know, it may have been put up by the conquistadors. With my heart in my throat, I gunned the motor and ... didn't die. And then on I went, for another eternity, through the middle of more nowhere, over more big rocks. Finally, after a few more kidney-rattling bumps, another couple of roller-coaster dips and a trip through somebody's backyard, I spotted the entrance ramp to I-40, right where the shopkeeper said it would be. Never have I been so glad to hop on an interstate highway. But then again, never have I been on a journey as vividly memorable as the one that got me there. At the end of the ride, I was shaking with pleasure.