It’s 31 years since Route 66 – the blacktop mythologized by John Steinbeck as ‘the mother road’ – was decommissioned.
The highway disappeared from maps but not, of course, from popular culture. The likes of John Steinbeck – who put his fictional Joad family on the road in The Grapes of Wrath – and Nat King Cole – whose (Get Your Kicks On) Route 66 became a rhythm and blues standard – took care of that, long before the last road sign was taken down in 1985.
The highway, established in 1926, ran almost 4,000km west from Chicago to Los Angeles. What started as a route for trucks became a path to a 20th century manifest destiny – the road to a place in the sun, in the golden groves of California.
It entered the American consciousness during the Dust Bowl migrations of the 1930s, when thousands of families from Oklahoma and Texas drove or hiked west seeking work. Route 66’s mythology was sealed in those years – a byword for migration, freedom, escape and the loneliness of a vast country.
During the Second World War it became a key route for transporting munitions to the ports of the west coast. The road fell to leisure use in the 1950s – a convenient route to California that ran close to the Grand Canyon and across the vast southwestern desert.
By the time I came upon Route 66 – almost 20 years ago – it had ceased to exist.
I encountered it by accident. Driving across the US in 1999 my travelling companions and I stopped in Williams, Arizona, a small town on I-40, the interstate which replaced Route 66. We only discovered when we parked up that we were doing so on side of the famed highway itself.
Steinbeck’s “long concrete path across the country…the road of flight” was quiet that day, hosting the sporadic lunchtime traffic of a small southwestern town. The ghost of Tom Joad had long since moved on.
As all of us do. Next month I will set out on a Route 66 of my own, departing Ireland for the Pacific North West. While packing possessions this week I came across a photo I took in Williams on that day in August 1999. A fitting sign, as I step back onto the Mother Road.