Written by Double Dragon
Saturday, 01 June 2013 20:30



Writing and photography copyright D. S. Brown

Think of a historic highway and most of us conjure a vision of an old two lane blacktop. In fact, many supporters of the old roads avoid the antiseptic world of the Interstate highway like the plague. But the Interstates have been with us for over 40 years now, and their history will find a place here as well. Both styles of highway are valid for an enjoyable road trip.

I personally enjoy both types of highways depending on my mood, what I'm driving and where I'm going. If I want to make time, the Interstate is it. Curves, dips and grades are shaved off enough to make it safe for just about any car to cruise at a steady 70 MPH. In Arizona and Nevada there are stretches of Interstate so smooth, straight and virtually deserted that any speed is possible. You can't hold 100 MPH for too long on an old two lane before you encounter a dip, or blind turn. You can find stretches of Interstate that allow unobstructed views for more than a mile and have such gradual drops and gradual turns you need never slow down, except for the giant speeding ticket industry that plagues the Interstates.

Interstates also offer modern well lit rest areas with running water and regular police patrols. You have easy access to other amenities. Where Interstates start to lose appeal is right at the point that you want to dawdle or savor things. It's illegal to stop alongside an Interstate unless you have an emergency. There are no exits other than occasional off ramps. The multitude of little roads and offshoots found on two lanes don't exist in the quick ride of the Interstate. It's unlikely that you will encounter anything but the crass bright signs of giant franchise restaurants. Everyone on the Interstate is caught up in a mission to get somewhere. The destination is the point.

If just being on the road is the mission, then getting onto an old two lane highway is the way to get in the moment. These roads undulate and twist in accordance with the whims of the terrain. You have to pick the right two lane road, however. There are some frustrations inherent in these roads. Many are badly congested. When they run through the outskirts of towns you will suddenly find yourself braking hard from 50 or 55 for a red light. You start up again and just as you hit 50, boom! Another light. Some have patches on top of the patches which can make it impossible to make any kind of speed without shaking apart your car and kidneys. Rest stops if there are any are usually a gravel lot with the possibly of an outhouse.

The rewards are worthwhile. You discover little towns and isolated viewpoints. Driving twisty roads is a blast in a good handling car. You can pull off to the side of the road pretty much anywhere and not cause a ripple. People living near the old roads preserve a bit of their local personality that gets lost in the generic tone found in bigger cities. The stores are unique, and in some small places the home restaurant replaces the generic McDonalds that infest every stop on an Interstate.  

There are pros and cons to both interstates and rural roads. We'll be looking at all roads that led somewhere for someone.

///////////////////////////////////////   ROUTE 66    ///////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

No highway seems to have garnered so much fame as Old Route 66. Part of the magic is in the name. 43 or 37 don't have the same ring. The ground covered by 'The Old Road' contributes to the mystique. Route 66 follows famous trails that were originally used by pioneers in the Old West plunging into the adventure of the unknown on wagon trains. The route traverses a multitude of variable terrains and shoots through some famous cities starting in Chicago on the lake and ending 2,400 miles later in Los Angeles at the ocean. The original Wild West credo "Go West, young man." is what Route 66 is all about. The Old Road took several generations of people "going West" on countless adventures.

Route 66 was opened in 1926 and soon became the primary route used by Oakies escaping the dust bowl in the depression, 1940s migration to factory jobs in California during the war and servicemen moving to California post war in the 1950s. The nickname 'The Mother Road' refers to the fact that just about everyone going somewhere made a journey down Route 66 at some point. John Steinbeck's saga of social injustice and travel THE GRAPES OF WRATH took place along Route 66 and spawned a very popular movie version.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s affluent vacation goers took Route 66 to see the country. Flamboyant signs and billboards advertising businesses dressed up in strange unique attention grabbing garb battled with tourist attractions for the attention of travelers. The road acquired the nickname Main Street, USA because the portion of Route 66 that crossed through any town was invariably named Main Street.

The song "Route 66" achieved extensive air play and popularized the concept of the road trip. It was later covered by the Rolling Stones. The road trip really came into its own with the overnight sensation caused by the book ON THE ROAD by Jack Kerouac. The main characters travel for the sake of travel, not out of necessity. The characters inspired The Beat Movement, although Kerouac distanced himself from that cultural revolution. The Beats later morphed into the Hippies. Kerouac didn't relate to the way the movement aped some parts of what he was saying while missing most of his point. His characters aren't plugged into standard tourist mode. The characters appear to seek nothing but thrills and kicks on the road but they find transcendence and illumination.

Jim Morrison of the rock group THE DOORS was fascinated with the book ON THE ROAD. It tapped into his experiences as a kid on desert road trips. Morrison was enamored with hitchhiking and drifting around. He worked this into several of his short films made after THE DOORS made it big enough to finance his projects. The hitchhiker and the road show up in several of his songs, too, primarily RIDERS ON THE STORM. The short film of the same name features Morrison as hitcher and later driver of a Shelby Mustang.

Morrison's loner on the road pre-dated a giant movement in the hippy culture that sparked off massive numbers of people traveling around and living on the road during the late 1960s. Morrison also tapped into the undercurrent of drifters. The idea behind it all was still the basic freedom philosophy of Route 66.   

The TV show ROUTE 66 was originally called THE SEARCHERS but the movie of the same title forced a name change. Although the show rarely placed the characters on the famed highway the idea of what Route 66 represented in the mass consciousness was sufficient to justify the title. Freedom on an open road exploring the vast country with all its pockets of unique culture was what the highway meant to many people.

The ROUTE 66 characters drove a Corvette, the American sports car and crossed the country finding adventure. It is easy to relate aspects of the two characters travelling around to ON THE ROAD, and this is what Kerouac himself believed. The actual germ of the idea was inspired by the producer musing about what would have happened if he and his preppy pal from his youth had teamed up on a road trip. To read more about this TV series, see the entry in the ROAD TRIP MEDIA section of this website.

By the late 1960s, the idea of Route 66 had taken on a legend and power far beyond the reality of the old road which was being decommissioned in stages. The Interstates replaced Route 66 and for efficient safe transport there was no contest. The Interstate created casualties of a different type, however. Small towns and business that thrived on the Route 66 traffic dried up when bypassed by the Interstate. New franchise gas stations, hotels and restaurants popped up within yards of the Interstate accessible by off ramps. The individual unique mom/pop businesses that lined The Old Highway were cut off from the action.

Some towns fought back by developing their image as a nostalgic visit to the past and heavily promoted the Route 66 history. They were simply tapping into a mass consciousness and it worked for them. The Old Road still appeals to many people and sections of the highway survive to this day. Gradually car clubs and other groups have organized bigger and more elaborate tours along the old road. By 1985 the last official piece of the Mother Road was officially closed, but persistence and enthusiasm on the part of supporters have kept the memory alive and even sections of the road itself were saved.

The Route 66 Association and various Route 66 Museums preserve as much as they can. Many people retrace the old road where it survives. Car clubs and historical groups arrange official drives. A lot of the driving is now done on Interstates which run on top of the old road or by pass sections that are no longer passable, but there are sections that are the same as ever. The idea of the road trip and Route 66 will never go away.

//////////////////////////////////////// HIGHWAY 61 ////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

Although Highway 61 is not as instantly recognizable as Route 66 it shares some of the mystique that has made 66 so popular. The name is somewhat catchy although not as much as 66 and it traces its main usage to similar time periods. Highway 61 runs through a lot of history on its way between two fondly revered cities.

Last Updated ( Thursday, 04 July 2013 22:44 )