Cathryn and I just completed Route 66 from Chicago to L.A. and a return trip across the United States on a more northerly route, racking up over 6,000 miles on mostly forgotten roads that were once the main arteries in America. As much as possible, we traveled the old U.S. Highway system that is still in use but often replaced by Interstate super highways.
Following Route 66 was like a cross-country scavenger hunt. We used a guidebook to seek out the old road or what’s left of it and eroding memorabilia from a time past and almost forgotten. Millennial’s have no concept of the road, and as folks our age travel to never-never land the sites and stories will disappear forever.
While driving the roads less traveled there are still signs that they were once the roads always traveled. Some ghost towns boast six lanes of cracked or broken pavement and in one place there was actually a pedestrian tunnel under a city street that was too busy or dangerous to safely walk across. It was impossible to imagine when I stopped for photos and was able to easily make u-turns in the non-existent traffic.
The lack of vehicular traffic is one of the things I love about traversing the old roads. No traffic jams or giant trucks to contend with. And I don’t know about anyone else but I always feel like I’m on one of those slot-car tracks when I enter a freeway, just slide into your position, put on the cruise control and watch the other drivers texting or playing on their mobile devices.
The saddest sight along the old roads is how bustling cities and towns virtually dried up when the new highways cut them off or bypassed them completely. There was one town where a restaurant moved its front doors to the back when the old highway was re-aligned. It didn’t matter where the doors were when the new interstate left the town a deserted island.
The nostalgia of Route 66 has been a boon for some small cities or towns, where they’ve used their imagination and creativity to lure travelers back to their neck of the woods in an attempt to relive or remember bygone days. Some have renovated old motels, turned old gas stations into museums, and painted beautiful murals that revisit a storied past.
U.S. Highway 66 is only one road that stitched together a group of states across America. There are others, such as U.S. 50, the Lincoln Highway, that runs clear across the country from California to D.C. Granted, some parts have been gobbled up by Interstates like I70, but the road and its signs are still there and in use.
We rode U.S. 50 for much of the way home, starting west of San Francisco. In Nevada it takes you into mountain curves and switchbacks that rival any other challenging roads I’ve been on, including the Tail of the Dragon in the Smokey Mountains. In Utah it straightens out a bit and becomes I70, easily the most scenic super highway I’ve ever been on.
In Colorado 50 takes you into and through the Rocky Mountains, a fun ride which ever road you’re on. Kansas is a yawner, whether you’re on an Interstate, old two-laner or wagon trail. Having rode more eastern sections of U.S. 50 before, we dropped it in St. Louis on this trip.
As far as big cities go, taking the Interstates is the best way to navigate them and get through or around them. This is where GPS systems have made life easier. I don’t know how I did it in the old days, trying to find a certain hotel or restaurant in a city like L.A. or San Francisco. Even though I wanted to chuck the device out the window a few times, I found it handy more often than not.
It was odd when I thought about it, how years ago people left the cities looking for more land or space or quiet. They explored rivers that penetrated the country and led them to places they only dreamed about. The railways took them further, following promises of free land and mineral riches.
The industrial revolution and invention of the automobile changed the country forever. Man could travel just about anywhere and they built roads to accommodate their new machines and the will to go places in them. Those roads stitched together cities and towns from coast to coast bringing prosperity with them. The new super highways did it faster and more efficient.
The odd thing that I discovered is that small-town America has all but dried up and people are migrating back to the same dirty and crowded cities they once fled. Those metropolis’ are getting dirtier and bigger than ever. It’s not like anyone has a choice anymore, it’s where their jobs and livelihood are.
Maybe someone should invent a video game or create an app where younger generations can learn about and remember those great places of yesteryear. Kids don’t know what Route 66 was, and certainly children in the future won’t have the pleasure of using a map to navigate in an automobile across their own country. That future looks sad to me.