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Whither, Route 66?

(AP Photo/Russell Contreras)

In this May 19, 2017 photo, traffic makes its way along Route 66, while the highway is going through heavy construction in Albuquerque, N.M.. Route 66, the American Mother Road that once connected motorists from Illinois to California, may lose its place in a National Park Service's preservation program, ending years of efforts aimed at reviving old tourist spots in struggling towns.

Preservationists are worried that historic Route 66 is disappearing. 

The road connecting Chicago to Santa Monica, passing through Kingman, Arizona, has mostly been supplanted by other roads.

However, its allure has not been supplanted in the minds of many people. 

Preservationist Jim Hinckley explained the road was just a road until a group of businessmen marketed it as America's Mother Road, starting in the 1920s.

"The first thing they did was launch a really successful marketing campaign, branding Route 66 as the 'Main Street of America,'" he said.

The idea expanded when it became the route to take from the Midwest to the Olympics in Los Angeles in 1932.

Then came the book "The Grapes of Wrath" -- John Steinbeck's masterpiece featured the road as a way out of the dustbowl and into golden California shores.

Nat "King" Cole's classic song "Route 66" reminded everyone where to get their kicks. Hinckley said it is the most recorded song in the world with everyone from Perry Como to The Rolling Stones covering it.

And the TV show "Route 66" only ran for four years, but it was enough to cement the idea of the road in many minds.

But with the rise of the interstate system, Route 66 became more of a back road with an amazing history. Hinckley says it wasn't really the interstate that killed the roadway.

"Route 66, from its inception, was antiquated," he said. "It was never able to evolve fast enough to meet the needs of a growing, motoring public and a trucking industry."

You can still drive on 90 percent of the road Hinckley said -- more if you have a Jeep. 

The biggest problem for the stretch of Americana isn't the roadway itself, but all the pieces of history along it that Hinckley says are slowly disappearing.

Motels, hotels, diners, car dealerships and gas stations are disappearing. Some of those features, including destinations listed in the "Green Book for the Negro Motorist" --a guidebook that allowed African Americans to find friendly restaurants and lodging while traveling around the country -- are disappearing fast. 

"The road itself may not be endangered, but everything that constitutes Route 66? Most of those components are endangered," Hinckley said.

There are efforts underway to preserve those what's left. Hinckley said there are people who are choosing to buy once abandoned hotels and refurbishing them.

"There's a passion and vibrancy on Route 66 that you won’t find anywhere else," Hinckley said.

International tourists love to visit the roadway because, to them, it represents everything quintessentially American: from Harley-Davidson, Ford Mustangs and Chevrolet, to apple pie and rock 'n' roll, Hinckley said.

The trouble for the road is drawing a diverse and younger group of domestic tourists who don't remember the road in its heyday. 

Hinckley said for those who do visit Route 66, they'll see a time capsule of American life over the last century, from an Oklahoma diner that has been in the same family since the 1920s, to a perfectly preserved Packard car dealership in Pasadena.

"Route 66 is a link to a full century of American societal evolution," he said.  

One of the simple ways preservationists are trying to keep the route alive is signage and an important designation.

"The recent push with the road ahead partnership to have the highway designated a national historic trail will resolve that, and make a standard of signage from end to end," Hinckley said.




Jim Hinckley, preservationist

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Casey Morell is the coordinating producer of Nevada Public Radio's flagship broadcast State of Nevada and one of the station's midday newscast announcers. (He's also been interviewed by Jimmy Fallon, whatever that's worth.)
Since June 2015, Fred has been a producer at KNPR's State of Nevada.