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Seeking a rebirth for the mother road — Route 66

July 6, 2018

Members of the Joad family hoped to escape the Dust Bowl and find prosperity.

They packed what little they had and took to the road. Not just any road. The Joads traveled on Route 66.

Central characters in John Steinbeck’s great novel The Grapes of Wrath, the Joads made an unhappy discovery in their travels from Oklahoma to California.

Route 66 led to a land of broken promises instead of a promised land.

The old highway itself ultimately fared no better than the Joads.

Route 66 opened in 1926. At its peak, it stretched across New Mexico and seven others states — more than 2,400 miles from Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif. Some called it Main Street USA because it developed a personality before chain restaurants and motels were so prevalent.

Then President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration began building a network of interstate highways in the 1950s. Traffic declined on Route 66.

The government decommissioned the road in California in 1964, and the rest of Route 66 met the same end in 1985.

Still, as vacationers hit the highways this summer, public interest in Route 66 is surprisingly high.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation named Route 66 to its list of America’s 11 most endangered historic places of 2018. Calling it endangered is a compliment, considering that the government wrote off the highway three decades ago.

Another advocacy group, the Route 66 Road Ahead Partnership, is lobbying for a bill in Congress to designate the highway as a national historic trail.

The measure, sponsored by Republican Congressman Darin LaHood of Illinois, has cleared the House of Representatives. Now it’s at a crossroads of its own. Unless the bill passes the Senate and receives President Donald Trump’s signature by year’s end, it will have to start again from scratch.

To help publicize the cause, on-the-road representatives of the National Trust for Historic Preservation are traveling across Route 66 all this month. Much of it remains accessible, and parts of the road parallel interstate highways. The advocates will be in New Mexico from July 19-26.

One reason for the bill in Congress is that federal funding can be allocated to help preserve national historic trails. A greater advantage of Route 66 receiving that designation is the inherent promotional value, said Amy Webb, senior director of the trust’s regional field office in Denver.

A national historic trail is more apt to draw notice than an old highway that isn’t found on most maps.

Many of Route 66’s motels, neon signs and bridges are fading. Yet even people born decades after the highway’s decommissioning have a certain familiarity with it and a fondness for it.

They watched the 2006 animated movie Cars. The stars of the show were automobiles. Many of them were inspired by people who lived on Route 66.

For earlier generations, Route 66 came alive in a television series named after the roadway and in songs by Bobby Troup and Nelson Riddle. Troup’s (Get your kicks on) Route 66 made his career, though he considered the highway a dull stretch of motels and cafes.

To be sure, attempts by advocacy groups and the federal government to save Route 66 are not new.

About 250 buildings and segments of Route 66 are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Some are active enterprises, such as the Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, N.M.

And Washington politicians tried to revive interest in the road long before LaHood entered Congress.

In 1999, then-President Bill Clinton signed a bill to preserve Route 66. It provided $10 million over 10 years. The measure was sponsored by two Republican members of the New Mexico delegation, the late Sen. Pete Domenici and then-Rep. Heather Wilson.

The jaded might say the world is spinning faster than ever, and efforts to inject new life into old Route 66 have been tried before.

They’re worth trying again. Route 66 teemed with Americana. Businesses along the road were the pride of hometown owners instead of a cog in a faraway corporation.

Steinbeck wrote that “66 is the mother road, the road of flight.”

It won’t enjoy a renaissance as the road most traveled. But, after all these years, it might have a fresh chapter as a trail instead of a highway.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.