U.S. Route 66, also known as the Mother Road or Main Street of America, winds its way over 2,451 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles. Although Route 66 officially no longer exists (the route has been replaced by a number of roads in the modern Interstate Highway System), many stretches of the historic route are still marked. Even today, it is possible to drive the entire length of the historic roadway, using a combination of interstates and surface streets to recreate the experience of thousands of travelers from previous generations. The drive passes through eight states: Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska (for just a few miles), Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and finally California.

Endless miles, endless freedom

Countless miles ahead… Endless freedom towards the American West.
Gratisography

In American popular culture, the roadway has become a symbol of the vast expanses and endless freedom of the American West. It first achieved fame during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. During that great disaster, many farmers fled west to escape poverty brought on by environmental degradation. They flocked to Route 66 and followed it west to California and the promise of a better life. This story was encapsulated beautifully in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which follows a poor family as they make their way from Oklahoma to California, following Route 66.

During the more hopeful years after World War II, Route 66 continued to serve as the road to the Promised Land in the imagination of American culture. But it also gained a place as a symbol of the leisure culture – driving and travelling for fun rather than out of sheer desperation. The song “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” was written in 1946 by a group of musicians on their way to Los Angeles to find work in the booming entertainment business. The song begins with the iconic lyrics “Well if you ever plan to motor west, just take my way, that’s the highway that’s the best.”

Nat King Cole getting his kicks on Route 66.
Americans would indeed plan to motor west for generations to come – some seeking jobs and opportunity, others seeking adventure and fun. Some, like Marin Miner and Tod Stiles, would turn their road trips into fame and fortune. Miner and Stiles were the stars of Route 66, a popular TV series about two young men driving a sports car across the country. The two main characters, one a wealthy heir and the other a working-class orphan, stop in towns and cities across America and come into contact with a wide variety of characters. The show used Route 66 (and, in later episodes, a number of other highways) as a symbol for the unifying thread of American identity that connects people as different as a Maine lobster fisherman and a winemaker in California. Just as it connected poor farmers to the glamorous city of Los Angeles in the 1930s, so too this iconic highway connects Americans of all walks of life today.