U.S. Route 66 or U.S. Highway 66 (US 66 or Route 66), also known as the Will Rogers Highway, the Main Street of America, or the Mother Road, was one of the original highways in the U.S Highway System. Established on November 11, 1926, it originally ran from Chicago to Los Angeles and became one of the most famous roads in America.
Originally, it represented a road of hope for the millions who left the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma and the Great Plains of the 30s. Those who west on Route 66 in the 30s became new residents of California. The great migration was featured in the great 1939 Steinbeck novel The Grapes of Wrath and captured by stark black and white photos from photographers like Margaret Bourke White.
My father and grandfather told me about its history when I was growing up in LA in the 50s. In those early years, before the family traveled on it, the famous road was symbolized for me by a small plaque in Palisades Park, that slim park in Santa Monica above the Santa Monica cliffs. When I was young, my father and grandfather took to Palisades Park and we would look out over the wide beaches of Santa Monica, a hundred feet below the cliffs that ran along the western part of the park. Ocean Avenue ran north and south along the eastern side of Palisades Park and Santa Monica Boulevard dead-ended into Ocean Boulevard. At this spot, there once was a little plaque that designated this spot as the end of Route 66. We would stop at the plaque many times when we visited Palisades Park.
Many years later I learned that the plaque, nestled among the palm trees, was not something official but rather placed there in 1952 to promote the Warner Brothers film, The Will Rogers Story. I learned from somewhere that Route 66 ends at the intersection of Lincoln and Olympic Boulevards, or in LA terminology, the off ramp from Interstate 10 or the Santa Monica Freeway. But many establishments along the beach in Santa Monica claim their location is the end of Route 66. It makes business sense to associate your cafe or motel with an American icon.
For instance, there is the “End of the Trail” sign at the end of the Santa Monica Pier where you can always see tourists taking photos around the sign. There is the Santa Monica Motel which was originally called “Travl-O-Tel” and dates to the 1950s. There is the Old Wilshire Service Station with its design out of the 1960s with a space-age type of look. There is the famous Hotel California. Before the hotel bore the name of the famous place in the Eagles song, it was called the Langdon Motel. Built in 1948, it features a hacienda design of the two-floor building with an external staircase in the front. And there is Big Dean’s Ocean Front Cafe where they love hearing about their customer’s trips on Route 66.
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I learned about these above places later. At first, Route 66 was simply symbolized by the Will Rogers film plaque in Palisades Park. But it soon took a new life when my family begin to travel on it in the early 50s. Going east rather than west on it, against the flow of all those who were coming west on it. For many, Santa Monica represented the end of the “mother” road. For me, it represented the beginning of this road.
My father owned a Lincoln Mercury dealership in Culver City right across Washington Boulevard from the MGM studios. During vacations, my father would pack the family into one of the new black Lincoln Continentals from the dealership he always drove, and we would head east on Route 66 into the southwestern deserts.
For me it was like getting on one of those rides at an amusement park and seeing strange, magical places along the way. There were the little gift shops along the way that featured trinkets of Route 66. The small little restaurants and the motels. The little towns in the middle of nowhere. The Burma Shave signs along the route with their brief highway wisdom. Towns like Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Gallup, New Mexico. Or Flagstaff and Winslow Arizona. Or Amarillo, Texas.
Later, after my family left LA and moved to the Midwest, Route 66 lived with me through things like the “Theme from Route 66” featured on the TV show Route 66 which I became addicted to in the early 60s. The television series premiered in October 1960 and ran until March 1964 for a total of 116 episodes. The show had its setting change from week to week, with each episode being shot on a new location along Route 66. It followed the adventures of Tod Stiles (Martin Milner) and Buz Murdock (George Maharis) along Route 66 in Tod’s Corvette. What could be a cooler life to lead than the life of Tod and Buz traveling along Route 66 and finding new adventures all the time.
Today, much of the Route 66 I remember runs along the western part of I-40 from Oklahoma City to Bartow, California. I-40 is north of I-10 and south of I-70. You can get leave I-40 at several locations and drive down the crumbling asphalt of Route 66.