Americans tell more stories about Route 66 than any other highway in the nation. The Mississippi portion of Highway 61, the "Blues Highway," probably runs a distant second, but, while Highway 61 is shrouded in dark myths, Route 66 basks in the glow of nostalgia and romance.
It was the road that desperate people took west, during the Great Depression, in search of jobs and opportunity. It symbolized American optimism and prosperity, during the 1950s, before the tragic burdens of being a superpower became obvious. It's inspired novels, TV shows, and the wonderful Bobby Troup song that Nat King Cole turned into a true classic (scroll down to hear it).
Gas station, historic Route 66, Santa Rosa, New Mexico, August 2011. [Photos copyright John Edwin Mason, 2011. Click on any image to see a much larger version.]
Route 66 was created in 1926. As Nat King Cole will tell you, it ran from Chicago to LA, more than 2,000 miles along the way. It was "decommissioned" -- that is, officially removed from the United States highway system -- in 1985. In the minds of government bureaucrats, freeways had made it irrelevant. Since its official demise, however, it's become more popular than ever. States mark the old road with "Historic Route 66" signage. Old motels and restaurants have been restored (or not). The travel section of any bookstore contains dozens of books about the highway. Many thousands of tourists travel portions of it every year, hoping to sample some of the old ambiance. Even people who have never been near it -- heck, even those who prefer to stick to I-55, I-44, and I-40 which parallel it -- like the idea of Route 66.
Abandoned Gulf gas station, historic Route 66, Texas, August 2011.
Like a lot of photographers, the right kind of nostalgia can make me go weak at the knees, and Route 66 has plenty of the right kind, especially for a guy like me, who loves space-age architecture, Googies, wacky roadside attractions, and anything that's old and cool.
A few weeks ago, I drove many bits and pieces of Route 66, taking the long way out to the Bonneville Salt Flats, where I shot a story about Robin Dripps, a record-setting land speed racer, who just happens to be a professor at the University of Virginia.
Nightclub sign, historic Route 66, Santa Rosa, New Mexico, August 2011.
I made some photos that I like, but I was really thinking of the trip as a scouting mission. With luck, I'll go back next summer and spend as much time as I need finding cool things to photograph. I made these photos with my iPhone, which I was using to keep a visual diary of the trip. I was surprised by how nice the photos look (at least on a computer screen).
Abandoned building (which obviously served many purposes in its life), historic Route 66, Tucumcari, New Mexico, August 2011.
Deco deluxe. Restored Conoco gas station and cafe, historic Route 66, Shamrock, Texas, August 2011.
As I was photographing the Conoco station and U Drop Inn, a couple drove up and began to do the same thing. We got into a conversation, and they told me that they had driven the length of Route 66 in the late 1950s, soon after they were married. They were having a ball reliving the experience.
Cadillac Ranch, near historic Route 66, on the outskirts of Amarillo, Texas, August 2011. [Remember, you can click on any photo to see a larger version. The amount of detail in the distance, here, is pretty surprising. Nice little camera, the iPhone.]
I'm only cheating a little bit (I think) by including a photo of Cadillac Ranch. This famous piece of public pop art was first installed in 1974 -- before Route 66 was decommissioned -- by members of the Ant Farm art group. A couple of decades later, it was moved to its present location, about two miles down the road from the original.
Nat King Cole first recorded Bobby Troup's "Route 66" in 1946. Not surprisingly -- given its swinging rhythms and infectious melody -- the song was an instant hit and has been associated with Cole ever since (despite the fact that many of other artists have recorded it). This video dates from the late 1950s.
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