You don’t always learn history out of books or in school. There is history that those around you can describe. Experiences and lives that were lived before the advent of smartphones and iPods and Interstate highways. History that is decidedly American and a history that is the basis and foundation for what we are today as a nation.
The story of roads is as ancient as men and women who wanted to move from one place to another. Roads evolved out of paths and routes that carried early commerce and travel and armies. In the United States the rough paths that headed west became improved roads for horse and wagon.
Then, in the last one hundred years, the automobile took over the job of transporting goods and people and roads became even more important to our way of life. In 1908, Henry Ford introduced his low-priced, highly efficient Model T. Its widespread popularity created pressure for the federal government to become more directly involved in road development.
With rural interests adding to the battle cry of "Get the farmers out of the mud!" Congress passed the Road Act of 1916. It created the Federal-Aid Highway Program under which funds were made available on a continuous basis to state highway agencies to assist in road improvements. But before the program could get off the ground, the United States entered World War I.
Things took off again in the Roaring 20s when the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) was authorized by the Federal Highway Act of 1921 to provide funding to help state highway agencies construct a paved system of two-lane interstate highways and the "US" highway was born. During the 1930s, BPR helped state and local governments create Depression-era road projects that would employ as many workers as possible.
When America entered World War II in 1941, the focus turned toward providing roads that the military needed. After the war, the nation's roads were in disrepair, and congestion had become a problem in major cities.
In 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had signed legislation authorizing a network of rural and urban express highways called the "National System of Interstate Highways." Unfortunately, the legislation lacked funding. It was only after President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 that the Interstate program got under way.
These Interstate highways now criss-cross our land and wrap around our cities. They are a boon to cross country travelers as well as city commuters. As engineering and road design improved, these massive public building projects have become more sophisticated and safer as they carry happy vacationers and tired commuters on their way across the nation.
However, before the Interstate system was built, there were already great highways that connected states. Especially in the sparsely populated west, these roads became legendary as they carried vacationers to far off destinations as well as newly weds to new homes. Goods and services flowed along these early arterials and establishments sprung up on the side of these roads to provide food and lodging.
This was the start of the conversion from “hotel” to “motel” and from “restaurant” to “drive in.” The most famous of these early by-ways was Route 66. This U.S. highway stretched from Chicago down and across the southwest clear to Los Angeles, a distance of nearly twenty-five hundred miles.
U.S. Route 66 (US 66 or Route 66), also known as the Will Rogers Highway and colloquially known as the Main Street of America or the Mother Road, was one of the original highways within the U.S. Highway System. Route 66 was established on November 11, 1926 — with road signs erected the following year. The highway, which became one of the most famous roads in America, originally ran from Chicago, Illinois, through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona before ending at Santa Monica, California.
Route 66 served as a major path for those who migrated west, especially during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, and it supported the economies of the communities through which the road passed. People doing business along the route became prosperous due to the growing popularity of the highway. It is along the shoulders of this road and many others like it that modern Americana was born. This was the womb for the “motor-hotel” and the casual diners and “drive in” eateries.
Soon it was immortalized in song and verse. “Get your kicks on route 66.” It became a popular song and rhythm and blues standard, composed in 1946 by songwriter Bobby Troup. It was first recorded in the same year by Nat King Cole, and was subsequently covered by many artists including Chuck Berry in 1961, The Rolling Stones in 1964, Depeche Mode in 1987, Pappo's Blues in 1995, John Mayer in 2006, and Glenn Frey in 2012. The song's lyrics follow the path of the highway.
The highway later spawned another hit song by Nelson Riddle, the instrumental theme song to a new television show named after the highway. Route 66 was a TV series in which two young men traveled across America in a Corvette. The show ran weekly from 1960 to 1964.
In an updated replay of On the Road, a novel, not a song, by Jack Kerouac, the two young protagonists traveled across America working odd jobs and experiencing life in the the early 60’s. Although the series title named the famous road, and was shot on location in many towns and cities across America, yet only three of the over 100 episodes actually occur on the namesake highway.
The show was a hybrid between episodic television drama, which has continuing characters and situations, and the anthology format, in which each week's show has a completely different cast and story. The two stars often played supporting roles to the differing main characters each week. (In fact, there were three stars. One of the original actors became ill and was replaced by a new character in the final seasons.)
This semi-anthology concept, where the drama is often centered on the guest stars rather than the regular cast, was carried over from series creator Stirling Silliphant's previous drama Naked City (1958–1963). Both shows were recognized for their literate scripts and rich characterizations. The open-ended format, featuring two roaming observers/facilitators, gave Silliphant and the other writers an almost unlimited landscape for presenting a wide variety of dramatic (or comedic) story lines. Virtually any tale could be adapted to the series. The two regulars merely had to be worked in and the setting tailored to fit the location.
It was in the earlier Naked City, well known for its location shooting on the actual streets of New York, that led to the idea of a location series shot all over the United States, and even some locations in Canada. Route 66 is one of few series in the history of TV to be filmed entirely on the road.
What may not be apparent to young people today is just how diverse the various areas of our country were even as late as the 1960’s. This show was filmed at a time when the United States was much less homogeneous than it is now. People, their accents, livelihoods, ethnic backgrounds, and attitudes varied widely from one location to the next.
The scripted characters reflected a far less mobile, provincial society, in which people were more apt to spend their entire lives in one part of the country. Similarly, the places themselves were very different from one another visually, environmentally, architecturally, in goods and services available, etc. Stars Martin Milner and George Maharis mentioned this in 1980s interviews. "Now you can go wherever you want," Maharis added by way of contrast, "and it's a Denny's."
The show would often showcase local attractions, hotels, restaurants, clubs, parks. This was an early glimpse of a nation moving to wheels of just what sights awaited them around the next curve in the road. It is a lost time, a glimpse still provided by reruns of this drama on the nostalgia TV stations. Appropriately shot in black and white, the series still stirs feelings in this old character. I see the cars and the buildings and the signs I grew up with.
Now, as I cruise the highways and by-ways of this great land, I see the same signs and hear the same accents. Only the mountains and rivers seem to change. The rest of America has been transformed into one, homogenous, and colorful commercial world. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Tulsa or Toledo, Billings or Boston, Los Angeles or Louisiana, Miami or Montana. It all looks the same. It all sounds the same. It all tastes the same.
One of the legacies of the Route 66 show left behind is a dramatic and photographic portrait of early 1960s America as a less crowded and less complicated era — if not a less violent one — in which altruism and optimism still had a place. That place was filled by two young men who seemed to represent the best in us, the willingness to stand up for the weak, old-fashioned values like honesty, and the physical courage necessary to fight in their own and others' defense. In their role of wanderers, they appeared to be peaceful rebels who rejected, at least for a time, material possessions and the American dream of owning a home.
Only those that remember history can see it as it was: before the Interstate highway, before the cell phone, before the flat screen color TV, before computers and social networks. Before Motel Six and Super 8 or McDonald's and Red Lobster, before Lowe's and Home Depot and Walgreen's and Walmart. Before all the cars looked alike and all the buildings looked alike and all the people dressed alike. That was my childhood. Although I saw most of it through a TV screen rather than a car window, I, too, was “On the Road.”