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Route 66 – A Nostalgic Dream For So Many Hungarians

Roughly 4 thousand kilometers (2,500 miles). That is how far Route 66 extends from Chicago to Los Angeles. Why is Route 66 important? Why do so many Hungarian „America experts” and socio-historians talk about it so much? Because it is a lot more than a highway. America is not New York. It is not Washington. America begins when you leave the East Coast and head West. Sometimes, it may get tedious, less intellectual and less affluent, but it is surely to get more adventurous and way more spectacular when it comes to nature and scenery. If you want to fall in love with America (again), travel Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles or vice versa.

The formative years

Officially, the numerical designation 66 was assigned to the Chicago-to-Los Angeles route in the summer of 1926. With that designation came its acknowledgment as one of the nation’s principal east-west arteries.

From the outset, public road planners intended U.S. 66 to connect the main streets of rural and urban communities along its course for the most practical of reasons: most small towns had no prior access to a major national thoroughfare.

Route 66 was a highway spawned by the demands of a rapidly changing America. Contrasted with the Lincoln, the Dixie, and other highways of its day, Route 66 did not follow a traditionally linear course. Its diagonal course linked hundreds of predominantly rural communities in Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas to Chicago; thus enabling farmers to transport grain and produce for redistribution. The diagonal configuration of Route 66 was particularly significant to the trucking industry, which by 1930 had come to rival the railroad for preeminence in the American shipping industry.

The Depression Years and the War

In his famous social commentary, The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck proclaimed U. S. Highway 66 the “Mother Road.” Steinbeck’s classic 1939 novel, combined with the 1940 film recreation of the epic odyssey, served to immortalize Route 66 in the American consciousness. Route 66 symbolized the “road to opportunity.”

From 1933 to 1938 thousands of unemployed male youths from virtually every state were put to work as laborers on road gangs to pave the final stretches of the road.

Route 66 also helped to facilitate the single greatest wartime manpower mobilization in the history of the nation. Between 1941 and 1945 the government invested approximately $70 billion in capital projects throughout California, a large portion of which were in the Los Angeles-San Diego area.

After the war, Americans were more mobile than ever before. Thousands of soldiers, sailors, and airmen who received military training in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas abandoned the harsh winters of Chicago, New York City, and Boston for the “barbecue culture” of the Southwest and the West. Again, for many, Route 66 facilitated their relocation.

Sliding towards nostalgia

Mass federal sponsorship for an interstate system of divided highways markedly increased with Dwight D. Eisenhower’s second term in the ‘White House. General Eisenhower had returned from Germany very impressed by the strategic value of Hitler’s Autobahn. “During World War II,” he recalled later, “I saw the superlative system of German national highways crossing that country and offering the possibility, often lacking in the United States, to drive with speed and safety at the same time.”

The congressional response to the president’s commitment was the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which provided a comprehensive financial umbrella to uderwrite the cost of the national interstate and defense highway system.

By 1970, nearly all segments of original Route 66 were bypassed by a modern four-lane highway. The outdated, poorly maintained vestiges of U.S. Highway 66 completely succumbed to the interstate system in October 1984 when the final section of the original road was bypassed by Interstate 40 at Williams, Arizona.

Roadside Architecture

I travelled Route 66 enroute from Nevada to Williams, Arizona with my daughter Sabine in 2005. One of our favorite stops was Seligman, Arizona, where an old roadside county jail was still on display for offenders who sidestepped the law. We had coffee and blueberry muffins at Roadkill Cafe there.  The evolution of tourist-targeted facilities is well represented in the roadside architecture along U. S. Highway 66. Motels evolved from earlier features of the American roadside such as the auto camp and the tourist home. Many of these cottages are still in operation. There are additional amenities, such as adjoining restaurants, gas stations, souvenir shops, and swimming pools. Among the more famous still associated with Route 66 are the El Vado and Zia Motor Lodge in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The evolution of gas stations along Route 66 include Soulsby’s Shell station in Mount Olive, Illinois; Bob Audettes’ gas station complex in Barton, New Mexico; and the Tower Fina Station in Shamrock, Texas.[1]

In our lifetime

I always surmised that there is nothing more uplifting than riding into the sunset in Arizona or New Mexico along Route 66. And, of course, watching the sunset from the southern rim of Grand Canyon at Mather Point, which Zsolt Bayer described in his nostalgic book about America[2] the following way: „If there will ever be a resurrection, perhaps we will all need to gather here to face the Lord and be judged accordingly.”  Viktor Orbán, among other renowned Hungarian politicians, enjoyed his trip to the Grand Canyon around the millennium, where he learned to appreciate the „good side” of America as he commented on his journey.

Along Route 66, there are no skyscrapers, no man-made superstructures and crowds. There is no bickering, no haggling and no human noise. There is only vista and perspective. We all remember the movie Easy Rider with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. Take the long view. Ride Route 66 into the sunset!

Now that Route 66 will be celebrating its 100th birthday in 2026 (in just 9 years), its contribution to the nation must be evaluated in the broader context of American social and cultural history. For us Hungarians, it may be a worthwhile venture to fly to Chicago, rent a car and drive to Los Angeles via Route 66. With some sightseeing along the way, the trip might take more than a week, but it will be memorable for a lifetime.

We should all cherish this invaluable piece of Americana before it becomes only a memory.

Adam Topolansky

[1] http://national66.org/

[2] Bayer Zsolt, Kamaszkorunk legszebb nyara – Amerika, Budapest, 2003.