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Bobby Troup wrote the song, and Nat King Cole and many others, including Michael Martin Murphey, have covered it. It even spawned a television show. America has been “getting its kicks on Route 66” for over 60 years.
So, what is Route 66 and, more importantly, where is it? The song tells us: “You go from St. Louis to Joplin, Missouri, and Oklahoma City is oh, so pretty. You can see Amarillo and Gallup, New Mexico. Flagstaff, Arizona, don’t forget Winona, Kingman, Barstow, San Bernadino!” Route 66 was one of the first routes across country.
Route 66 had its origins in the need for better roads. Truckers needed a better way to get Midwest grain to California and California produce to the Midwest. Hence, a road was born.
In 1926, Route 66 received its official number and designation as a U.S. highway from Chicago to Los Angeles. It picked up some existing roads and linked various communities along the way in Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath called it America’s “Mother Road”, and thousands of Okies and Arkies traveled it during the Great Depression, headed for California and what they hoped would be the Promised Land.
During World War II, Route 66 provided easier vehicle and munitions transport cross-country. After the war, as more Americans became mobile and started taking family summer vacations, Route 66 started gaining some of its historical luster. Although many of the places the route passed through were just small towns, these places quickly saw the opportunity for making a few dollars from tourists, and so began setting up “motor camps” for weary travelers and building souvenir shops and restaurants. Some of these little places became famous nationwide for their food, amenities or uniqueness. Route 66 began disappearing in the early 1960s, as the Interstate system bypassed or gobbled up parts of the highway.
Route 66 crossed eight states and three time zones, and provided ordinary people with a memorable vacation. According to the National Historic Route 66 Foundation, about 85% of the highway is still drivable, although interested travelers should look for good, detailed maps. After the last of the road was decommissioned in 1984, it was no longer well-marked. However, some of the tourist stops and famous signs still exist and are worth searching for.
Route 66 has a place in the history of America. It promoted further westward expansion and assisted commerce. It also contributed to our collective culture. We are a mobile country, and Route 66 symbolizes our history as travelers. It encompasses much that is classically American: road food, drive-ins, tacky souvenirs and long road trips, just for the adventure of it. “So, won’t you get hip to this timely tip... Get your kicks on Route 66.”
The credit for the naming, or numbering of route 66 goes to an Oklahoma businessman who believed the number would be easy to remember. The road initially consisted of paved and unpaved stretches. It was eventually fully paved about a dozen years later.
The road was also referred to as "The Main Street of America", because of all the businesses that opened up along the route.