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Trip on Route 66: Old roads can revitalize a town

Route 66
We were standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona with the girls by a flatbed Ford. Theresa Ekdom (left) and Anna Sylvester, what a fine sight to see.

ROUTE-66 – I grew up near M-66, which was just a road headed out of town to me. It was the only ‘route’ 66 I knew. Sure, I had heard of “get your kicks on Route-66” but didn’t know its significance. 

In 2006 that changed when Lightning McQueen sped across the movie screen. Lightning, Mater, Doc Hudson, and other animated vehicles introduced Route 66 to a number of new generations.

Route 66, the Main Street of America, or the Mother Road, was established in 1926, one of the original highways in the United States. It originally ran from Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, California and was a main route to cross the country. Then the International Highway System was established and the four-lane highways began bypassing small towns along the old routes. In 1985, Route 66 was officially decommissioned. Many of the towns, diners, tourist shops, gas stations, and motels became rundown, much like Radiator Springs, the small town Lightning found himself in.

Route 66 sign
Anna and Don Sylvester stand near one of the more colorful Route 66 signs.

In the movie, Lightning, a famous race car, was able to revitalize the town and bring interest, and visitors, back to Route 66. In reality, it took New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici, who drove a stretch of the original route in the late 1980s, to introduce a bill to preserve the highway. The Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program was authorized in 1999, funding the restoration of some of the buildings along the route.

What takes drivers off the highway onto the stretches of Route 66 that still exist? The history? Nostalgia? The desire to slow down and see the sights? Whatever the reason, some of the small towns are taking advantage of the re-interest in the route. 

During our recent cross country trip, when weather allowed, we exited I-40, hit Route 66 and enjoyed some of the sights. Winslow, Arizona., the famed location of Eagles’ song “Take it Easy” was one stop. Yes, we stood on the corner, by the flat bed Ford.

The towns and cities transected by Route 66 are varied. 

Some, like Oatman, look worn and as old or older than the original route. Oatman embraces its heritage – once a mining town which almost became a ghost town when the miners left. Now, offspring of the burros left behind, attract tourists into town. Still wild, the burros wander the dirt roads looking for a hand-out. Burro food, along with other souvenirs, is sold at the many gift shops along the boardwalk.

street corner Winslow, AZ
Dale and Theresa Ekdom standing on the corner of Winslow, AZ.

Both Arizona and The Mother Road have passports you can pick up. Stop by the locations in them to get a stamp. You may also end up with a sticker, pin, or vial of dust (from the dust bowl) for your troubles. At your stops, you are sure to hear some stories or kitschy sayings (“Thank you for picking Uranus!”) Route 66 has become a tourist destination now. Murals, old cars, and museums dot the route. You can stay at the original Wigwam Motel or eat at an old diner.

While not officially a “route”, we have a historical road here. M-55 is one of three roads that crosses Michigan’s lower peninsula from Lake Michigan to Lake Huron. 

Next time you drive M-55, look for its history. The theater, the souvenir shops, the old stone buildings. How can we use the need for nostalgia to bring the visitors back to our community and make it the resort town it once was? I would love to hear your ideas – send me an email and maybe we can start something here!

wild burros
Burros and visitors alike wander the dirt streets of Oatman, Arizona. Paul Clark of Reed City feeds the wild burros in town.

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