Route 66

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Dick Reed / Corbis

For nearly six decades, a two-lane road, running 2,448 miles, connected Chicago to Los Angeles. It was the path to Western promise for "Okies" escaping the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, the road under the soles of American nomads like Jack Kerouac. Route 66 was once considered an essential artery, its travelers a measure of America's pulse. But by the mid-1980s, the road was deemed obsolete. Twenty-five years ago on June 27, Route 66 was decommissioned. But even as the no-tell motels and mom-and-pop shops along the road disappeared, the fables of America's "Mother Road" continued to ramble on.

In the 1920s, federal highway officials, faced with growing automobile ownership (registered motor vehicles grew from 500,000 in 1910 to almost 10 million in 1920) and the impracticality of disjointed, named trails, began to develop a numbered road system. Oklahoma real estate agent and coal company owner Cyrus Avery worked with John Woodruff, a highway proponent, to advocate a diagonal roadway running from Chicago to Los Angeles. As an Oklahoman, Avery, who was also largely responsible for getting America's Main Street its name, lobbied for the route because it would redirect traffic from Kansas City, Mo., and Denver and boost the state's prosperity. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) initially named the road Route 60 and then Route 62. Avery "strenuously objected" to the switch, even penning a letter to AASHTO executive secretary William Markham saying, "You are making a joke of the interstate highway." On April 30, 1926, the route was renamed. Avery became known as the "Father of Route 66," with Springfield, Mo., its birthplace.

Although Missouri was its birthplace, Oklahoma is probably the most famed location on the route. In 1928, Oklahoma native Andrew Hartley Payne brought pride to the state by winning the "Bunion Derby" — a 3,400-mile race from Los Angeles to New York that spanned much of Route 66. Oklahoma boasts the longest segment of the original Route 66 (about 400 miles), and several of the road's most celebrated travelers came from the state, including Woody Guthrie, Will Rogers (Route 66 is sometimes referred to as "Will Rogers Highway") and the fictional Joad family from John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, which gave the route its most recognized nickname. "66 is the mother road," Steinbeck wrote, "the road of flight."

Pop-culture tributes to the Mother Road were (and are) anything but rare. Most famously, Bobby Troup's song Route 66 (recorded by Nat King Cole, the Rolling Stones, Depeche Mode and several others) advised, "Won't you get hip to this timely tip/ When you make that California trip/ Get your kicks on Route 66." From 1960 to 1964, the CBS television series Route 66 followed Tod Stiles (Martin Milner) and Buz Murdock (George Maharis) on their job-hunting travels across America in their Corvette convertible. And although Sal Paradise, Kerouac's main character in On the Road, only briefly traveled on Route 66 where it intersects Route 6 in Illinois, the road served as a symbol for members of the Beat Generation. In On the Road, Kerouac describes "the beatest characters in the country" swarming the sidewalks in Los Angeles. Among them, Kerouac notes, were the "longhaired brokendown hipsters straight off Route 66 from New York."

But Route 66's decline in many ways began around the same time On the Road was published. In 1956, President Eisenhower enacted the Federal Aid Highway Act. Inspired by the German autobahn he had seen during World War II, Eisenhower sought to make the highways more efficient. To keep up with growing traffic demands, pieces of Route 66 were slowly upgraded to, replaced by or became supplementary to new four-lane highways. By the 1970s, the route was largely replaced by five different interstates. Interstate 40, serving most of the Southwest, replaced the longest portion of the route. Route 66's last stretch in Arizona was decommissioned when I-40 was completed in 1984. The following year, the entire route was decommissioned.

Since 1985, several groups have formed to protect the history of America's first paved highway and to advocate for struggling businesses along the road. Parts of the route are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and several portions are considered National Scenic Byways. In 1999, New Mexican lawmakers Senator Pete Domenici and Representative Heather Wilson pushed a Route 66 preservation bill through Congress. The $10 million proposal, which was signed by President Clinton, helped preserve and restore pieces of the route. However, a 2007 Associated Press article highlighting the plight of Route 66 motel owners noted that "with efforts to fix up these architectural landmarks scarce, time has become the road's worst enemy." In 2007, the World Monuments Fund included Route 66 on its 100 Most Endangered Sites watch list.

Route 66 — the road on which the refugees, drifters and icons of America's cultural past journeyed — is now the destination. Tourists looking to graffiti half-buried Cadillacs can still visit Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas, or take an easy ride like Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper did on their motorcycles. About 85% of the road still remains navigable for travelers who are looking to get their kicks.