Route 66 Hipsters

Young Love for an Old Road


Blue Swallow Motel

Credit: Jim Ross

Stretching west from Chicago to its end in Santa Monica, Calif., Route 66 offers a road heavy with personality to a younger generation numbed by mass production and sameness. Or at least that's the theory espoused by Bill Leslie, a science and technology historian at Johns Hopkins University.


Not long ago Leslie drove the historic route with his college-bound daughter, checking out colorful mid-century modern motels along the way. He says his students have a renewed interest in both Route 66 and the culture that created it.

"They've read On the Road, they've read Hunter Thompson … they all watch 'Madmen,'" he says.

11 most markLeslie believes kids want to embrace their grandparents' generation. They're drawn to the style, philosophy, and retro architecture. "There's so little that's unique in their own lives, [so many] standardized commodities, so many McMansions."

Much of the charm of the nearly 2,400 mile-road that meanders west from Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif., can be found in its wonderful and often strange restaurants, quirky museums and one-of-a-kind motels.

"When you left Chicago to go West, you didn't have a reservation – you just drove and looked for a vacancy. Hampton Inn may have a predictable breakfast bar, but who needs that if you can go to the Uranium Café? [in Grants, N.M.]"

Route 66 possesses an indelible experience other means of travel can't match. "If I want to get to L.A., I'll just fly. That's just about getting there," he says. But those who prefer to create a memory out of their trip get their kicks on Route 66. 

Rite of Passage

For two of Leslie's students, Jay Crim and Shekar Davarya, traveling John Steinbeck's "Mother Road" started as a project to record oral histories. Interested in differing views of how the highway—and its decommissioning—affected real people, the pair spent the summer of 2002 traveling the old road.

Crim remembers pulling into Erick, Okla., and spotting the ruins of the West Winds Motel, where classic cars rust in old carports next to each room.

"We expected nothing but ghosts from the rest of Erick," he says.

Instead, they discovered Erick's Sandhills Curiosity Shop, whose owners, Harley and Annabelle Russell, greeted them and regaled them with stories and live music. "Despite the highway being decommissioned years ago and many people moving away, the people on Route 66 are still a big part of what makes the road so special," Crim says.

Although many important Route 66 sites have disappeared, there were still lots to see. "It's possible that all of these types of monuments could disappear eventually, which would make the road less interesting," Crim says. "But at least when we traveled, it seemed that various preservation groups were working hard to make sure this doesn't happen," he says.

Albuquerque named the National Register-listed El Vado a city landmark in 2006.

Credit: Frederick F. Porter, AIA



For the newest generation cruising Route 66, many of the iconic buildings they hoped to see – from service stations to "drive-thru" restaurants – have met hard times since 1985, when the last segment of the road was decommissioned. Notably falling prey to obsolescence and abandonment, dozens of old "motor courts" were razed. In fact, so many of the mostly mom-and-pop operations disappeared, that in 2007 the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the classic Route 66 motels to its list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

The National Park Service's Kaisa Barthuli, deputy program manager of the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program, says many of the buildings that gave Route 66 its ambience have been demolished, converted or simply allowed to sit vacant and crumbling.

"In New Mexico alone, of the 16 Route 66 motels listed on the National Register, four have been demolished since 2002 – that's 25 percent," Barthuli says.

Author Elrond Lawrence grew up in the shadow of one of the two surviving Wigwam motels. While compiling his book "Route 66 Railway" Lawrence says he was surprised to learn that international tourists have an affinity for Route 66.

"Overseas travelers view the Route 66 road trip as a uniquely American experience . . . they're not interested in look-alike food or hotel chains or bland interstates that reveal nothing about the town they're blasting through," Lawrence says. "Today, with iPods and seat-mounted DVD players, we don't even look out the window. Route 66 is an important living museum where the journey itself is the destination," Lawrence says.

The 1990s saw a resurgence of interest in the road, says Jim Hinckley, co-author of "Route 66 Backroads." Because road trips on the interstate were, as Hinckley puts it, as exciting as "mashed potatoes on white paper plates," travelers started breaking up their trips by venturing down the old abandoned highway to explore its quirky motels, flashy neon signs, and kitchy shops.

"The trickle of travelers in search of America as it was became a torrent," Hinckley says. "They began to rediscover the wondrous diversity only found on back roads and forgotten highways such as Route 66."

"It's a chance to leave behind a routine and find yourself relaxing on top of the car's hood at the side of a farm road in Oklahoma, watching the sun set, or driving through the brilliance of an early-evening lightning storm in the Texas panhandle," Crim, now a software engineer, says. "Neither of those experiences can really be found on a map or planned in advance."

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Submitted by blabrie at: April 23, 2009
I think the comment, listed above, is very appropriate and food for thought for all of us in our field. A lot of times when I am interacting with communities I have to stop myself from being that elitist, and remind myself that the story behind the building and the culture and socio-economics it represents are just as important as the built environment.

Submitted by L.A. Sixty-Six-ster at: February 12, 2009
No offense, but the Trust --- and its academic minions --- are about twenty-five years too late to save Route 66 -- or most of our other roadside heritage. Working people have been forced to sell off properties just to survive in our bizarrely-valued new socio/economic/cultural environment, where the very same upper-middle-class elite that claims they want to preserve these buildings ironically destroy (or their wealthy parents destroy) any sort of of economic viability that working people have left. Developers are treated like feudal lords; yuppies displace poor families who have occupied historic homes for generations; taxes skyrocket to accommodate those very same upper-middle-class professionals; collectors strip and steal roadside signage for profit or their basements; and those who have needed economic help the most --- those who are widowed, or broken down, or suffering PTSS --- have been the ones LEAST likely to receive help in this VERY messed-up new world. And, believe me, you don't have to be a social scientist to see that it occurred just as much under the Clinton administration as it has with the Republicans. I can not apologize for saying it the way that it really is ---- I have been involved in historic preservation for thirty years and just turned fifty, and I now realize that if you don't recognize the elitism in the academic/non-profit/government sectors by now with all of the above that has occurred, than you have either selected to be blind to it, or are a part of the problem. When I became a historic preservation professional, I did it to preserve culture and not just the buildings and artifacts... it is sad to say that I now find that I was desperately trying to save these poor people whom we have treated so shabbily over the past thirty years as well. Working people (at least on the East Coast) don't want your ideas, your values, your condescending paternal benevolence ----- what they want is respect, actual control of their communities, the right to earn a fair and living wage for their hard-earned labor, and freedom from predation and victimization by the wealthy. If you had given them those things, a lot more of America would still be standing.