Preservation Magazine, Fall 2018

President's Note: Get Your Kicks...

For John Steinbeck and the Depression-era migrants hoping to escape the Dust Bowl, it was “the mother road, the road of flight.” For Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation, it was a symbol of freedom and adventure: “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.” And everyone from Nat King Cole to the Rolling Stones to Depeche Mode has recorded the famous song that heralds it as the finest way possible to take in the full American experience: “If you ever plan to motor west, travel my way, take the highway that’s the best … .”

I’m referring, of course, to Route 66: the shortest year-round route between the Midwest and the West Coast, and a cultural artery that has inspired books, poetry, music, television shows, movies, and plenty of road trips over the years. Suffused with kitschy landmarks, quirky small businesses, and breathtaking panoramic vistas, Route 66 has been justifiably known as the “Main Street of America” since its start in 1926.

But, as the Pixar movie Cars highlighted in 2006, this quintessentially American highway has suffered in recent decades as travelers have forsaken its splendors for the newer, faster Interstate. This has negatively impacted not just the many pit stops and souvenir shops along the route, but also the hundreds of communities and small towns that line Route 66 from the Midwest to California.

That’s why, this past summer, it was the National Trust’s turn to embark on the great American road trip. Joining with presenting sponsor State Farm, media partner National Geographic, and other partners including Airstream, Polaroid, and Sonic, our team of preservationists, writers, and photographers spent the month of July traveling across all eight states and more than 2,400 miles of Route 66.

Along the way, they took in sights such as the Gemini Giant in Wilmington, Illinois; the famed Blue Whale of Catoosa, Oklahoma; and Elmer Long’s Bottle Tree Ranch in Oro Grande, California. They explored the history of Route 66 from the Dust Bowl to the Negro Motorist Green Book guide, which informed African American travelers of safe havens on the route. They talked with thousands of residents along the road, and worked to capture stories, photos, and memories of America’s most enduring highway.

Finally, they encouraged everyone they met to help us spur Congress to name Route 66 as America’s 20th National Historic Trail. This permanent federal designation for Route 66 would not bring any new regulations or restrictions, but it would encourage reinvestment and draw more travelers to this historic road. And as with the Lewis & Clark Trail, the Trail of Tears, the Pony Express Trail, and 16 others, it would recognize the profound contributions Route 66 has made to our history and culture.

Stephanie K. Meeks was the president and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation from 2010-2018. She is the author of "The Past and Future City."

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