Above: Mrs. California Route 66 Esther Hollister and three other people are traveling from Barstow, California, to Chicago to raise awareness and gather signatures for the Mother Road-Mojave Trails National Monument. (Victoria Ramos/Moore County Journal)
It is 2,451 miles of memories and even fantasies. Eighty-nine years after it was established in 1926, Route 66 still seduces travelers with the notion that it can take you places no other highway in the United States can. And perhaps no stretch of Route 66 is as famous and more photographed than the lanes from Amarillo to Santa Monica, California. It even has its own queen.
Mrs. Californa Route 66 Esther Hollister stopped in Amarillo on Thursday before getting back on the road. She and a team of three other people are driving from Barstow, California, to Chicago on a “Save Route 66 Campaign.” They left Barstow on July 7 and plan to arrive in Chicago on July 19.
“Then we’ll turn around and drive back to California,” said Lucas Wilgers, one of the team members. Wilgers is a conservation advocate for The Wildlands Conservancy, California’s largest nonprofit nature preserve. The team’s main mission during the trip is to create support for the Mother Road-Mojave Trails National Monument. According to the website, www.saveroute66.com, “The creation of the Mother Road-Mojave Trails National Monument will protect a 103-mile stretch of historic Route 66. This stretch of the route through California’s Mojave Desert is the largest, wild, pristine section of the Mother Road.”
There you have it. Ask someone about Route 66 and rarely will they talk about its mark in Kansas or Missouri. At the mention of the famous highway, images of Amarillo, Albuquerque and Winslow emerge. And poor Oklahoma. Its association with the highway is almost always that of the desperate exodus out of that state during the Dust Bowl when its people went west in search of new lives. They would have stopped in the towns that later suffered severe economic decline when the Interstate Highway System bypassed them, but they’re the towns Hollister and her team want people to remember and visit today.
“We want to bring people back to that kind of travel,” Hollister said. “In those days, when people drove on Route 66, they stopped in those towns, stayed in the court hotels, and all of that commerce created thriving communities. It was a different way of traveling where people stopped at gift shops, bought souvenirs and took their pictures in front of incredible architecture and natural treasures.”
Along with Hollister and Wilgers, Kimberly Hill, James Conkle and Len Nordmann are along for the ride in a van wrapped in advertising that promotes the national monument drive. Nordmann, Wilgers said, is a well-known Route 66 artist, and Hill is taking care of the group’s social media as they make their way across the country. Conkle is the group’s driver, and according to the group’s website, he once took Oprah Winfrey to Mr. D’z Route 66 Diner in Kingman, Arizona, for “the best root beer float ever.”
“Along the way, we’re having people sign their names in support of creating the national monument,” Wilgers said.
In 2008, the World Monuments Fund designated Route 66, along with such world heritage sites as Machu Picchu and Shanghai, as a threatened resource on their Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites, according to The Wildlands Conservancy. Certainly the towns that lined it during its heyday are threatened, if not already gone.
“We want to help bring some of that commerce back,” Hollister said. “We’ll be stopping all along the way, visiting the shops and promoting them on our social media.”
Hollister praised The Lion’s Lair, an antique store on Amarillo’s 6th Street, which is part of the Route 66 Highway.
“People need to know about these shops,” Hollister said. “We need to promote them so that when people want to drive on Route 66, they’ll know about them. There are incredible businesses still on the highway.”
The Joads were only a creation of John Steinbeck’s mind when he wrote “The Grapes of Wrath”, but it is that family’s determination to find a better life and their heart-rending struggles along the way that form part of Route 66’s romance. The highway changed the U.S.
“Now we want people to come back to it,” Hollister said.