It is a curious phenomenon, this business of celebrating the birthday of a road, a 2,448-mile stretch which once decanted millions of ambitious, destitute, or just restless people from the heart of the nation to its west rim. But this year is the 66th anniversary of Route 66, and Americans are unashamedly celebrating the coincidence.
Dozens of commemorative events are under way or planned. 'Miss 66' beauty pageants, barbecues, classic-car shows, tours of rundown motels and diners. This weekend a busload of nostalgic emigres from California were heading out to the Arizona desert for a cruise along the road's tougher sections. Later this month a posse of others will drive all the way from LA to Chicago for the sole purpose of picking up a Route 66 road-sign and driving it all the way back home - an exercise which will take several weeks.
There are Route 66 T-shirts, badges and small sachets containing lumps of the original road bearing the legend 'Own your Own Piece of Route 66'. Several books have been published on the subject. Writers are cycling its length in search of their souls, and busloads of Japanese tourists peer at derelict petrol stations, old cafes and hamburger joints.
No one knows exactly how many people funnelled down this two-lane highway in their Model As and Studebakers when it was a real road, spanning eight states and three time-zones. In the Thirties it was crowded with economic refugees; in the Forties, GIs; in the Fifties, tourists. But everyone was heading west, towards the Golden State and all the dreams that it once offered.
In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck described the flight of farmers and their families from the Dust Bowl states to the west during the Great Depression. Route 66 was 'the long concrete path . . . the path of people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert's slow northward invasion . . . 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.'
But pinning down the contemporary appeal of this extraordinary piece of Americana is no easy task. Vivian Davies, the secretary of the California Historic Route 66 Association, remembers climbing into her Plymouth and emigrating to California from the Midwest in the 1940s. She recalls the thrill of going to glamorous California, rather than the five- day slog across the nation's belly. 'We were just so excited to be going there . . . to be getting away from the endless cold and rain.'
Other travellers remember the intense pleasure of descending into the Los Angeles basin, now the biggest industrial conurbation in the US, with its eucalyptus trees, sweet-scented vineyards and orange groves, a near-mirage after mile upon mile of desert.
Such is the reverence for the road that some remember the day, in 1984, when it was 'decertified' by the federal government with the same lucid horror with which they recall the death of JFK. Sixty-six years on, the songwriter Bobby Troup is proving prophetic: Americans still get their kicks . . .
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