🌄 Route 66 versus the Interstate. 🌇

Culture versus efficiency.

This is the third installment in my series about Route 66. If you’re just joining us for the conversation, you can find the previous newsletters below.

🚗 What is Route 66? 🛣

🗺 A brief history of Route 66. 🚦

If you’re enjoying this series, please consider sharing it. If you’ve got questions or comments, please leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you!

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If you use Google Maps to plot the directions from Santa Monica to Chicago, you can’t get it to give you directions for Route 66. Same goes for Apple Maps. The apps are all about efficiency — the quickest path between point A and point B — and Route 66 is definitely not the most efficient path between the two cities. There’s no option for the scenic route in the apps. Instead, you have to buy a special app or an atlas to travel Route 66.

That inefficiency is central to Route 66. You can drive straight through from Santa Monica to Chicago on the interstates and it requires paying attention to exactly three steps: take the I-40, the I-44, and the I-55. You won’t come across a single stop sign, intersection, or red light the entire trip. But that isn’t Route 66.

Route 66 requires constant vigilance because there are countless backroads, roundabouts, stop signs, and sites to stop and see. If you aren’t paying close attention to that atlas you’re going to end up on a farm road or in a completely wrong town. With all these directions, stops, and guaranteed wrong turns, it’s an understatement to call Route 66 inefficient. That inefficiency manifests in some interesting ways.

Most of the original Route 66 is still drivable. In its inefficiency it does a bit of a dance with the interstate. Sometimes it diverges away from the interstate through farmland or over a different mountain pass. Sometimes it runs right alongside the interstate for miles and then jumps to the other side of the interstate and continues again for miles before jumping back to the other side.

But about 15% of Route 66 is gone. For those stretches, you have to get on the interstate and travel efficiently. When that happens you can’t pull over whenever you want to stretch your legs or take a picture. Pulling over is inefficient and that isn’t allowed on the interstate. Plus, there isn’t much that’s noteworthy to pull over and take pictures of when you’re traveling on the interstate.

When you drive on the interstate after a few days on Route 66, you start to notice some differences. On the interstate, you see all the same old brands you’re familiar with: McDonald’s, Starbucks, Holiday Inn, and Shell. Over and over again at every single offramp.

But none of those brands are around when you get back on Route 66. Every motel is different: Cactus Motel, Oasis Motel, Desert Hills Motel. Every town has its own diner and each one has the world’s best chili dogs or fried pickles or something of that nature. And don’t even get me started on burger joints. Every male name in America has a burger restaurant on Route 66. Eddie’s Burgers. Tommy’s Burgers. Joe’s Burgers. Sammy’s Burgers. Each one has the world’s best burgers, of course.

Even the original McDonald’s is on Route 66. Ironically, it isn’t a McDonald’s anymore because Route 66 is too inefficient. Instead it’s a McDonald’s museum. Even more ironically, it isn’t owned by McDonald’s. It’s owned by the independent Mexican restaurant next door.

There are other differences between the interstate and Route 66. Most of the offramps on the interstate have shiny new construction and new homes. But all that new construction is cookie cutter and uniform from one offramp to the next.

On Route 66, it’s like the people evaporated after the interstate came through. Whole towns are abandoned. Buildings have collapsed in on themselves. Some of the most famous attractions along the way are completely abandoned. But each abandoned town and building is unique and catches your eye. We pulled over countless times to look at what were once vibrant businesses and attractions that had succumbed to the efficiency of the interstate.

After switching back and forth between Route 66 and the interstate a few times, it became clear that once the interstate came through people didn’t need Route 66 anymore. The interstate represents the dominant culture with countless Amazon Prime trucks zooming by; Route 66 represents a forgotten afterthought with countless mostly empty independent diners, burger joints, and motels.

It’s striking how effectively both Route 66 and the interstate achieved their policy objectives. Route 66 linked together hundreds of communities stretching across a continent, opening them up to travel and trade. Unique culture and experiences sprang up all along that inefficient ribbon of highway, entering the public imagination and beckoning people to pull over at every bend in the road.

The interstate makes a straight shot with as few bends in the road as possible so that you can cross the continent as quickly as possible. Offramps are optional. When you do get hungry, each offramp offers the same restaurants with standardized menus so you can decide on your order before you even pull into the drive-thru.

Both Route 66 and the interstate achieved their objectives. The question is which objective you want to pursue.

This is the second time I’ve written about efficiency. I’ve always been a bit obsessed with efficiency: I have this need to always feel productive. I’ve been accused of walking too quickly from time to time.

Part of this year is about unlearning those habits. Route 66 has been the first major test for me. The interstate is always right there offering a more efficient path to our destination. I have to keep reminding myself that the journey is the destination, so hopping on the interstate and getting to Chicago faster won’t accomplish anything. It’ll just give me a bland interstate year when I want to have a Route 66 year.

In moderation, Matthew