In a literal sense, Route 66 is just a ribbon of road that winds across 8 states and three time zones for 2,448 miles (not including wrong turns) from Chicago to Santa Monica. Most of it is an old two lane highway and nothing too impressive. If you’ve ever driven a country backroad, a frontage road, or down the Main Street of an old town, you get the picture. There are tens of thousands of miles of roadway that are virtually identical to this throughout the United States.
But Route 66 is not just a road, of course. It’s a symbol that’s entered the public consciousness. Everyone knows what Route 66 is. I’ve met people all over the world who know what it is. We’ve all heard of Route 66, but at the same time we don’t have any idea what Route 66 actually is or why it is what it is.
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There are Route 66 aficionados who’ve driven the mother road end to end dozens of times and go off the beaten path looking through the deserts and forests for bits of the original Route 66 that were abandoned to the elements when it was redirected from time to time. To them Route 66 is a scavenger hunt. They’re trying to collect as many stamps in their passports as they can. They know every twist and turn of the road and have a story about each town and every abandoned building. But even they may be missing the forest for the trees. There are plenty of other abandoned roadways and ghost towns throughout the country.
One thing that’s true about Route 66 is that it’s an opportunity to see America in a completely different way. You start to realize that there’s an incredible breadth and depth to the country when you aren’t flying over it in a plane or racing past it on the interstate. It allows you to get beyond the surface and to start seeing the heart.
You’re going to get lost on Route 66 — probably every day. But that’s fine when the experience is the destination. You’ll find plenty of friendly people along the way. And the directions to get back on track will almost assuredly be “turn left on Main Street and keep going.”
Before getting started, I could have told you a few facts about Route 66. But those facts aren’t what make Route 66 unique — I could tell you a few facts about other roadways too. I know that people say Route 66 is a state of mind and is about the kind folks you meet along the way. But there are plenty of other places to find nice people and experience the freedom of the open road.
None of those other roadways are symbols like Route 66 is. I want to figure out what makes Route 66 — Route 66.
In moderation, Matthew