I knew about as much as most people when it came to Route 66—the famous highway system that at one point stretched over a large portion of the United States, beginning in Chicago and ending at the coast in Santa Monica, California.
I recently had the opportunity to explore a large section of this American icon. My visit would have me cover all of the route in Arizona and most of California. The appeal was likely the same as it is for others—to experience and photograph a number of the often documented landmarks that still stand today. It turned out to be a trip that became so much more than just a novelty, and one that helped both shape and cement certain opinions I have about society today.
A LAND LIKE NO OTHER
Search the term Route 66 and you’ll be dealt an exhausting amount of images depicting the great American road-trip—classic cars, oversized signage, strange and somewhat impressive architecture, and a large amount of “trading posts” and other tourist attractions trying to benefit off of the typical Native American stereotype.
At one point, the overwhelming popularity of the highway led business owners to compete for travellers attention by any means necessary, the result being many of the creations that are now part of the route’s fame.
It’s been a number of years since the highway was at its peak of popularity. The arrival of the Interstate in the sixties, which completely bypassed many of the towns, started the decline of this iconic route, with speed and convenience becoming the focus for the future moving forward. It would be hard to argue that the Interstate didn’t bring with it any benefits, but its negative impact was what surprised me the most. The old road was the lifeblood of so many small communities, and it seems as though its decline also directly started their decline.
The evidence of this was shocking, and for some reason came unexpectedly to me. Looking back now I’d like to think that the route’s nostalgia, which is often the focus of most images and articles, is what set the initial scene in my mind. What’s glossed over, is that besides the famous landmarks exist communities and businesses that are struggling to survive.
QUICK, FAST, EASY
Accompanying the classic Route 66 icons—like the Wigwam Motel and Roy’s Cafe—are towns and small businesses that show very visible signs of hard times. Permanently closed shops, empty streets, and buildings that have been subjected to vandalism and decay are a few of the scenes that you can expect to see on any given day. These are the photographs that aren’t often featured.
In the past, Route 66 wasn’t exactly a destination, more of a journey, but the sights and sounds along the way were plentiful enough to structure a complete family vacation around. Nowadays, on a lot lesser scale, tourism surrounding the route is still a common theme, with people coming to witness signs of a very different way of life. The route has been re-branded as a historic drive, and highway signs direct you to some of the more popular destinations along the way.
What’s sad, is that this nostalgia that seems to hold such great appeal is vanishing because of society’s desire for a fast-paced life that is built around convenience. You couldn’t find a much better example than the interstate that replaced Route 66—a mostly four-lane highway designed to get you where you need to go as quick and easy as possible.
Gone are the unique restaurants and hotels, full of charm and character, only to be replaced by an ever-expanding conglomerate of fast food chains and travel centres, only a stone’s throw away at the interstate. Each one is as monotonous as the last, providing the public with familiarity, speed, and convenience, yet at the same time often serving up a significant dose of harm, to both communities and individuals.
The main streets of many of these towns are now a collection of empty storefronts and old signage that provides a subtle reminder of a life that once was. At times, it really can be quite disheartening to see.
When I look at these places I can’t help but think of the golden days when business was prosperous, or at the very least steady, and life surrounded these establishments rather than a hollow emptiness. The only attention they currently receive is the odd person pulling over to take a quick photo, before moving on down the road.
I really do wish I had a solution to help solve the issues that plague many of the towns that relied on Route 66 for so many years. As technology, innovation, and society’s desires expand, they create situations that aren’t always beneficial for everyone. At times it’s an unfortunate reality.
I find myself often struggling with a bit of guilt while photographing these places. There are times where I feel like I’m cheating them by documenting their features and oddities, and then packing up and leaving. It’s like saying: “I have what I want, thanks, and good luck!”
So I hope that at the very least, sharing my work and stories can provide some sort of exposure, and I would encourage others to do the same. This certainly isn’t an area that lacks attention, but it helps to be able to see beyond the icons. Don’t just share what’s popular, but also bring to light the realities of these environments.
VISIT ROUTE 66
My visit was brief, but it was a heavy reminder that life moves at an incredibly quick pace, and it certainly isn’t always fair. It’s tough to predict what will happen to these towns in the future. As time passes, it slowly picks away at whatever foundation is left, both figuratively and literally. The Interstate is certainly here to stay—it has been for the past sixty years. But I believe there is still hope, at the very least to bring business to these communities via tourism, even if it’s not remotely close to the level it once was. There are some towns on the Route that are doing very well—Williams, AZ is the first one that comes to mind, and a good example of what I would imagine others could be like as well.
So in closing, my advice to myself, and you moving forward, is to visit Route 66. Pick a state or a section, it really doesn’t matter. Visit the icons, the communities, and the businesses that remain. Stay a while, spend some money, and then tell your friends. Enjoy the icons, but don’t ignore the realities.