The Mystique of Route 66

Foreign tourists and local preservationists are bringing stretches of the storied roadway back to life

Anna Matuschek, who works in Stuttgart for the German magazine Motor Klassik, rides on Route 66 outside Oatman, Arizona. (Catherine Karnow)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 2)

In 1998, Pritchard learned that the general store was for sale. He sold his commercial glass company in Washington State and bought the property. The Pritchards spent a year putting the place back together and opened in March 1999. “It took off so quick, I was overwhelmed,” he said. “The second year I had to hire people. All the car guys, the car clubs, the Harley-Davidson riders, the tour buses stop here.” Today, he adds, “I’d say 90 percent of the people coming down this road are foreigners. One French guy told me, ‘We say in France, if you want to see the face of America, drive 66.’”

The patched, two-lane road crossed through Kingman, paralleling the wide, smooth pavement of I-40, then split off and headed into high desert, switchbacking over the angular Black Mountains, not a person or another car in sight. Static drifted in and out over my radio. I pushed the off button, content to move on in the silence of the empty road.

“Route 66 isn’t just about nostalgia. It’s become an American icon,” Roger White told me. He’s a transportation curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, where a 40-foot-long stretch of the road is on permanent exhibit. “It is woven through the social tapestry of the United States from the 1920s through the ’50s. It opened an all-weather route from Chicago to the West and was the route for the migration of Dust Bowl families, military mobilization during World War II, for veterans seeking new homes and vacationers looking for fun.” The road, he said, “was a catalyst for the belief, if there is a better life out there, the highway will take me to it.”

I stopped at the 109-year-old Oatman Hotel for a buffalo burger, then drove on to Topock. I parked in the shadow of the bridge that carries Route 66 over the wide, calm Colorado River. On the far bank was California, the beginning and the end for so many American believers.

David Lamb is a frequent contributor to the magazine, and Catherine Karnow photographed Smithsonian stories about Big Sur, Amerasians and post-traumatic stress disorder.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus