“We do not quit playing because we grow old — we grow old because we quit playing.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
Traveling the path of what was once U.S Route 66 from one end to the other while driving one of Detroit’s finest from the era is but one of many items remaining on my bucket list. Time, or money, or both will determine what’s left on the list at the end of my road. For now, it’s one of the dreams, and I know of no better motivator for growing older than dreams.
Read a news article about Route 66 last week, one of the original super highways within the 1920s U.S. Highway System. The legendary 2,448-mile thoroughfare was designated in November of 1926 and signs went up. It ran from Chicago, Illinois to the Los Angeles suburb of Santa Monica, California through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona opening new destinations to a generation of American travelers while inspiring a number of movies, a 1960s television series, and one of the great songs of our time.
During its heyday, the highway was filled with dazzling neon-adorned buildings that housed one-of-a-kind eateries, motels and tourist attractions bringing new-found prosperity in small towns along the way. It also served as a major path for those who migrated west, especially during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, supporting the economies of the communities through which it passed. Many of the original buildings and even stretches of the highway itself have been restored and are still in use, but according to last week’s article, a 10-year-old federal program to help fund small town promotional endeavors along the historic highway may be ending soon.
Route 66, and other well-known American thoroughfares like the transcontinental Lincoln Highway, and even the Bankhead Highway through my hometown of Mount Pleasant, Texas, saw the beginning of the end with President Dwight Eisenhower’s interstate system in the 1950s. As interstates began crisscrossing the country, Route 66 became less and less traveled. It was officially decommissioned as a US Highway in 1985.
So, it was in that year while opening mail as publisher of the Light and Champion newspaper in Center, Texas, I found myself reading a press release from the Texas Highway Department announcing the highway’s official closure. As a part of marking the end of US 66 through Texas, the state conducted a sealed bid auction for the road signs that were taken down and stored in Austin that year. The soon to be historical pieces were offered in two groups—steel signs and aluminum signs.
“Got to have one,” I told myself. I wish I could tell you the strategy I employed, but details are lost to time…and to all the other tidbits of data my mind has heaped on top of 1985 since then. I remember it had something to do with bidding in several price ranges on both types, so that if they went higher, I would hopefully snag at least one or two. And, if they sold at a lesser price, I might wind up with several. Notification came soon that I was a successful bidder and proud owner of two genuine Route 66 highway signs—one aluminum and one steel.
I still have one of the signs. It hangs on my garage wall amid a lifetime collection of other memorabilia from the golden age of American automobiles surrounding my stable of three mid-50s Fords—any one of them a candidate for completing the aforementioned, highly anticipated bucket list trip.
Traveling Route 66 from one end to the other is a common aspiration of auto enthusiasts like me who enjoy playing with old cars. During the 80s, I managed to set foot on both ends of the “Mother Road,” as it’s been called, on unrelated trips at different times. Also, a portion of it is the route Ronnie Lilly and I took driving from Mount Pleasant to Los Angeles in 1967 in Ronnie’s 1957 Chevrolet. If we knew that we were traveling Route 66 then, I could not say today. But, looking back now, we picked up the iconic highway near Albuquerque where we spent a night and left it around Flagstaff headed to Las Vegas.
Thus, the itch yet to be scratched for traveling Route 66 from one end to the other in one memorable and fun road trip remains. Something I must do before I quit playing.
Won’t you get hip to this timely tip,
When you make that California trip,
Get your kicks on route sixty-six.
—“Route 66” lyrics 1946 by American songwriter Bobby Troup
— Leon Aldridge