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FOCUS ON SUMMER TRAVEL

Route 66 Lives On, Only Now It's Memory Lane

Essay: Time has poked some holes in America's Main Street, but the people and places along its swath have proven too tough to die.

May 27, 1999|PAUL DEAN | TIMES AUTOMOTIVE WRITER

Even before the wheel there were tracks that begat highways that became arteries of human movement for all purposes. From strategic access and metropolitan evacuations to diaper deliveries.

The Appian Way. Paved before Christ and the conduit of Roman legions headed for Brindisi.

The Burma Road. World War II's backdoor to China, and a 1,000-mile supply line that praised the Lord, passed the ammunition, climbed mountains and crossed jungles until the enemy was defeated.

The San Diego Freeway. Asphalt atherosclerosis and boulevard of a million curses that could bring blasphemy to the lips of a bishop.

And Route 66, a 2,448-mile reach from Chicago to Los Angeles, from 1926 until the last marker shield of its final yardage clattered down in 1984. A transcontinental diagonal that in life was an ordeal that often killed but was also a lifeline aiding and betting on America's flight west through depressed times and wartimes. Route 66 meant new hopes, new homes and third chances.

Now, like Tombstone, Ariz., Route 66 represents a place and an era too tough to die, its harshness and privations forgotten because authors and balladeers prefer the romance and adventure of meandering, not its perils.

Besides, claim preservationists of John Steinbeck's mother road that grew "The Grapes of Wrath," you can't kill America. Nor should our nation be in a hurry to forget those supposedly softer years when people gave everyone the time of day and you didn't need a key to get into a service station washroom.

Contemporary saviors of Route 66 include those who rode it, those who wished they had, tourists by the millions, thousands who still live alongside it, museums that immortalize it and the House Resources Committee that last month approved legislation to provide $10 million to preserve its old diners and motor courts and Angel Delgadillo's barbershop in Seligman, Ariz. Angel's, revolving barber pole and all, remains a shrine to the $6 haircut, straight-razor shaves and a scalp massage with Pinaud Eau de Quinine hair tonic.

Delgadillo, 72, is semiretired. But he'll still shave and cut the hair of anyone making the pilgrimage and pausing in Seligman to meet with one of Route 66's principals: the barbershop and the barber.

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Of the highway's original miles, almost 2,000 survive as frontage roads, business loops and redesignated local highways. Locally, there are, or were until recently, dozens of visible curiosities of Route 66.

The Belle-vue Restaurant once stood at Ocean Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard. Trader Vic's in Beverly Hills and the defunct Wilson's House of Suede & Leather on Santa Monica. Barney's Beanery, the Eastman Kodak Building and the Formosa Cafe near a branch of Warner Bros.

The longest continuous remaining stretch of Route 66 is a 157-mile arc through northwest Arizona, from Topock on the Colorado River through gold mine country to Kingman, Hackberry, Peach Springs and dusty little Seligman. It is raw and beautifully restored, and most wisely decreed an Arizona historical monument.

Across California, Route 66 stretched 320 miles, from the Santa Monica Pier to Needles. Much now lies broken, buried or bypassed by the Pasadena Freeway, Interstate 40 from Needles and Interstate 15 from Barstow to San Bernardino. But like Los Angeles, the state remains rich in Route 66 lore and remnants.

Off Swarthout Canyon Road, off the divided highway through Cajon Pass, there's a row of boulders and obviously cultivated spaces. This was a federal campsite in the '30s that shielded Okie migrants--such as Steinbeck's gallant and fictional Joad family--from angry Californians trying to beat back the new arrivals, literally, and slashing tires off their Model Ts.

At Victorville, service stations stand rotted to their girders with rusted pumps showing gas prices of 23 cents a gallon. The main street through Oro Grande is a lonely lineup of long-dead stores. And a junkyard at Essex is stuffed with carcasses, some cars dating to the '20s that limped their last miles on Route 66 and rolled no farther.

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Endless information routes exist for starting new odysseys or remembering old journeys along America's Main Street.

"The Route 66 Traveler's Guide and Roadside Companion," by Tom Snyder (St. Martin's Press, 1995), addicted roadie and recovering psychologist, is the primary printed reference available from bookstores and Route 66 societies. It is in its third printing and in deference to the route's global clientele has been translated into several languages.

The National Historic Route 66 Federation (P.O. Box 423, Tujunga, CA 91043) has its own Internet site: http://www.national66.com. So does the California Historic Route 66 Assn.: http://www.wemweb.com/chr66a/index.html. For maps showing what still exists of the length of Route 66, send $17.95 to Ghost Town Press, 13100 E. Old Highway 66, Arcadia, OK 73007.

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