DANBY, Calif. — Many miles to the west in the thickening twilight lies Roy's Cafe, a rustic high-desert hangout for weary Route 66 pilgrims, including Ronald Reagan and Harrison Ford (or so the guidebook says). Alas, it's already closed for the night.
Dead ahead, huge lightning bolts crack the sky, casting an eerie pallor over the surrounding moonscape. Suddenly, I feel like Janet Leigh in "Psycho," eyes scanning the rearview mirror, ears straining for those slashing Bernard Hermann chords. As a sheet of rain clatters violently across the windshield, an ominous thought hijacks the brain: Wasn't that a flash-flood warning sign a mile or two back?
This wasn't exactly the Route 66 I'd come looking for, the Route 66 of Howdy Doody-era diners and irresistibly cheesy souvenir stands, a nostalgic slice of pure Americana frozen in amber like some prehistoric insect. Certainly it didn't much resemble the Route 66 depicted in the colorful Automobile Club of Southern California map spread out on the passenger seat beside me, a "greatest hits" anthology of wigwam motels, meteor craters, auto museums and folksier-than-thou truck stops.
No, this lonely, bewitching, exhilarating stretch of asphalt was more akin to what greeted Dust Bowl refugees in the 1930s, who crossed the Colorado River from Arizona, just up the road. After traveling hundreds of miles and enduring heat, cold, hunger, exhaustion and marauding goon squads bent on turning them back, those desperate migrants knew Route 66 as a harshly exotic highway, tinted with beauty and danger, promise and menace. It was "the connection between wherever people were and wherever they wanted to be," as Paul Snyder, director of the newly opened Route 66 Museum in Kingman, Ariz., puts it.
It's this Route 66, a gritty mental Polaroid framed by Walker Evans, that still grips the imagination of thousands of visitors who come here from around the globe every year. And it was this Route 66 that now flashed hypnotically across the stormy landscape, with hardly another human being in sight.
Such trance-inducing solitude may be tougher to find in the coming months. Seventeen years after its last broken fragments were decommissioned by the federal government and left for scavengers, Route 66 has become America's best-known comeback trail. Since the mid-1980s, dozens of books, videos, TV specials and travelogues have celebrated its motley heritage. This year, the 2,448-mile artery stretching from Illinois to Southern California is being feted with barbecues, biker rallies, mariachi concerts, car shows, arts and crafts festivals, rodeos, foot races and tractor pulls, right up to and beyond its official 75th birthday on Nov. 11. Not surprisingly, automobile clubs and major car manufacturers are backing some of the misty-eyed appreciations.
But the Route 66 revival can't be written off merely as manufactured nostalgia. Once a tattered road that time forgot, the highway is now part of a growing movement that reflects shifting cultural values. Route 66 preservation groups have sprung up in all eight states the road traverses, and under the Historic Route 66 Corridor Act, signed into law by President Clinton, $10 million in federal funds will be used over the next decade to help restore businesses and tourist attractions along the way.
To its boosters and interpreters, Route 66 has become the Moby Dick of American roadways, a convenient catch-all symbol of the frontier spirit, middle-class Manifest Destiny or, at the other extreme, Kerouacian free-spiritedness. If it didn't already exist, American pop culture probably would have to invent it. Which, in a sense, is what it's been doing for the past seven decades, as became clear during a recent 1,300-mile odyssey from the San Bernardino foothills to the New Mexico border and back.
At one time, Route 66 linked Lake Michigan in downtown Chicago with the Pacific Ocean in Los Angeles, making it the world's longest drive-thru metaphor. Although photographs showing the road ending at the Santa Monica Pier have been revealed as fakes, it was invested with a sea-to-shining-sea unity and a brawny New Deal populism. It even had its own soundtrack, courtesy of the late Encino resident Bobby Troup, who had been "getting his kicks" (and, one hopes, his royalty checks) from "Route 66" for more than half a century.
Today, huge swaths of the road have been interred beneath interstates, or cut and pasted into charmless frontage roads and spotty commercial strips, like the one that escorts motorists through Fontana and San Bernardino before plunging on through the Cajon Pass.