I don’t think anybody ever called President Calvin Coolidge a visionary. In fact, the only thing anyone ever seems to have called him is “silent.” And after you’ve identified someone as “Silent Cal,” what else can you say about him? That he, “was alive, if quiet.”
Anyway, it was while Coolidge was president that the visionary and nation-shaping U.S. highway system was mapped out in 1926. Newly mass-produced and newly-mass consumed automobiles had places to go, and this national network of numbered highways let them get there; let people from the north see people in the south, east and west.
The longest federal highway, Route 6, wandered more than 3,000 miles, from coast to coast, from northeast to southwest. The most heavily traveled was Route 1, which ran up the East Coast, from Key West to the Canadian border, through every big city it could find from Miami to Boston.
These roads served, but it was a shorter highway, Route 66, that inspired. Ten years after Route 66 was opened, it became the route of America’s biggest mass migration, as Midwestern farmers fled a third straight year of drought that was making a Dust Bowl where productive fields used to be. From Kansas and Oklahoma, they headed west on Route 66 to California, and inspired John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, a literary landmark of 1939 and classic movie of 1940.
A longer-lasting and even more important migration moved down the entire 2,448 miles of Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica during the 20th year of the highway’s existence, 1946. World War II was over. Midwestern city, as well as farm people, inspired by hopes of better jobs and a sunnier lifestyle, headed again for California. It was that year, 1946, when millions of Americans started singing a happy tune written by a Los Angeles singer/songwriter named Bobby Troup and recorded by Nat King Cole’s Trio. For Cole, one of the most popular singers of the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, it was a signature song:
“If you ever plan to motor west
Travel my way, take the highway that is best
Get your kicks on Route sixty six.”
By 1947 much of America could trace the route of Highway 66: through Saint Looey, Joplin, Missouri, Oklahoma City, Amarillo, Gallup, Flagstaff, Arizona. Don’t forget Winona, Kingman, — and finally Golden California — Barstow and San Bernadino.
But by 1956, 30 years into the highway’s life, Route 66 and the whole U.S. highway system was being muscled aside by the new multiple-lane, limited access, interstate highway system. The old federal road network meant to connect as many cities, towns and villages as possible was largely abandoned by generations who only wanted to get from one big city to another as quickly as possible.
For Route 66, and many of the towns and people who lived on or near “The Mother Road,” (a.k.a. “America’s Main Street”) strung along its often zig-zaggy path, things started to look and feel disconnected and abandoned.
Our guest today, photographer Terrence Moore, like myself, is old enough to have ridden on the U.S. highway system when it was still in its glory days. But the earliest pictures in his excellent new book, “66 On 66: A Photographer’s Journey,” are from 1970, by which time Route 66 was well into its decline in importance and prosperity. Still, Terry demonstrates again and again that, tatty or torn, there’s a lot of life and defiant beauty left on the old road yet.
Terrence Moore is a renowned photographer whose work has appeared in Smithsonian, the New York Times Magazine, and elsewhere. He has traveled and photographed Route 66 since he first drove it with his parents in the 1960s. Though he has covered this subject for more than 40 years as a professional photographer, never before has his work been collected in book form. This volume highlights 66 of his finest 35mm color film images—a stunning chronicle of this storied road in states from Missouri to California.