Route 66 :: June '97 -- October '97

Subject: The Gate was open, so we passed through
Date: Tue, 09 Sep 1997 17:33:02 -0700

7:55 Gasconade Hills RV Park; Hazelgreen, Missouri :: 07 SEP 97

You're probably wondering what happened with that broken spring. Well, it devolved into a relatively minor problem: an RV shop was just a couple miles away, the repair took an hour, the spring cost $26 bucks+tax, total bill $68+change, we were on the road by 10AM, which is an hour earlier than usual.

The Gateway Arch; St. Louis, Missouri The Gateway Arch; St. Louis, Missouri
Running under the Gateway Arch; St. Louis, Missouri

Gateway to the West
St. Louis, Missouri

But we're miles from that now. Miles even from the Gateway to the West, Saint Louis. I've been replaying some history for you, history that's related to the eventual designation of Route 66 as the first 'transcontinental' highway and related to the significance of including cities like Chicago, Saint Louis, Santa Fe and Los Angeles on the Route.

When I began researching the prehistory of Route 66 I was disappointed to find that it did not very closely follow the Santa Fe trail. In fact, the two intersect in only a few places and are parallel only through part of Texas and New Mexico; they were primarily routes of trade and westward migration; and, of course, both reach Santa Fe-but there is little else by which to compare them. When I think about it now, that shouldn't surprise me. Technological advances change our modes of travel, alter the requirements of the trails, roads or rails over which we travel and often force us to select new routes. The Santa Fe trail was blazed over a century before the first US ROUTE 66 sign was erected by traders armed with very inarticulate maps of the region. By the time Route 66's architects drew a single line on a topographical map, they had established roadways to choose from and topographical maps with which to compare them; they could bridge the widest rivers, tame the surliest inclines with dynamite and internal combustion engines and tunnel through stubborn hillsides.

But as the history unfolds for me, I am not surprised to find several nodes on the Route 66 map of great historical significance in the flow of traffic between East and West. The Chicago stockyards slaughtered the pigs and beef driven in by train, truck or hoof from western ranches. The Eerie Canal reduced travel time between New York and Buffalo by 1/3 and shipping costs were lowered to 1/10th the previous rate. In time, the Eerie would be largely superseded by the railroads and the St. Lawrence Seaway (once the on-again-off-again thing with the Canadian Brits settled down and everyone agreed on the present borders), but not before helping to establish Chicago as an important trade link, and an important node on the route westward.

23:35 Gasconade Hills RV Park; Hazelgreen, Missouri :: 07 SEP 97

Situated on the Mississippi's west bank, just south of that river's confluence with the Missouri River, Saint Louis has long been the portal to America's west.

23:00 KOA Kampground; Joplin, Missouri :: 08 SEP 97

A wrecker gets a little of its own medicine; The Mother Road, Missouri

Where grand old vehicles lie in rest
Somewhere along the Mother Road in Missouri

Dying Days; The Mother Road, Missouri Gone to seed; St. Louis, Missouri

I don't know how well I'm going to be able to write here. I'm currently connected and downloading 48 odd pieces of email, most of them likely e-junk, from my collecting bin account. (My personal account seems to have eluded the email-marketing distribution lists so far, but not my other accounts. These I direct to a single bucket that only occasionally gets downloaded...) Anyway, I'm connected via a well-lit phone booth at the KOA. Well-lit means bug-infested and though most of the blighters here are not biters, they're still an unholy nuisance, to say the least: buzzing, crawling, slipping inside my t-shirt. That, and the light is provided by one of those gamey green fluorescent tubes and my stomach's turning green in sympathy with the apparent colour of my hands.

But we're on 20 of 48, at the rate of 2 a minute or so and rather than waste the time, I'll try to add a few more lines of the Route-66 back-story. Back-story is a screen-writing term referring to the story that happened before the opening credits of the film. It's used by screen writers to develop their characters, give them a personal history, and thus flesh out how they'll behave when faced with the obstacles and other events occurring in the film. Writing a credible character depends on building a complete back history. Understanding Route 66 requires the same attention to the history preceding even its conception. None of the guides and other Route 66 resources go back this far, and the result is a gee-whiz approach placing two characters as the fathers of Route 66; one of them in particular is considered of tantamount importance. I find this interpretation of The Mother Road's genesis, well, simplistic. So, back to St. Louis.

But first, I'm going to take a break from the bugs...pthui...did I mention about them flying into open orifices? AAAAHH!

...Or giant cicadas flapping by like baseball cards in bicycle spokes? YIKES!!

40 of 48, almost there...and then there's the regular mail.

Er, St. Louis. Right, portal to the West. Most people are familiar with the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Erected in the 1960s it stands over 600 feet tall, the tallest thing in St. Louis...for the time-being. I wonder how many know the arch is there to remind us all that during the years of American westward expansion, the overwhelming majority of food and supplies bound west of the Mississippi went through Saint Louis?

Ead's Bridge represented the first crossing for vehicles and trains of the lower Mississippi. This heavily influenced the development of the railways in the mid-west. A brief documentary on Ead's Bridge is shown at the St. Louis History Museum. It's interesting to watch the time-lapse expansion of railways in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. West of the Appalachians, a spider's web begins to grow around Chicago. A feeder shoots out to Saint Louis, and another spider's web begins and the two hubs gradually grow together.

Nearly all that's left of the Bel Air Drive-In; The Mother Road, Missouri

Sightseeing Route 66
Somewhere along the Mother Road in Missouri

My vote for most original use of the US Highway shield; The Mother Road, Missouri Meramec Caverns barn signs; The Mother Road, Missouri

10:30 KOA Kampground; Joplin, Missouri :: 09 SEP 97

Bloody bugs.

We'll be getting into Oklahoma today, after nicking off a corner of Kansas, which is home to all of a dozen miles of Route 66. I've put down Kerouac for the moment and have picked up Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath." This is an account of the dustbowl era and the Joad family who leave their Oklahoma farm and head out for California on Route 66. I'll be getting into that over the next week or so as we cross Oklahoma, but for the moment I'd like to quickly finish off the Route 66 back-story.

So most everything going west of the Mississippi went through Saint Louis. From there, if you were serious about heading west, you headed west and slightly north for Independence, Missouri, now part of Kansas City's urban sprawl and the trail head for the Santa Fe trail, the Oregon trail and numerous other less famous westward routes.

Route 66 doesn't go to Independence, rather it crosses the Kansas border at Joplin. Early 19th century trailblazers sought beaver pelts and, later, tillable land. In the latter half of that century, enormous deposits of lead and zinc would be discovered where Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma meet and Joplin became the center of the mining activity.

Keeping on the mineral track, the world's first oil well was drilled in Oklahoma and Tulsa once referred to itself as the "Oil Capitol of the World."

Further on down the line, Santa Fe lay at the terminus of the Santa Fe Trail and it remained the center of trade for the American southwest well into the 20th century. A route through Santa Fe also crossed the western mountain ranges over the high plateau. This reduced the cost of engineering by reducing the mountainous terrain over which the route would run. Los Angeles, then, became the obvious Pacific Coast terminus for the proposed highway.

I'll get into some of the other cities as we pass through them. I'm trying to establish the commercial significance of Route 66 as an artery of trade. By the 1920s, trucking was beginning to take a bite out of the railroad shipping industry. The trucking lobby was a formidable ally of the drive to construct interstate and transcontinental roadways, so any move to establish a highway needed to please the growing trucking industry.

But there's a more direct commercial link. The two men who were Route 66's greatest promoters were businessmen of no small means. The guidebooks and histories I've read indicate both were "dedicated to the idea of establishing a broad network of interstate highways" but it's no small coincidence the route they committed themselves to happened to pass through their hometowns of Saint Louis and Oklahoma City. The practical preceded the mythical.

Not that the mythical element had no part to play. After receiving official designation for their route, the two men continued to promote the highway, participating in the first cross-country run, a marathon of nearly 3,500 miles from Los Angeles to New York City. This run followed Route 66 in its entirety from LA to Chicago.

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