Updated: Oct 24, 2020
As people returned home from the Second World War, and world economies recovered, it was boom time in the USA. Americans became a nation of travellers, and Route 66 was the chosen road for many. Restaurants and motels, gas stations and drive-in theatres were the backdrop for a road populated by thousands of fine motor vehicles.
As traffic increased so small towns prospered. Maclean TX, for instance, once boasted dozens of motels and numerous gas stations. Visitors poured through every day, stopping to refuel, to buy food or to find a bed for the night. And with each stop they brought vitality. Now the heart of this small town is dead. The cinema and most of the shops are closed and boarded up. The only place to buy food is in the one remaining gas station.
A constant stream of semis now bypass the town on Interstate 40. Hardly anyone pulls off the highway, except perhaps to visit the Devil's Rope Museum. Money flows past, along with the traffic. And no money means that the jobs have gone too; jobs in hospitality, jobs in gas stations, jobs in retail. The town's aspirations have desiccated in the southern sun. You need look no further for the roots of the discontent that brought Trump to power. The prosperity that small town America enjoyed from the Fifties through to the early Eighties has slowly faded. The world has moved on. It's not just I40 that bypasses these towns, the information superhighway does too. From 1926 through to the mid Seventies, Route 66 wasn't just another road: the ‘Mother Road’ epitomised the American Dream. The 2400 miles of ‘blacktop’ linking Chicago, Illinois with Los Angeles, California, was a national icon in the post war years. It was the inspiration for architects, for writers, for movies and, inevitably, for a television series. Most obviously it was an inspiration for popular music.
Bobby Troup's anthem of the road became a chart success for many bands, including Chuck Berry and The Rolling Stones.
Well if you ever plan to motor west Just take my way that's the highway that's the best
Get your kicks on Route 66 Well it winds from Chicago to L.A. More than 2000 miles all the way Get your kicks on Route 66
Well goes from St. Louie down to Missouri Oklahoma city looks oh so pretty You'll see Amarillo and Gallup, New Mexico Flagstaff, Arizona don't forget Winona Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino Would you get hip to this kindly tip And go take that California trip Get your kicks on Route 66
During the Great Depression '66 was an escape route from the collapsed economies of the eastern industrial cities to California's "Promised Land". It was also the route Okies took to flee their debts and the Dustbowl. As such it featured as a backdrop to the photographs of Dorothea Lange and as the stage for John Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath. The fictional Joads and thousands of real life Okies were certain that Route 66 was the road to economic salvation. What they found in California didn't live up to the billing. Large landowners oversaw a corrupt labour market and used local deputies as muscle to enforce their wishes. The great folk song writer Woody Guthrie immortalised the reality in his ballad Do Re Mi:
Lots of folks back East, they say, is leavin' home every day Beatin' the hot old dusty way to the California line 'Cross the desert sands they roll, gettin' out of that old dust bowl They think they're goin' to a sugar bowl but here's what they find
Now the police at the port of entry say "You're number fourteen thousand for today"
Oh, if you ain't got the do re mi folks you ain't got the do re mi
Why you better go back to beautiful Texas Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee
California is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see But believe it or not you won't find it so hot If you ain't got the do re mi
Post World War II '66 became a superhighway that sleek cars - Buicks, Dodges and Cadillacs, adorned with jet-age fins - took toward a bright new future. To millions it was a symbol of the spirit that made America great. Just climb in your Studebaker, your De Soto or your Packard, put the pedal to the metal and somewhere toward the setting sun the Highway would inevitably lead you to your fortune. The individual was capable of anything. With imagination, resourcefulness and above all enterprise you would succeed. No ifs, no buts. You might even be able to eat a 72 ounce steak in Amarillo. Success there would prove there was such a thing as a free meal.
If anything was possible for the individual then why not for architecture? Just outside Amarillo, ten Cadillacs stand semi erect; their trunks point toward the sky whilst their hoods are submerged in a farmers field, like divers reentering the ocean. In the desert on the eastern edge of California, one man has built a forest from discarded bottles... The wide open spaces that surrounded the highway provided plenty of room for architectural eccentricities: room for a 66 foot tall neon Coke bottle, room for the Leaning Tower of Britten TX, room for fifteen metre high plastic dinosaurs in Holbrook AZ and room for a chain of concrete wigwam motels.
Unlike the chrome adornments on 1950's American cars, by the 1990's the Dream had sadly lost it shine. Its relics now lie rusted and broken along the Route, slowly decaying in the dry air. In some cases whole towns teeter on the edge of extinction. It's rare in most of Britain to come across so many abandoned structures. In a crowded country like ours every parcel of land has value. But there are places in the western States where people just walked out of a house they owned, leaving the keys behind. Whoever lent for the mortgage wrote it off, no one redeveloped these properties. I'm always moved by these vestiges of a life abandoned. In Seligman AZ I came across a wooden house on the edge of town. A red Christmas stocking, faded by the desert sun, was hanging from a nail to the left of the door. Peering through the dust-grimed windows I could just make out a couch, table and chairs in the living room. Above it all, Christmas decorations were pinned to the walls and ceiling. What disaster befell this family? What made them leave their home in such haste, without even the time or inclination to pack away the decorations? Was it economic or did a family member become gravely ill? In the USA these two disasters can become one.
The myth of endless possibilities for the individual is still widely used in the USA to excuse inequalities: "Look the other way, that injustice is a small matter because you live in a land where anyone can become President."
Unfortunately "anyone" only encompasses those who have millions of dollars at their disposal.
Not everyone has just up and left. Witnesses to the upheavals of the past seventy five years can still be found. One day in July 1945, when Archie Lewis was nine years old, he and his father were travelling across the south of New Mexico. They were going to collect a car. Not far from Socorro they came upon a military roadblock and were detained overnight. They had unwittingly stumbled upon the perimeter of the test site for the first atomic bomb, Thin Man. In the early hours of July 16th Archie and his father witnessed the very first atomic explosion. He was literally at Ground Zero for the atomic age.
A few miles away the man in charge of the Manhattan Project, Robert Oppenheimer, watched the first atomic mushroom cloud rise into the dawn light and said "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds". But what started as a terrifying weapon of mass destruction also became a beacon of hope in the post war years. Despite the Cold War gloom, nuclear power was held out as a harbinger of a brighter future. Harnessing the atom held the promise of limitless, almost free power. (As it turned out a promise that was never fulfilled).
Turning the nuclear threat into a possible nuclear salvation was just one expression of an almost unbridled optimism: post Depression, post World War optimism; optimism about the US economy; optimism about science; optimism about an inevitably brighter future.
What an incredible era Archie has witnessed. He saw European fascism and Japanese imperialism vanquished by the Allies. During his lifetime America, newly emerged in the 1940's from isolationism, has taken a commanding position on the world stage, both economically and militarily. He was carried along as America fast forwarded into a succession of new ages; the age of the automobile, the atomic age, the jet age, the space age and the internet age. Nothing has stood still. Archie grew up along with, and alongside, the Mother Road. He witnessed the boom in travellers and profited from it by running a vehicle recovery and repair company. These were decades of hopefulness. Everything was bigger and better and faster and cheaper than what had gone before. The exuberance of motor car design in this period epitomised the spirit of post war America. Faith in the future was made solid in every bright chrome trim and every jet inspired fin. Archie began collecting vehicles at nine years old. Some were paid for, some were taken in lieu of towing fees, some were given to him for free. In over seventy years he has gathered over seven hundred cars and trucks on his lot outside Albuquerque. It's a veritable encyclopaedia of American automotive art. You can chart how the motor industry has evolved from Model T to AMC Pacer and beyond.
When I last saw him, in 2015, he was doing what he does most days, sitting in his barber's chair at Lewis' Toy and Motor Museum with his faithful dog Levi* at his feet. Now in his eighties, he holds court with whoever comes to see his vehicles. The stories he tells are fascinating. There's very little he doesn't know about the history of the marques represented in his lot. It's evident that his enthusiasm for motor vehicles is undiminished. Some might call him a dinosaur. I prefer to think of him as an incredible living link to the past and someone in whom America's post war spark of optimism still burns.
In 1956 the Interstate Highway Act signalled the beginning of the end for Historic Route 66. Gradually, Interstate 40 replaced '66 between Oklahoma City and Los Angeles. The divided highway bypassed small towns. Cars became more comfortable and capable of longer drives between refuelling. People no longer felt the need to pull off and stretch their legs. A quick stop at a gas station on I40 and a takeaway burger with a 72ounce Coke would keep you going for a few more hours. Or even better, why not hop on a plane and hire a car at your destination.
Sadly, the last seventy years have shown many of the mid century hopes that symbolised the American Dream to be a mirage. A scant few have been fully realised, many more have been hijacked. Main St. America has consistently lost out to the rising power of the corporations. The working man had more disposable income in the post war years and he used it to purchase consumer goods, from washing machines to refrigerators to cars. So, ironically, the wealth that once routinely circulated through these places helped build those corporations power.
Some people might be puzzled as to why I, a landscape photographer, find the eccentricities and decay of Route 66 so fascinating. For me the buildings, cars and to some extent the people along the Route represents a lost innocence. Many of the things I have photographed along the Route don't "make sense" to us today. And that is their charm. The faded remnants of those earlier dreams, like a love lost, are potently poignant. This is where I go to search for the ghosts of broken dreams.
* Sadly Levi passed away in August last year. Between 2012 and 2015 I made three journeys along part of Route 66, from Oklahoma City to the California border. This article and the gallery below contain some of my favourite images from those journeys. I hope to be able to lead another tour here in 2022.