Tucumcari, New Mexico – Muhammad Malik stands behind a cluttered desk, his words punctuated by a soft ding as his forearm glances the dusty reception bell at his near-empty motel on Route 66.
“I bought it because it was cheap,” says Malik, 67, a former United Nations worker from Pakistan, who moved to Tucumcari in the early 2000s. “An unlikely retirement home,” he laughs.
He bought his motel, the Palomino, located along a once-bustling portion of Route 66, the 4,000-kilometre highway between Santa Monica and Chicago that, for six decades, was the nation’s major throughway, connecting the rural backwaters of western United States to the highway.
“This town was four times its size back then,” says Malik, standing out in the back of the motel beside a rusted playground and an empty 40s-era pool – “The first in Tucumcari” according to him.
These are both relics from a time when countless Americans, driven by a variety of forces and economic opportunities, made their way (primarily) west along the “Mother Road” their route lit by blazing neon signs of motels, petrol stations and diners in traveller towns, such as Tucumcari.
“The road has always been a mirror held to reflect what goes on in the nation,” says Michael Wallis, a historian and author of Route 66: The Mother Road, speaking to Al Jazeera about the road’s historical significance in shaping American culture, from its 1926 beginnings and lasting throughout the rest of the 20th century.
In the 1930’s, during the Dust Bowl, Route 66 became the major migration route westward, the road’s importance forever codified in author John Steinbeck’s classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath. During World War II, Route 66 became an essential strategic military highway for transporting troops to California. And, in the affluence and optimism of the post-war period, Route 66 would become the primary highway for the nation’s exploration, migration and conceptualisation of the American West.
“People were getting out and seeing other parts of America, inspiring many to move and move west,” says Kaisa Barthuli, programme manager of the National Park Service Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program , noting the importance of the highway in the 20th -century settlement of the west.
‘Death by interstate’
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During the various migrations, travellers would encounter roadside towns, many established years before to service the railway, which ran parallel to Route 66 for nearly all of its route.
“The whistle stops [railroad towns] became the rest stops and traveller’s oases along Route 66,” explains Barthuli, noting the transformation of the traveller towns in the age of the automobile. “Route 66 supported a whole economy that would have otherwise been absent.”
In 1956, 30 years after Route 66 was created, President Dwight D Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act, authorising 66,000 kilometres of new roads to replace the old highway with faster, wider and more direct roads in the form of interstate highways. By the early 1980s, the new national highway systems had bypassed most of Route 66, cutting the economic lifeline of many smaller communities that had been dependent on the business driven by traffic along the highway.
“The freeway construction geographically isolated many commercial nodes that had been situated at rural crossroads,” says Route 66 historian Frank Norris, noting the impact of the bypass on many small towns.
The town of Glenrio, located directly on the Texas-New Mexico state line is one such place.
“Coming into Glenrio looked like Times Square,” Wallis says, the 71-year-old historian recalling his visits the bustling traveller town as a child. “There were lines at the payphone, and everyone fuelling themselves and their machines.”
Today, Glenrio has been reduced to a near ghost town with more “roadrunner [birds] than people” he adds.
“It has just been killed,” says Wallis, who also served as a consultant and voice actor in the Route 66-inspired 2006 Disney Pixar movie, Cars. “It is an example of death by interstate.”
Capitalising on nostalgia
Today, many rural areas of the old highway are littered with houses, businesses, and full and partial ghost towns, with 200,000 structures standing abandoned along Route 66, according to a 2012 economic impact report ( PDF ).
Still, amid the overall decline, there is a number of surviving, even thriving, businesses that have capitalised on a growing “heritage tourism” industry rooted in a sustained interest in the highway – particularly by foreigners.
“The renaissance of this road is caused by travellers coming abroad to this country,” says Wallis adds, noting the uptick in tourism since the highway was designed a national historic corridor in 1999 by the US government ( PDF ).
“What they get is the classic American road trip along a highway that spans two-thirds of the continent, and winds its way from Chicago to the Pacific Ocean.”
“People come to the road to experience American history and relive the nostalgia of the old highway,” adds Barthuli. “You have many businesses that have arisen to capitalise on this,” she says, noting the 2012 report that found that annual revenue related to Route 66 is “conservatively” estimated to be $132m each year.
One such business is the Blue Swallow Motel – one of a dozen or so historic Route 66 businesses that include neon-clad motels, diners and souvenir shops – called curio stores – still open in Tucumcari.
“You can come here and feel like you are back in the 50s,” says Cameron Mueller, whose family owns the iconic Blue Swallow Motel, explaining the allure of the motel – first opened in 1939 – that has been reinvigorated by the growing tourism along the old highway.
This past summer, the motel was booked up weeks in advance. The night Al Jazeera stopped in Tucumcari, a busload of German tourists had just been dropped off in front of the famous Blue Swallow’s neon sign – one of the most iconic images along the highway.
“We have people from Russia, Malaysia, New Zealand … everywhere,” explained Mueller, adding that his motel has hosted travellers from every continent and more than 60 countries.
“They don’t want the grown-up cities; they want the nostalgia … They travel the old road because that’s what they think America is about.”
“We have people from all over the world,” says Gazell Stewart, proprietor of Stewart’s Petrified Wood, one of the bizarre Route 66 “Trading Posts” located in eastern Arizona.
Speaking to Al Jazeera outside her shop, Stewart was surrounded by thousand-pound trunks of petrified wood. An eerie life-sized mannequin was seated upon a metal chair. A concrete polar bear nearby, basked in the Arizona heat.
“My husband did all of this,” she says, motioning to the handmade sculptures and a nearby pen of live ostriches – with a sign that reads: “$5 to feed.”
“It might seem weird,” says Stewart. “But people like it.”
A lost America
A few hundred miles west, in Holbrook, Arizona, John Lewis sits in “lobby” of the Wigwam Motel, another iconic and hugely popular Route 66 motel that comprises 15 individual concrete and steel “tepee” rooms that take their name, albeit incorrectly, from the thatched, domed structures of numerous Native American tribes.
“People come here because Route 66 represents something we no longer have, something no longer found in our society,” Lewis told Al Jazeera, echoing a sense of nostalgia that remains a draw to his motel and other similar businesses.
“The 50s and 60s were good years, full of patriotism, belief in the government and individualism,” says Lewis, who maintains a romantic ideal of the early Route 66 days.
“Just look at these cars,” he says, motioning from the motel lobby to the classic cars parked outside each wigwam. “Each is unique, a work of art. That’s lost now. What we’re left with is small pieces.”
“Route 66 is a metaphor for many things. A lost America. An America before it became generic,” says Wallis, noting the kind of romanticism that has long been reinforced in popular culture, from movies like Easy Rider or Thelma & Louise , the 1960’s television series, Route 66, and the widely-covered 1940s song ,”Get Your Kicks on Route 66″.
“But, we should be cautious about romanticising Route 66,” adds Wallis, referencing other less flattering histories situated along the Mother Road.
The Native factor
In the tourism boom following World War II, many Route 66 businesses had reinforced the Hollywoodesque images and stereotypes of the western US.
This was particularly true in the monolithic depictions of Native American culture found at souvenir shops, on roadside signs and even in the architecture of businesses (such as Wigwams) found along the route.
“They became venues for really misrepresenting [Native American] culture” says Barthuli, noting the caricatures of Native Americans that proliferate along the highway – more than half of which cuts through the lands of over 25 tribal nations ( PDF ).
“They are partly responsible for developing these stereotypical ideas about [Native American] culture.”
These images indeed remain today, in places like the Painted Desert Indian Center, where visitors are greeted by massive concrete and steel dinosaurs interspersed inexplicably among Native American tepees.
“The dinosaurs and the tepees are just a tourist attraction to bring people inside,” admits owner Freddie Slatton from inside his shop. Along the shelves, authentic Native American jewellery, as well as toy bows and arrows, cowboy hats, and all manner of kitsch from the Old West beckon to the occasional customer. “If I had a dime for every time someone took a picture of these things, I would be rich.”
Originally, these trading posts arose as Anglo-Americans settled remote areas of the west, building trading posts near tribal lands, establishing an exchange between indigenous American and Euro-American culture and goods.
The nature of these trading posts, according to Barthuli, began to change with the coming of the automobile and a growing interest in tribal culture by travellers.
“These trading posts kind of morphed into tourist attractions,” says Barthuli, explaining how white business owners attempted to capitalise on the tourist interest in Native American culture, which was largely defined by stereotypical, and often offensive, Hollywood depictions.
“You go on this great road trip to see the West and the Indians,” says Lisa Hicks Snell, a Cherokee journalist and editor/publisher of the Native American Times. “But you’re not going to see the Indians – you’re going to see what you’re allowed to see,” continues Snell, who authored the American Indians and Route 66 Project , which examines the historical and cultural relationship between the native tribes and Route 66.
“What has been packaged is that one Indian fits all kinds of things,” says Snell, noting an archetype representation of Native Americans – loosely based on the Plains Indians – that proliferates along the highway.
These racist caricatures, according to Stephen Mandrgoc, a doctoral student at University of New Mexico working on an anthology on the Hispanic legacy of Route 66, are part of a larger lore of the American West.
“Much of the myth of the Southwest was created here,” says Mandrgoc, “It is something that continues today in these places and their kitsch portrayal of Anglo cowboys, disappearing Indians, and Spanish conquistadors.”
Barthuli explains further, saying, “Curio stores and trading posts had a tremendous influence on people’s perceptions of the West … These perceptions, often promoted through tourism, were filled with stereotypical and inaccurate representations of Hispanic and American Indian cultures.”
Myth of the Southwest
These stereotypes, still visually present along the route, speak to the lesser known histories and experiences of the historically marginalised people living on, and travelling along, a highway that has, as Michael Wallis notes “always been a mirror held to reflect what goes on in the nation.”
“For some, the Mother Road was an abusive reality,” says Wallis, speaking about the experiences of people of colour, particularly African Americans travellers that for decades were barred from eating, sleeping or even getting gas at racially segregated businesses along Route 66. “To know and appreciate and value the story, one must know it completely, with all the good and the bad.”
Recently, the National Parks Service have funded a series of grants and projects to explore the experiences and histories of Women , Native Americans , African Americans and Hispanics along Route 66. The hope is to provide “a more complete history of the highway”, says Barthuli.
“It [Route 66] reveals important social, political and economic perspectives of American life in the 20th century and helps us understand how we came to be who we are today,” says Barthuli, noting the highways continued importance in understanding American history, some 90 years after it first broke ground.
“Route 66 is arguably the most famous highway in the world,” adds Wallis.
“We have an obligation to tell the real story.”