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Car Cultures Around the World: USAs Route 66

Car Cultures Around the World: USAs Route 66

The USA is quite big. Just shy of 10 million square kilometres, actually. The United States spans mountains, lakes the size of seas, deserts, and just about every other climate you could imagine. As you would expect, a country so vast has some pretty spectacular stretches of road, and none is more famous or iconic than Route 66. Well bet you didnt know, however, that it all started with camels.

It all started in 1857 during the Gold Rush, when Lt. Beale, a Naval Officer in the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, was ordered to build a wagon road from Arkansas to Los Angeles. His secondary objective during this mission was to test whether camels would make good pack animals in the American desert. It turns out camels do quite well in the desert, but unfortunately the American Civil War broke out and the experiment was dropped.

Beales Wagon Road would lay the foundations for the route that would eventually become one of the worlds most famous highways. The full road stretches from Santa Monica pier in Los Angeles, curves its way through 8 states, and 2,451 miles later reaches Chicago. The roads popularity grew massively in its early years, thanks to its scenic route and the fact that being so flat made it perfect for huge long haul trucks.

After a stint as the unpaved National Old Trails Highway, in 1926 the road underwent a name change, to the much catchier Route 66. The road was nicknamed the Main Street of America, due to the fact that it wound through many small towns in the Midwest, and hundreds of cafes, petrol stations, motels and tourist hot spots sprang up along it. John Steinbeck dubbed it Mother Road in The Grapes of Wrath, as thousands of families migrated along the highway during the Great Depression.

In the 1950s, work began on high-speed Interstate roads. These new routes bypassed much of US66, to the dismay of pretty much everyone. As traffic took to these new, speedier roads, tourism died along Route 66, and the route was eventually decommissioned. Thats right  you wont find Route 66 on a map today.

Dont despair however; if you are craving a slice of vintage Americana, you can still blaze a trail across the States in a rented vintage car, following the ghost of the now-called Historic Route 66. In recent years, the popularity of the road in films and pop culture has seen a revival for the legendary highway. Roughly 85% of the road still exists, although today you can expect to fewer bearded Easy Rider types and more kitschy tourist traps.

Towns along the route make the most of their claim to fame, and over the years have added countless Route 66 signs to the roadside to ensure passing motorists pull over. It worked  tourists did indeed begin pulling over, however, usually only to steal the road signs for souvenirs. Consequently, the iconic Route 66 logo began being spray painted directly onto the road, which is significantly harder to steal (although you can bet someone will have tried).

Its hard to imagine a British road conjuring the same sort of inspiration as Route 66. The M4 from Slough just doesnt have the same romance about it. Today, the iconic highway (thats Route 66, not the M4) draws petrol heads and adventure seekers from all over the world hoping to feel the wind in their hair and see what some of that open road freedom that the Americans seem so keen on really feels like.