By Carol Bidwell, Staff Writer
Motoring along Route 66 in a black 1950 Ford convertible, the top down and his Navy mustering-out pay in his pocket, Fred Evenson first felt the mystique of the Mother Road back in 1960.
"I turned 21 on that trip," Evenson, now 68, recalled recently. "I remember it like it was yesterday."
He was going home to Detroit from San Diego, in the opposite direction from most of those who drove the second, more southerly route across the United States, from Chicago to Santa Monica.
"That was the gateway to California," said Evenson, now president of the board of directors for the Association of California Car Clubs, a lobbying group for auto enthusiasts. "That was pretty much the only way to get from the East to the West back in those days. That’s why it’s so nostalgic."
He’s not the only one who thinks so. Many car buffs have made at least part of the Route 66 trek – even if only in their minds or while watching the 1960s TV show "Route 66."
And five Southern California events celebrating the old road kick off this weekend.
Jo Ann Webb, director of corporate relations for the San Bernardino Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the town comes alive each summer as "entire families come to see the road `where Grandpa came to California."’
"Back in 1926, when the highways were being built … it was the way people saw their way to a new future," Webb said.
"The war came and was over, and Route 66 played a big role in (soldiers) getting home. It had brought a lot of them to California and Arizona, and they found a new area … to settle in and raise their kids.
"It was just a much gentler time … and time has a way of softening the edges," Webb said. "They come to visit Route 66 and live the times that were `normal."’
Those who drove the road remember Burma Shave signs lining the highway, the mom-and-pop diners, the kitschy motels and every so often, a sign that promised that at the next rest stop, you could see a two-headed snake for just a quarter.
"The road just has that romance to it," Webb said.
Route 66’s continuing lure reaches around the world, Webb said, as car owners from dozens of countries plan yearly jaunts to the Rendezvous in September, shipping their own cars so they can participate.
But for all the affection heaped on Route 66, it wasn’t the first U.S. transcontinental road. That was the Lincoln Highway, planned and built between 1913 and 1915. It followed the shortest, straightest route from coast to coast, starting in New York City’s Times Square and skimming through a dozen states before arriving in San Francisco.
But the northern route skirted big cities and tourist destinations, sacrificing fun for speed, and it was a hard drive during winter.
It was no wonder motorists and truckers alike preferred a more laid-back southern route, and that’s just what Route 66 – opened in 1926 – offered.
It was writer John Steinbeck who first called it the Mother Road, in "The Grapes of Wrath," his fictionalized chronicle of a destitute Dust Bowl family coming West during the Depression.
Although the Interstate Highway System in 1956 brought freeways that bypassed long sections of Route 66 and other old, two-lane roads, many remnants of the original highway remain.
But they are in danger of disappearing forever, according to a 1995 U.S. Department of the Interior study. And in June 2007, the World Monuments Fund included Route 66 on its 2008 watch list of 100 threatened sites around the globe.
Enter Jim Conkle, founder and CEO of the Route 66 Preservation Foundation, who along with others has lobbied Congress, the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior to preserve what remains of the Mother Road.
In 1999 they persuaded Congress to pass the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Act, which offered up to $10 million by 2009 in 50-50 matching funds with local business owners and communities to save old buildings and other attractions along what remains of Route 66. About $3.5 million in federal funds have been spent so far, but the bill will expire next year if Congress does not reauthorize the measure, Conkle said.
"It’s probably the most famous road in the world – not the most important, but the most famous. There is a Route 66 organization or car club in every developed country in the world. In Norway, for example, there is a club with more than 5,000 members, owning more than 15,000 classic American cars.
"And if it wasn’t for the international travelers, we probably wouldn’t be where we are today."
So far, the federal government has given out $3.5 million to replace roofs on roadside cafes and motels, to renovate old gas stations and to survey where travelers go so future preservation efforts can be planned, Conkle said. The biggest rehabilitation project, he said, has been renovation of the ornate 1925 Aztec Hotel in Monrovia, designed by Los Angeles architect Robert B. Stacy-Judd in a style he called Mayan Revival.
"We’re accomplishing quite a few things," said Conkle, who serves on the National Park Service’s national advisory council for Route 66. "If we got another $10 million, I could probably spend it in probably a couple of miles."
But the budgets for this year and next total $600,000, he said, with the organization reduced to giving out grants of $5,000 to $2,000. American Express has donated $150,000 and other corporate sponsorships are welcomed.
Conkle, 68, said he traveled Route 66 the first time with his parents as a 9-year-old boy, and has made the trip on his own many times since.
"The greatest treasure is not the road, not the viewscape or the buildings," he said. "It’s the people who travel there and live there and do business there.
"There would not be as many conflicts in this world if everybody went out and traveled it. Y’know, there’s a Route 66 handshake: It’s a hug. We’re the huggin’est people. We’re all roadies; we’re all part of the family." firstname.lastname@example.org 818-713-3701
Car buffs can experience the nostalgia of Route 66 at five Southern California events:
This weekend’s Berdoo Bikes and Blues Rendezvous includes outdoor movies, motorcycle events, live music and a poker run in San Bernardino. For information, call 800-867-8366 or www.route-66.org or www.sanbernardino.org.
The third annual Concours d’Elegance car show on June 1 in Pasadena features more than 300 vehicles from the U.S. and Europe – from early horseless carriages to towncars, muscle cars to top-dollar race cars. Visit www.laconcours.com.
The 2008 Classic Car Show opens June 14 at the Route 66 Mother Road Museum in downtown Barstow, where signs point out stretches of the historic roadway. Call 760-255-1890 or visit www.route66museum.org.
Stater Bros.’ Route 66 Rendezvous on Sept. 18-21 is expected to draw 500,000 spectators to San Bernardino for a speedway burnout, poker run, model car contest, car shows and entertainment. Visit www.route-66.org.
The California Route 66 Museum in Victorville will have its 13th birthday party and car show on Nov. 8, featuring pre-1975 autos and motorcycles. Call 760-951-0436 or visit www.califrt66museum.org.
For a complete list of Route 66 events across the United States this summer, plus details, visit www.historic66.com/events.
To see historic Route 66 photos,
For cyber tours of Route 66, go to www.theroadwanderer.net.
For help planning Route 66 trips, visit the Automobile Club of Southern California Web site at www.aaa-calif.com. For $4.95, members can buy a laminated, fold-out Greatest Hits Road Trips map that breaks a trek from San Bernardino to Chicago along the old road into six segments and points out the best sights to see and places to eat and stay.
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