A photographer’s journey across California’s iconic Route 66
“… and they come in to 66 from the tributaries, side roads, from the wagon track, and the 66 is the mother road…”—John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, 1939.
Route 66, also known as Will Rogers Highway, is arguably the most famous original road in the entirety of the United States. Having been established all the way back in 1926, it ran from Santa Monica, California to Chicago, Illinois. As time rolled the route was bypassed by the Interstate road system and was officially removed from the US highway system in 1985. Since then, however, the journey has taken on a whole new meaning.
As a historic reminiscence, its remnants are now labelled as a scenic byway with ‘Historic Route 66’ signs. Many roadside reminiscences and curiosities are left reminding the traveller of the exciting past when the country was developed for long-distance car travels.
As the above quote hints, great write John Steinbeck labelled Route 66 as the “Mother Road” in his classic novel The Grapes of Wrath, a name which derived from the trend of desperate migrants attempting to escape the ‘Dust Bowl’ in search of work during the 1930s. “Highway 661 is the main migrant road,” Steinbeck writes. “66—the long concrete path across the country, waving gently up and down on the map, from Mississippi to Bakersfield—over the red lands and the gray lands, twisting up into the mountains, crossing the Divide and down into the bright and terrible desert, and across the desert to the mountains again, and into the rich California valleys.
“66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert’s slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there. From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.”
While some historic motels and gas stations are still in use, the route that Steinbeck writes so vividly about no longer exists and, in comparison, many of the establishments are now abandoned and prone to decay. While the decline began in the 1950s, many attempts have been made to preserve the route for historical benefit. With government and charitable donations, the route is essentially acting as a time capsule museum, offering a glimpse into a different way of life and, unsurprisingly, Route 66 is a bustling tourist attraction.
In August 2016, photographer Ralph Graef created a portrait of the Historic Route 66 from California to New Mexico. Within this series, the photo ‘Gassing up at Roy’s’ won the travel category in the Sony World Photography Award 2017 and the Germany National Award in the same contest.
As Nat King Cole rolled it out in his 1946 hit: ”Well if you ever plan to motor west, travel my way, take the highway that’s the best. Get your kicks on Route 66.”
Enjoy the ride with a selection of the images, below.