Friday, January 9, 2009

Whither-or is it wither--Route 66?

This past week, I drove back through Tucumcari, New Mexico. This icon of Route 66 has been a familiar stop on many a trip. What struck me, however, is how much is shut down or in decline since I first started visiting a couple of years ago. Many of the shops that were fun to visit are closed and empty. Landmarks like the Blue Swallow motel seem to be closed. Old structures such as the "Frontier Museum" outside of Santa Rosa were once abandoned but amusing features on the landscape. Now it is all but gone, apparently the victim of a fire.

For a while, it seemed like Route 66 nostalgia was the holy grail for many of these communities, attempting to lure visitors off the main interstates. It was this nostalgia that emerged in large part to Michael Wallis' book Route 66: The Mother Road or the near spin-off film, Cars. I was able to be part of that wave, especially when I was part of the Route 66 group at the Southwest Texas Popular Culture Association.

Nowadays, I wonder if that nostalgia boom is starting to wane. It capitalized on baby boomers recalling childhood experiences travelling down the road back in the 1950s and 1960s, much as the past 2 decades' obsession with all things World War II corresponded with boomers' need to honor their parents' efforts as "the greatest generation." As living memory of Route 66 as an actual location ages and fades, I wonder more and more about whether younger generations will carry this interest. After all, when I was a child in the 1970s, Route 66 was already gone. I am old enough to be a grandfather of very young children, making two more generations that have even less connection to the road. In other words, Route 66 was someone else's experience.

The good news is that Route 66 is still a pop culture icon, mainly for its trademark logo. That said, the image is more and more detached from the physical highway. Route 66 is less a place that ties together the central and southwestern parts of the country as much as a marketing image used to sell shot glasses, ball caps, and hamburgers in 1950s-themed restaurants. When Route 66 highway shields decorate brew pubs in Detroit or Toronto, the separation of image from place is all but complete. Why bother patronizing a mom and pop motel in Tucumcari when you can buy a T-shirt at a truck stop in Florida that evokes much the same imagery?

A huge part of the issue is that Route 66 nostaligia is too rooted in the past, too rooted in one time and place. It is about celebrating the 1950s, which is great, but also limiting. Unless contemporary features along the route are part of the nostalgia, from the great cross at Groom, TX to the newly-opened platform for the "Railrunner" in Albuquerque, New Mexico, there is a real danger of Route 66 becoming a dinosaur with a one-way ticket to extinction.

I have long said that there is a difference between preserving the past and mummifying it. Preservation means finding those features that are significant because they still relate to our lives today and give meaning to current populations. Mummification (and those of you who know me know that mummies really creep me out) is about selecting one time and era and simply focusing on it, regardless of whether younger generations even relate to the topic at hand.

In other words, for Route 66 to remain a living entity, it has to be relevant to Generation X, Y, and Z, not just nostalgia fodder for baby boomers' quest to recall their childhoods.

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