Historic Route 66 is arguably the most famous road in the United States. One of the original highways stretching across the country, Route 66 covers eight states and nearly 2,400 miles. Established in 1926, the highway allowed easy travel across most of the country, running from Chicago, IL to Santa Monica, CA.
While it was far superior to the jumble of roads before it, Route 66 started falling to disrepair in the 1970s and ‘80s due to the new Interstate Highway System. Route 66 was decertified from the US Highway System in 1985.
For most of those six decades, small towns along Route 66 thrived. Travelers and tourists needed everything from gas stations and hotels to food and entertainment. Entrepreneurs developed quirky advertising and unusual attractions and Route 66 took on a culture all its own. Teepees, giant cowboys, a blue whale, auto museums and the world’s largest prairie dog beckoned travelers to stop and see the sights (and spend some money). Entire towns became economically dependent on the Mother Road, and when the Interstate Highway System developed changing the course of traffic, many small towns on Route 66 became ghost towns overnight.
This scene is popularly reflected in the 2006 Disney/Pixar film Cars. In a flashback sequence, the movie’s fictional town, Radiator Springs, was thriving along “US 66.” When Interstate 40 was completed nearby, it bypassed the small town in order to save the drivers some time, but literally wiped Radiator Springs off the map. Pixar did their research for this movie, as this scene is almost exactly what happened to Peach Springs, AZ. While Cars was just an animated movie, it did correctly capture the flavor and oddities of Route 66 culture.
Part of the authenticity of the film comes from the landscapes, backgrounds and buildings being based on real-life places. Ramone’s body shop shop in the film is almost an exact copy of the U-Drop Inn, a gas station and restaurant in Shamrock, TX. The Cozy Cone Motel is based on the teepee filled Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, AZ. The “Cadillac Mountains” surround Radiator Springs and you can catch a glimpse of them in the background, with familiar tail fins in the air. This is a nod to the famous Cadillac Ranch, with a dozen half-buried and graffiti covered classic Cady’s sticking out of the ground. The scene with Sally and Lightning driving through the forested hills is very familiar to anyone that has been through Flagstaff, AZ.
The financial and critical success of Cars is probably similar to the reasons Route 66 history and culture is still fascinating today. Hardworking and bold personalities from all walks of life, being inventive, entrepreneurial, and whimsical in a beautiful and unique setting. Was that the movie or the road? Well, actually it’s both. Like Cars, the culture of Route 66 has wide appeal, as the sense of adventure speaks to the kid in all of us.
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