It happened today - June 27, 2015
Exactly 30 years ago, on June 27 1985, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (it’s OK, I never heard of them either) decertified the famous Route 66. Yes, famous. And not just for a fundamentally unwatchable 1960s TV show I only know from the Mad Magazine satire. It was an economic and social thread running through the American heartland, from Chicago to Santa Monica, formally the Will Rogers Highway and informally the Main Street of America or the Mother Road.
It was established in 1926. But it didn’t even get signs until the next year. Those were simpler, less bureaucratic times. It was how you went west for decades, for a better life, as a tourist or just for fun, in some shiny product of the world-beating North American automobile industry.
I know, I know. Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. And in those simpler days all people had to worry about was, you know, the Great Depression, Hitler, Stalin, the bomb. Today we face food additives, tattoos and ear buds.
Still, there is something appealing about the heyday of Route 66. And part of it has to do with what happened as it was supplanted by the vast social engineering project called the U.S. Interstate Highway System that left Radiator Springs stranded. Driven in part by President Eisenhower’s long-ago experience leading an experimental convoy across the United States, back in 1919, the Interstates were also a major engine of suburban sprawl, homogenization and modernization generally.
Now you may be tempted to respond that I would be horrified if forced to drive anywhere on the old Route 66 instead of a modern interstate, and doubly horrified if forced to do it in one of those old “classic” cars that lacked modern ergonomics, suspension, fuel efficiency or seatbelts, eating in dubious greasy spoons instead of utterly standardized purveyors of fast semi-food. And you’re half right.
Because I’m used to the effortless comfort of the modern world I would feel ill-used experiencing what struck people back then as a futuristic miracle. But that’s where the argument against nostalgia breaks down. Either every person who ever thought something was cool until a decade ago was a blithering fool, or technology cannot make us happy in ways we expect because as soon as it arrives we get used to it, take it for granted, and focus on its drawbacks not its advantages.
I knew a guy who fought in World War II and, when he came back, bought a car whose tires would deform overnight, getting a flat level part where they rested on the ground, so that when you started driving it went thunka thunka thunka until they warmed up and regained their proper round shape. If that happened today you’d be outraged. And yet humankind didn’t even have cars until a century ago. So who has the real problem, the people who think a 1950s car was amazing or those who couldn’t abide driving one?
Even down Route 66.