Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men's reality. Weird heroes and mould-breaking champions exist as living proof to those who need it that the tyranny of 'the rat race' is not yet final. -Hunter S. Thompson Thompson wrote those words in 1979, and although he wasn't talking about old Route 66, it was just such a dying legend at that time.
Mother Road, America's Main Street, even the nicknames we've given to this most famous of highways are steeped in imagery. The 19th century romance of the old west was reborn in the 20th century with the opening of Route 66 in 1926. When talk turns to a "Golden Age of American Motoring" it is Route 66 we are talking about. This is because, before the age of the interstate, a trip was really an experience. You would spend days on the road, stopping frequently for food, gas and conversation. This was also an era before laptops and cell phones, when getting on the road really meant getting away from your life, and Route 66 was the longest trip there was.
This romantic notion of the freedom of the open road is such powerful imagery that Cadillac even uses Route 66 themed ads to sell cars in China. When I-40 rolled in, it effectively replaced Route 66 all the way from Oklahoma City to Los Angeles, the section of Mother Road immortalized by Steinbeck. Many towns were left without their primary source of income, and traveling just off I-40 one can find half empty towns everywhere, and even some which have been deserted outright. It is here that America's love for cars died a premature death, alongside the legend of Route 66.
For me, the legend died in a diner on the main street of a small Texas town which had formerly been a part of Route 66 but now sees only a fraction of the traffic it used to. I had stopped for some breakfast with my then girlfriend after an overnight stop in New Mexico, and the looks from the locals were all of hostile variety. I'm fairly well covered in tattoos, and am therefore no stranger to dirty looks, but this wasn't a country club, it was place once renowned for its hospitality. The landscape was entirely different from those Chinese Cadillac commercials, the sense of freedom squashed by the cold efficiency of I-40.
Which is not to say it isn't worth stopping; the appeal of the ghost town to the American psyche is one similar to a Hank Williams song, a beautiful kind of sad which often stays with you longer than sights which are simply beautiful. There are some who believe that the death of Route 66 also marked the end of an era, but this way of thinking serves only to sell commemorative coffee mugs. The era only ended for those who are unable to separate the legend of Route 66 from the reality that such small highways and the towns which accommodate them still exist all over America.
People might not write songs about these roads, but you could easily take a non-interstate trip lasting several days any time you want. So don't let the souvenir shop owners in Flagstaff get you down, check the "avoid highways" box on Google maps, pack a copy of Bill Bryson's The Lost Continent and some Hank Williams CDs, then turn your phone off and see something other than rest stops.