By DONALD BRADLEY
The Kansas City Star
People all over the world are packing bags today, all excited about a trip to the U.S.
They can’t wait to fly over New York’s Broadway, Washington’s White House and San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf to get to the truly high points of American culture. Like that old round barn in Arcadia, Okla. Or a piece of rhubarb pie at the MidPoint Cafe in Adrian, Texas.
And if they’re really lucky, maybe they can visit with Angel Delgadillo, an 86-year-old barber in Seligman, Ariz. He’s an iconic figure on Route 66, and the old highway is why they’re coming.
To them, the small towns, motor courts, old gas stations and diners along what John Steinbeck called the Mother Road are quintessential America. And this week, that road leads to Joplin for the Route 66 International Festival, the first time it has been in Missouri.
Not to say the bulk of the expected 40,000 in Joplin over three days starting Thursday will be foreign. But increasingly, Europeans, Australians and Asians fly to Chicago or some other city on the route, rent motorcycles or classic cars and head out on the old road.
They’re also the ones likely to keep businesses going.
“We are seeing the best of America,” said Dale Butel, of Brisbane, Australia, who has arranged enough tours to know the menu at Joe & Aggie’s Cafe in Holbrook, Ariz., and the nightly rates at the Munger Moss Motel in Lebanon, Mo.
“And we’re meeting the best Americans, the people who live in the little towns.”
Zdenek Jurasek, president of the Czech Route 66 Association, won’t make it to Joplin this week.
“There is a big Route 66 event in Slovakia the same weekend,” Jurasek said Thursday from his home in Zlin, Czech Republic.
Really? A country in Eastern Europe celebrating a two-lane road America discarded? Jurasek explained that travel in his country was restricted for 40 years of communist rule and that among his people Route 66 has always evoked a notion of freedom and a carefree ride. So for many Czechs, touring the highway has been a lifelong dream.
In the Beskydy Slovak countryside near the Polish border, there’s a vacation cottage called Home 66 for rent. It’s dedicated to Route 66 and decorated accordingly.
American tourists probably would love to visit — if they just knew the freeway to get there.
Go on, try to pick a highway that more aptly tells a story of America.
Built in 1926 and running 2,448 miles from Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif., Route 66 was the highway of dreamers and drifters, of Steinbeck’s beaten down and Jack Kerouac’s lost souls. Farm families took it to flee the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. A decade later, thousands of young men traveled it on their way to war.
Then came the post-war migration to California. In the 1950s, families discovered the summer vacation — loading up the station wagon and heading west on Route 66, kids sticking heads out windows hoping to see a cowboy or Indian, a desert cactus or a big neon ice cream cone on the front of a Dairy-Dine in some small town in southern Missouri.
The foreigners missed all that. But they got to ride along later through countless movies and then in a Corvette with Buz and Tod in an old namesake TV show. They often want to stay at the El Rancho Hotel, where John Wayne and other cowboy stars stayed when filming Westerns around Gallup, N.M.
“Hollywood made dreams of Route 66 all over the world,” said Lorrie Fleming, founder of the Canadian Route 66 Association. “These people didn’t know where it was. They just knew it was somewhere in America, and they wanted to see it.”
Actually, U.S. Route 66 is gone now. Decommissioned in the 1980s, its two lanes bowled over by the interstate highway system. But the old roadway has proved as tough as those Dust Bowl families. Today, nearly 85 percent of the original highway is still in use as city streets and state and county roads.
These days, you just have to work a little harder to get your kicks on Route 66.
Michael Wallis, 67, grew up in the St. Louis area, “about as far off Route 66 as Stan Musial could hit a baseball.”
He learned to drive on it. He hitchhiked on it as a Marine. So he decided to write a book about the highway.
He knew people would wonder why. Sure enough, when he and his wife stopped to get gas in Clinton, Okla., the man running the service station asked, “Why you want to write a book about this old road?”
“OK,” Wallis told the man, “why don’t you tell me about it?”
The man proceeded to tell Wallis how his grandfather had started the gas station, and his father had run it after that. Then he gestured down the street.
“See that Greyhound sign down there?” he said. “Well, that’s where I caught the bus for basic training at Fort Leonard Wood. When I got back from Vietnam, I think I came home here on the same bus.”
A school bus then roared past, and the kids inside yelled and waved at the man at the pump. He waved his grease rag back. Every one of his grandkids was on the bus.
The man then told Wallis he was glad Wallis was writing his book.
“This road will never die,” Wallis told his wife after driving away.
Today, more than a decade after publication of “Route 66: The Mother Road,” the book is widely credited with generating new interest in the highway.
“But I am still surprised at what’s going on out there,” Wallis said last week from his home in Tulsa, Okla.
Recently he was in Galena, Kan., where a stretch of the highway’s original surface still exists, and came across a carload of tourists from Spain and then a large group of bikers from the Netherlands.
“I think they feel Route 66 is the classic American road trip — a two-way road, staying in the old motels and eating at the mom-and-pop diners,” Wallis said.
He even knows of German POWs who’ve come back to see the site of the camp where they’d been held during World War II. American veterans of that same war, too, travel old Route 66 to visit Fort Leonard Wood.
But the history is not all nostalgia and romanticism, Wallis said. Its legacy includes lots of tears of people sad to leave their homes.
Bumpier, too, for some than others.
“If Nat King Cole had stopped at some of those diners, he would have had to go to the back door and get carry-out,” Wallis said.
This week’s festival is sponsored by the Route 66 Alliance and the Joplin Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Three miles of the original route run through the city.
“But it’s so easy to take for granted,” bureau director Patrick Tuttle said. “We need to put it back in the hearts and minds of people here.”
An economic summit to help businesses stay open is on the festival agenda.
But don’t get carried away, said Butel, the Australian tour director. Travelers on Route 66 don’t want to see motel or restaurant chains.
“That’s not what we’re looking for,” he said. “We love the mom-and-pop places. Each one is different from town to town. That’s why we do this.”
And he doesn’t understand why more Americans don’t.
“I guess they’re just in too big of a hurry to take this old highway. Sometimes we stand in the middle of the road because we know no one’s coming.”