By Aaron Mahr Yáñez
This summer Route 66 is winding its way through the complex legislative process toward designation as a National Historic Trail (NHT). If the designation is achieved in 2018, it will coincide with the 50th anniversary of the U.S. National Trails System Act (NTSA), which created an expanding collection of national scenic and historic trails that touch almost every state in the country. The proposed Route 66 National Historic Trail would be the 20th NHT in a system that commemorates the diverse features of our shared heritage of long-distance historic transportation corridors.
Our system of NHTs is designed to provide recreation and education opportunities across the country. Expanding the system makes it relevant for a greater number of Americans, allowing more and more people to find a part of their story in the trails. Existing NHTs in the Southwest address themes of traditional community use as well as colonial expansion and cultural interaction with Native American communities during the Spanish Colonial and even Mexican National periods. NHTs commemorate American nation-building through a collection of military campaigns from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Exploration; western expansion; and trade, migration, the struggle for religious freedom, and communication in the 19th century are important features of several trails. But so, too, are the harrowing impacts of American expansion on Native American tribes and nations. Even the mid-20th-century Civil Rights Movement is represented.
Route 66 Could Change Everything
A Route 66 NHT would be a unique addition to the National Trails System. It would be the first to commemorate modern, automobile-based transportation—and all of its social, cultural, and economic manifestations in 20th-century America. It would emphasize the national significance of roadside architecture that is recognizable—and, in many cases, still accessible and vital—in our everyday lives.
Most NHTs cross vast distances, in some cases thousands of miles and multiple states. It is sometimes impossible to follow these historic routes from beginning to end. Certain parts of trails may be inaccessible—for example, if they cross private land. And it’s not unusual for trail administrators and partners to still be in the process of identifying where the historic trail remnants are.
Route 66 overcomes many of these obstacles. In most cases, the road is accessible, albeit sometimes only to the most intrepid and determined of off-road warriors. And while the inventory of alternate roadbeds will continue, the primary and longest-used sections of Route 66 are well known. Most importantly, the iconic, idiosyncratic nature of roadside attractions and businesses that contribute so much to the road’s significance are often still functioning and thriving. They continue to evolve, their charm, funkiness, and appeal often limited only by the owners’ imaginations and business sensibilities. The road lives, and a Route 66 NHT would help remind a national and international audience that those elements of the road that motivated families to jump into the station wagon and explore America in 1955 can still be enjoyed today.
Providing a Vicarious Experience
Shortly after Congress designates an NHT, the administering agency—which, for Route 66, Congress identifies as the National Park Service—begins a plan for applying the components of the NTSA to trail administration. The process is informed by agency and departmental priorities, past experience, and extensive input from federal, state, and local agencies; tribal nations; individuals such as land and business owners; and organizations such as nonprofits.
One of the most intriguing parts of the plan will be conducting an inventory of high-potential sites and segments. Unique to NHTs, these historic and recreational resources are defined in the NTSA as those that most clearly demonstrate or contribute to the trail’s value, significance, nature, and purpose. We might assume that these would be properties eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, but that’s not a requirement per the NTSA. Instead, the act places a high value on experience and recreation, and for historic trails, that means experiencing authentic resources in the least disturbed state. High-potential segments should offer visitors a lengthy “vicarious experience.”
The route of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, which commemorates the forced removal of the Cherokee Nation in 1838–39, patches together a series of mid-19th-century roads and thoroughfares between the Cherokee homelands in the Southeast and what is now Oklahoma. Forced to move an entire nation of 16,000 people, the Cherokee followed the best roads of the day, and some remnants of these well-worn roads still survive. Roadside architecture might include aged log cabins where the Cherokee could have gotten supplies or whose occupants could have simply watched the Cherokees pass. And some high-potential campsites, and even grave sites, provide today’s visitors with more insight into the conditions of forced removal. But the most prized elements of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail are those lengthy high-potential segments of abandoned roads, maybe through densely forested land or open pasture, that have never seen motorized traffic, are accessible to the public, have few modern intrusions, and provide visitors with that vicarious experience called for in the NTSA.
High-potential sites on a Route 66 NHT are likely to be diverse: a preserved gas station that serves as a visitor center, a roadside restaurant that maintains many of its features from the 1940s, an abandoned Native American trading post, a trestle bridge. Some sites might be trickier to classify—for example, what would we make of a modern hotel that has no historical association but clearly strives to enhance the idiosyncratic and evocative features of Route 66 and becomes a destination for trail travelers?
And what of high-potential segments? Identifying them will be an exciting and challenging part of the process. I’ve walked over miles of abandoned roadbed in the desert Southwest, miles of ribbon road in Oklahoma, or driven over the lengthy Pony Bridge complex, again in Oklahoma. In my mind, these experiences are vicarious in the fullest sense.
How many of us have driven down the heavily urbanized and changing environments of Chippewa Street in Saint Louis, Missouri; Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, California; or Central Avenue in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and have not felt the thrill of having a real, even vicarious, sense of being on Route 66? For the National Trails System, a Route 66 NHT will be where the rubber meets the road, where modern confronts historic. Both will come out winners because, high-potential or not, they’re all part of the Route 66 experience—and we’ll all be the better for having enjoyed it.
Aaron Mahr Yáñez is the superintendent of National Trails Intermountain Region for the National Parks Service.
To support the National Trust for Historic Preservation's efforts to protect Route 66, visit www.preserve66.org and sign the petition.