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“The Grapes of Wrath” was published 75 years ago today April 14, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Books, History, Movies, Weather.
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John Steinbeck’s famous novel about the Great Depression and a family’s Moses-like journey on Route 66, “The Grapes of Wrath,” was published 75 years ago today.

The National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, Calif., is marking the anniversary all year, and I’ll post a review of a new book about the writing of the novel when I’m done reading it.

In the meantime, NPR today posted a six-minute segment about the book and its impact on American culture and America in general.

A print article of the NPR segment is here.

The Telegraph newspaper in England also posted “10 Surprising Facts” about Steinbeck’s novel. One of the excerpts:

In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck became the first writer to refer to Route 66 – the two-lane, 2,448-mile-road that connects Chicago to Los Angeles – as the “Mother Road”. In doing so, he helped capture the road’s image of redemption and turn it into a cultural icon. The fictional Joad family of the novel was an example of the thousands of people migrating to California to escape the despair of the Dust Bowl states, and many used Route 66. “66 is the mother road,” Steinbeck wrote, “the road of flight.”

Steinbeck also reportedly adored Henry Fonda’s portrayal of Tom Joad in the film version of his book, as he should.

The definitive nonfiction book about the Dust Bowl is Timothy Egan’s “The Worst Hard Time,” which I recommend for its eye-popping accounts as well as its graceful writing. Strangely enough, it took more than 70 years after the disaster for someone to write a truly great account of the event.

Lest you think an environmental disaster such as the Dust Bowl won’t happen again, I’ve read reports on Facebook almost weekly of dust storms in eastern New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle. And, in an ironic twist, California — where the Joads journeyed to escape the dust — is suffering from a historic drought of its own.

(An image of the cover of a 1945 edition of “The Grapes of Wrath” by Make It Old via Flickr)

A trip down Memory Lane in a 1950 Hudson February 18, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Books, Highways, History, Vehicles.
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Here’s a nearly quarter-century-old video from Dan Uscian cruising Route 66 near Lexington, Ill., in his 1950 Hudson, including a 1926 alignment now called Memory Lane that includes re-creations of vintage billboards.

The original stretch of Route 66 in Lexington is open for pedestrians or cycling, but townsfolk reopen it for vehicular traffic on special occasions.

Here’s Uscian’s description of the video:

The initial scenes here were video taped in July of 1991 from the interior of my 1950 Hudson Pacemaker Deluxe sedan (since sold as I upgraded to a 1953 Hudson Super Wasp!).

We start out traveling along former Illinois Route 66, parallel to Interstate 55, about two miles outside of Lexington, IL (Lexington is a small town community about 15 miles north of Bloomington, IL). We then turn off the 2nd generation of Rt 66 onto the orignal 1st generation of Rt 66 into Lexington. This two lane road has been closed for decades, but about 1990, the town of Lexington reopened for a few days about a mile of the “Mother Road” north of the town seen here complete with vintage billboards from Coppertone (Don’t Be a Paleface!) to the War Fund to two seperate sets of Burma Shave signs. You’ll also hear the sounds of a southbound Southern Pacific (now Union Pacific) freight train as it rolls through Lexington.

After the road trip we’re at what Lexington, IL use to celebrate for a number of years, the “Taste of Country Fair”. Lastly, we see the lineup of cars, including my Hudson again, that were paraded down the main drag in Lexington for the delight of the townsfolk and visitors.

Oh yes, one other thing, my Hudson was still under the power of its original Hudson 232 6 cylinder L-head engine. No small block Chevy engine here!

Remember, this video was shot barely a year after the publication of Michael Wallis’ best-selling “Route 66: The Mother Road.” This was at the beginning of Route 66′s renaissance.

(Image of Memory Lane of Route 66 in 2013 near Lexington, Ill., by Larry Myhre via Flickr)

Book review: “By Mopar to the Golden Gate” February 11, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Books, Road trips, Vehicles.
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What would it be like to travel the length of the Lincoln Highway, then return home on much of Route 66, in a classic car?

Denny Gibson, a longtime aficionado of historic roads and an occasional commenter on this website, provides the answer in a new book, “By Mopar to the Golden Gate” (140 pages, soft cover, photos, Trip Mouse Publishing).

Subtitled “A 50 Year Old Car on a 100 Year Old Road,” it’s as good of a description as any for the book. The main title derives from Emily Post’s 1916 book “By Motor to the Golden Gate,” who traveled the Lincoln Highway when its path was “vague in spots,” Gibson says.

Gibson said he planned his big road trip shortly after the 90th anniversary of the Lincoln Highway. He read about the hoopla about a caravan that traveled the highway’s 3,400 miles from New York City to San Francisco and was determined not to miss it during its centennial in 2013. And his interest in historic roads — including the Dixie Highway, National Road and Route 66 — already was in bloom.

Gibson briefly considered driving an equally old car on the Lincoln Highway, but quickly dismissed the idea. “Procuring a 1913 model something would be challenging but not quite impossible; maintaining it on a cross-country drive just might be.”

Instead, Gibson decided to look for a car from 1963 — the year he first earned his driver’s license. He wanted a car with parts easily found, something that wasn’t too nice, but something that wasn’t such a “project” it would take all his spare time making it driveable.

He found a red 1963 Plymouth Valiant convertible less than 200 miles from his Ohio home. It didn’t have a top, and its front sagged a bit. After several trips to repair shops recommended by “a friend of a friend,” Gibson was ready to roll, starting from the Lincoln Highway’s terminus in New York City’s Times Square and heading east to the centennial celebration at the halfway point of Kearney, Neb.

Much like many other Lincoln Highway books, Gibson’s intimates that the old road doesn’t seem to show its full charm until one exits the major Eastern cities and reaches the rural Pennsylvania countryside. Gibson’s writings about the Lincoln Highway’s legion of landmarks remain brief because he’s on a fairly tight schedule with the centennial caravan.

Although “By Mopar to the Golden Gate” serves as a travelogue, it adds another element — whether the car will make it to San Francisco. Despite repairs on the car before the trip began, Gibson still will encounter moments of near-breakdowns with a fuel pump and worries about balky tail lights, wayward wheel covers, a hot radiator during mountain climbs, and an archaic brake system.

Gibson’s descriptions of the parade, conferences and other goings-on at Kearney essentially serve as an account of a historic event, which it pretty much was. Kearney saw up to 500 classic cars on its streets and an estimated 12,500 people watching the parade. That’s not bad for a town with a population of about 30,000.

After the Kearney festivities, Gibson continues westward in his Valiant in his quest for the highway’s terminus in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. As one who has traveled about one-third of the Lincoln Highway myself, I relished revisiting many of the Lincoln Highway’s landmarks in Gibson’s pages.

One thing I didn’t expect was how much I enjoyed Gibson’s writing. A retired software engineer by trade, one wouldn’t think his background would produce prose with so much grace and gentle humor. Here’s an excerpt:

I don’t know where the American West begins, although some people seem to have it nailed down pretty good. Fort Worth, Texas, calls itself the city “Where the West Begins,” the 100th Meridian, which passes through the town of Cozad and more or less defines the east edge of the Texas panhandle, is popular, and racer/writer Denise McCluggage once tied it to a specific bush near Santa Fe, New Mexico, though her claim was pretty light hearted. To writer Drake Hokanson it must be Salt Lake City, since Chicago and Salt Lake City are named as the separators when he describes the Lincoln Highway as a “three act play.” The city where I live, Cincinnati, Ohio, was once called the “Queen City of the West,” although I don’t know of anyone actively promoting that today.

I’m not even sure what defines the American West, but I sense that involves hats, boots, and horses. If, as some say, the change started back in Cozad, it was quite subtle. By Cheyenne, it is subtle no more. So I’m going to pick the Nebraska-Wyoming state line as the beginning of the American West on the Lincoln Highway. Your opinion might be different and, at some future date, so might mine.

It sounds like Gibson nailed the beginning of the West pretty good. And I sure hope “By Mopar to the Golden Gate” isn’t his last book.


UPDATE: I made a few fixes of errors in my transcript of the excerpt.

(For those who don’t want to shop through Amazon, Gibson’s book also can be ordered here.)

Route 66 roadies’ memories of Jay Leno February 7, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Books, People, Television, Vehicles.
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In case you missed it, Jay Leno logged his last night Thursday as host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show” after 22 years in the chair.

You can watch the entire episode online, but here’s his emotional and graceful goodbye:

Even though Leno is known as a car nut, not many roadies can claim they had dinner with him and hung out in his humongous garage. But Sal Santoro and his buddy Bob Walton got to after the publication of their “Route 66: The People, The Places, The Dream” in 2012.

The Bradenton Herald interviewed Santoro, who lives in nearby Manatee, Fla., about the experience:

Leno spent the better part of a Saturday with them, interviewing them about the book for an eight-minute segment posted on jaylenosgarage.com. They also got to check out Leno’s private collection of more than 100 cars and 80 motorcycles, and he treated them to a pizza lunch. That’s when Santoro broke Leno’s pepper mill after furiously trying to grind some black pepper onto a slice.

“It’s electric — there’s a button at the top,” Leno pointed out after an embarrassed Santoro was left holding the broken mill in two pieces.

Santoro gave Leno a replacement a few days later when they were invited back into the green room following a taping of “The Tonight Show.”

“He was wonderful to us,” Santoro said. “A real regular guy. A true car guy.”

Here’s the Jay’s Garage interview:

Leno also met author Jim Hinckley when he was promoting his “The Big Book of Car Culture” in 2011.

Laurel Kane, co-owner of Afton Station in Afton, Okla., said Leno called her on the phone in 2013, inquiring about the station’s collection of Packards. He promised to visit the next time he was in Tulsa.

Now that Leno has all this time on his hands, maybe he’ll take a road trip.

UPDATE: Per Michael Wallis, I forgot one. Kansas Route 66er Dean Walker appeared on Leno’s show in 2007. Alas, there doesn’t seem to be any footage available of this leg-turning event.

(Image of a ticket to “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” by Sherry Ezuthachan via Flickr)

Religious imagery and “The Grapes of Wrath” January 6, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Books, Radio, Religion, Road trips.
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Frank Gifford of rt66pix.com recently was interviewed by Susan Olasky of WORLD radio, which is part of a Christianity-based multimedia group.

Gifford explained how he found Christian imagery in John Steinbeck’s seminal novel, “The Grapes of Wrath,” much of which takes place on Route 66 during the Depression:

WORLD radio also linked to this University of South Queensland page that lists the allusions to the Bible in “The Grapes of Wrath.” They include the Book of Job, Noah and the Flood, The Promised Land, and Jim Casy, Tom Joad and Rose of Sharon from the novel.

Interestingly, if Steinbeck indeed used the Bible in “The Grapes of Wrath,” it probably was little more than a literary device. Research over the decades indicates that Steinbeck was agnostic.

Gifford thinks the Route 66 community is missing out on an opportunity to market Route 66 to Christians via “The Grapes of Wrath.” He elaborated in an email:

In polling, 77% of the US population identifies as “Christian” and 34% as “Born-again.” The “Born-again” group alone is 100+ million people.  They’re already in America and could be persuaded to travel a family-friendly highway crossing the Bible Belt.
Biblical imagery in The Grapes of Wrath is not mentioned in road-related books or promotional literature.  (Can you find a single reference?)
A “faith journey” is not even considered in the massive Rutgers study.  But skiing, nightlife and gambling, among many other things, appear on page 201 of the Technical Report.
On page 205-06 of the study: the typical Route 66 travel group is older adults.  On page 234: the typical travel party has just 0.2 kids.  Christian families/groups could alter these demographics for the better.  Importantly, they likely would not alienate current users.  Every business/attraction along the road (except for bars and casinos) would benefit.
Since government promotion of a faith journey is restricted by the Wall of Separation, the burden falls on private groups and individuals.  The research has already been done and is easily accessed on-line.

Gifford added he’s a “non-believer,” which may give him more objectivity on the Route 66-religion issue.

Gifford may be right in saying Route 66 is missing out on such a market segment. But I’m skeptical whether such marketing can and should be done.

In more than eight years of daily researching Route 66 for this website, I’ve encountered very few religious allegories or discussions tied to the Mother Road. And most of those are peripheral, such as 66 books in the Bible. One notable example is Chuck Williams, a roadie who recently published a new version of his “Eternal Route 66″ book that ties the Mother Road to biblical musings.

Whether it’s because of a lack of interest or it being a sleeping giant, joining Christianity and Route 66 aren’t high on folks’ priorities on the Internet.

If there’s a ripple metaphysically, it’s travelers (including non-Christians) seeing the road’s 2,400 miles and its twists, turns and dead ends as a metaphor for life.

What I’m trying to say is faith is too complex to think one could consistently shoehorn Route 66 into someone’s belief system. Having tourism centers taking such a delicate approach would be fraught with peril and might be counterproductive. If a Christian or a Buddhist or a Muslim or a Wiccan finds a measure of personal enlightenment while traveling the old road on their own, that’s fine. But trying to force the issue likely would be foolish.

Your mileage may vary. What do you think?

(Image of the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ Ministries in Groom, Texas, by Gouldy99 via Flickr)

Book review: “Route 66 Treasures” November 19, 2013

Posted by Ron Warnick in Books, History.
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A new book from prolific author Jim Hinckley, “Route 66 Treasures” (64 pages, hardback, Voyageur Press, $30 U.S. retail) might seem just a simple collection of facsimile souvenirs from the Mother Road.

It is that, but it’s more.

Although its 64 pages seem to be a slim book, Hinckley and more than 100 color illustrations deftly look at the history of how Route 66 and its businesses promoted themselves — often in ingenious ways — through the decades.

But first is a partial inventory of the 15 removable goodies packed into “Route 66 Treasures”:

  • Individual and state-specific stickers circa the 1950s from Illinois, Oklahoma, California, Missouri, Kansas, New Mexico and Texas
  • Brochure from the Hotel Will Rogers in Claremore, Okla.
  • El Rancho Barstow postcard with correspondence on the back
  • “Greetings from Amarillo” postcard with correspondence on the back
  • Brochure for Indian-made jewelry from Maisel’s Indian Trading Post in Albuquerque
  • Illinois/Missouri McKinley Bridge Auto Trails Map
  • Eight-inch diameter sticker from Rimmy Jim’s Arizona store
  • Coffee Pot Cafe tourism brochure from Williams, Ariz.
  • Vintage menu from Rod’s Steakhouse in Williams, Ariz.

Hinckley chronicles such early promotional  efforts as the nearly forgotten Pierce Pennant Petroleum Terminal that sought sites every 125 miles on the fledgling U.S. 66. More successful efforts arrived with the distinctive gas stations by Phillips Petroleum Co. and the efforts of the U.S. 66 Highway Association, which operated for decades.

During the late 1920s and all of the ’30s, methods for promoting businesses grew in number and sophistication. The crude-but-effective Burma Shave-style signs made way for gigantic, colorful billboards. Map advertisements and brochures became commonplace. Companies such as the Gilmore Oil Co. in California sponsored events along Route 66 and collaborated with service stations. Lester Dill and his Meramec Caverns staff in Missouri developed the first bumper sticker, a cardboard sign affixed with wire. Ernie Pyle, before gaining fame as a World War II correspondent, wrote a syndicated column about 66, inducing Mother Road businesses to run ad space next to it.

One of the most enduring promotional methods turned out to be postcards. Hundreds of millions of these mail-able pieces of paper circulated over the decades. They started with black-and-white images, then colored illustrations on linen, then so-called chrome photographic images in saturated colors. These images dominate the images seen in “Route 66 Treasures.”

Motels along Route 66 evolved from crude tent cabins such as Carty’s Camp in Needles, Calif., to the elegantly appointed grounds of the Nelson Dream Village in Lebanon, Mo., complete with colorfully lighted fountain and exotic birds. The White Rock Court in Kingman, Ariz., developed one of the first motel air-conditioning systems using utility tunnels, burlap and a water tank. That paved the way for climate control at roadside lodgings.

A few businesses became roadside icons primarily because of their logos. Wayne Troutner’s Store for Men in Winslow, Ariz., gained scads of out-of-town business because its logo of a curvy woman in western wear. The “Here It Is!” billboard continues to bring tourists to the Jackrabbit Trading Post in Arizona.

Movies such as “The Grapes of Wrath,” the “Route 66″ television drama, and two separate but successful versions of the song “Route 66″ by Bobby Troup and Nelson Riddle cemented the Mother Road in pop culture.

The years after World War II brought exotic animal museums and amusement parks, such as the still-operating Frontier City in Oklahoma City and defunct establishments such as Little Beaver Town near Albuquerque and Buffalo Ranch in Afton, Okla.

The 1950s also signaled the rise of franchises, including Hiway House, Whiting Brothers, Bob’s Big Boy, Chicken in the Rough and Stuckey’s. Those businesses withered over time, but they were a harbinger of more-successful chains that drove many mom-and-pop operations out of business. Traffic on Route 66 continued to swell, prompting the U.S. government to build bigger, limited-access highways that bypassed small towns and devastated their local economies.

Route 66 continued its long decline in the p0st-interstate era until the late 1980s and early ’90s. The renaissance began when a small-town barber, Angel Delgadillo, formed a Route 66 association in Arizona, Michael Wallis’ “Route 66: The Mother Road” became a best-seller, and the National Historic Route 66 Federation started an annual gathering of roadies. A number of vintage businesses, including the Munger Moss Motel, Ariston Cafe and Blue Swallow Motel (from which the book derives is cover images), are thriving.

In keeping with the theme, Hinckley closes the book by noting many of the old postcards, menus, guides and other promotional materials have become collectors’ items, a few of them fetching hundreds of dollars.

Perhaps it’s because of a lack of space or a print medium’s loathing to mention a competitor, but the book fails to mention the Internet’s still-evolving impact on Route 66′s revival. The Route 66 e-group (now on Yahoo!) during the 1990s helped persuade Congress to enact the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program. A search of “Route 66″ in Google brings up more than 95 million pages. And Route 66 businesses use dedicated websites, Facebook, Twitter and other social media to promote themselves. The glaring omission of cyberspace is the only fault I found with “Route 66 Treasures.”

However, this brief but enjoyable book — and its souvenirs — should serve nicely as an introduction for novices interested in the Mother Road. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this book under a lot of trees on Christmas Day.

Highly recommended.

Trip on Route 66 inspires new children’s book November 17, 2013

Posted by Ron Warnick in Bicycling, Books, Road trips.
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Avid cyclist Steve Kime, who bicycled the length of Oklahoma nearly a decade ago for the Special Olympics, drew inspiration from a Route 66 trip for a new children’s book, “Rollin on Route 66.”

The Edmond Sun caught up with Kime, who explained that the fiction book in sprinkled with real-life stories he experienced on Route 66, including one in the far western part of the state:

Kime said he and his crew were on the Texas-Oklahoma border just before dawn on the first day of the ride in March 2004 when all of a sudden they saw this dog running near them, then a man appeared on his bike from nowhere.

“He had read a news article about what I was doing and thought it would be cool to ride on this bike ride,” Kime said. “We went about 20 miles or so, then we treated him to a pancake breakfast. Then, just as soon as he came is as quickly as he disappeared. He was on his way someplace else. He was just the nicest guy, though.” [...]

The book also features facts about Route 66, as well as tourist attractions Kime got to see along the historic road, including the Round Barn in Arcadia and The Blue Whale roadside attraction in Catoosa.

Kime will hold a lunchtime book-signing Dec. 21 at POPS along Route 66 in Arcadia, Okla. Kime can also be contacted at his website for book-signing requests.

The book is 24 pages, and also comes in an audio format.

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