The Mother Road

A special look back at some of the brightest Sunday Mornings is part of Our Sunday Best: 20 years of Sunday Morning, marking the broadcast's 20th anniversary. Here is a segment that aired on July 28th, 1991, with anchor Chares Kuralt and contributor Bill Geist.

KURALT: (With Bill Geist) I think I can remember when they made an announcement that there is no longer any Route 66.

GEIST: Well, indeed, after being out there and eating greasy--great, greasy food out there, we thought maybe the surgeon general had closed Route 66--all those great diners along the way. But no, the US Department of Transportation decertified Route 66 in 1985, but what we found out there now is that people miss the road and the signs are starting to go back up.

(Footage of Route 66) (Voiceover) When you come to Albuquerque, New Mexico, you can take the interstate around it or you can take the slow road right through the middle of town.

(Footage from Albuquerque, New Mexico) (Voiceover) Now you could say this is a story about taking time to smell the flowers, although tasting the cheeseburgers at the 66 Diner is more like it. The diner serves up heaping portions of calories and cholesterol, caffeine and camaraderie, harkening back to a time and a road that no longer exists.

It was called the Mother Road by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, in which the road took people out of the dust bowl of Oklahoma to the promise of California. Route 66 inspired a popular hit song performed by everybody from the Andrews Sisters to The Rolling Stones, although Nat King Cole may have sung it best.

(Excerpt from song played) (Voiceover) Route 66 was called the main street of America. It started in Chicago, meandering 2,400 miles through eight states and three time zones, toll free, past a cavalcade of thousands of gas jockeys, motel clerks and waitresses who called everybody 'honey'! It rolled past a staggering array of roadside attractions and scenery both bizarre and beautiful. Sixty-six didn't stop till it had to, at the Pacific Ocean. It was a road that even had its own TV show. Remember Todd and Buzz?

Mr. TOM SNYDER: You know, only two of the episodes, as far as I know of, were actually filmed on 66.

(Footage from 'Route 66' and of Tom Snyder's book, The Route 66 Travelers Guide and Roadside companion)

GEIST: (Voiceover) Tom Snyder is a Route 66 aficionado. He's promoting monument status for the road and he wrote a book to help people rediscover its joys.

SNYDER: The interstate system is a wonderful way to get from point A to point B, but that's not what- what driving is about. It's not what seeing the country is about.

GEIST: Motoring, they used to call it.

SNYDER: Yeah. Motoring, yeah.

GEIST: Touring.

SNYDER: That's right.

(Footage of Route 66)

GEIST: (Voiceover) Although the roadway is no longer designated Route 66, much of the roadway itself is still there, and Synder shwed me a favorite stretch between Albuquerque and Gallup, New Mexico.

SNYDER: There's a patchwork of old farm-to-market roads and right down the main streets of all these towns, down central avenue here in Albuquerque.

GEIST: (Voiceover) One of the treasures Synder uncovered on this stretch of 66 is the El Vado Motel, which is trying to catch in on its heritage.

SNYDER: Well, this has been here over 50 years, and you can see see that this is- this is sort of the beginning of the motels, as we know them now. You see there- first they were little bungalows, and then they put garages between, and then pretty soon, they put doors on them and they put people in them.

GEIST: Well, they always talk now about how they don't want surprises. Holiday Inn says no surprises. When you travel on 66, there were a few surprises.

SNYDER: There were a few surprises, yes. It wasn't homogenized America as we know it.

GEIST: (Voiceover) You don't run across major tourist attractions like Disney World or Great Adventure out here on 66, but Mother Nature has her own ideas of what a major attraction should be.

SNYDER: As you look around, you see the land forms and here on the old road, the road clings to those forms. You rarely drive more than 20-50 yards ahead of the car, and the road turns and it sweeps and it goes up and down over hills, and you have to pay attention. You have to drive the car. You can't be in a reverie and- and do this road.

GEIST: (Voiceover) Some stretches of 66 in New Mexico we found delightfully deserted.
Mr. SNYDER When I first began this--this Route 66 project, I came over this, and my partner at the time and I just parked the truck in the center of the road and stopped it, and we got out a picnic lunch, and we spread out a tablecloth in the center of the road, and we had a picnic lunch and a bottle of wine and a very long conversation.

GEIST: You literally had a picnic in the middle of the road.

SNYDER: Literally had a picnic in the middle of the road, yeah.

GEIST: Is this the Sante Fe Railroad that runs here?

SNYDER: Yeah, this is the Sante Fe Railroad.

GEIST: It's great to be out here in wide open space and get excited about a train.

SNYDER: That's right. It doesn't get boring. It's not like the interstate, where you can see 50 miles.

(Footage of Tom Lamance's hubcap business)

GEIST: (Voiceover) When traffic went to the interstate, many businesses along 66 disappeared but some dug in on the side of the road and wouldn't say die. Tom Lamance, who came here by covered wagon in 1928, is on Route 66 with the interstate right out his back door, but still he has trouble selling hubcaps.

TOM LAMANCE: I would probably get a lot more business if I had an exit here across the place. I do have some people that go to either ex--exit and come back, but there would be a lot more if there was an exit near here.

GEIST: (Voiceover) Parts of the once proud main street of America have been reduced to frotage road. Other stretches are completely abandoned.

SNYDER: Its been demoted fairly well all the way down the line and then sections like this are abandoned.

GEIST: How does it make you feel when you see a stretch of road like this--you know, the Mother Road, America's main street and all of that, and here we are?

Mr. SNYDER Well, I don't know. I look at it - I think of a natural cycle here. These were all animal trails and Indian trails in the beginning, and now look-it's going back to the way it was.

Unidentified Woman #1: We used to sell articles on the road. We used to have a little shack or a little place where we could sell pottery, skins, bread, whatever.

GEIST: (Voiceover) These two Laguna Pueblo Indian women say Route 66 was more lucrative than the interstate.

Woman #1: And they used to take pictures and then pay is to take our pictures.

(Footage of New Mexico)

GEIST: (Voiceover) But money isn't everything and now they can exercise walk down center of old 66 through a garden of the gods. You know how you thought the scenery in the cowboy movies was all fake, just painted murals? It's not. It's New Mexico.

SNYDER: We think in terms of the endpoint of an experience. We forget the experience itself. I mean, here it is. You sometimes find this on Route 66, just solitude. Just listen. There's no sound here except for a few birds and a little wind.

(Footage of Route 66) (Voiceover) Route 66, more than any other road, is a road of fantasy. Even people older than we who traveled the road and perhaps escaping the dust bowl or taking a honeymoon to California or whatever- those people don't even remember the road clearly or have a fantasy of the memory of the road. And young people make up out of what they've seen on television or what they've read, what this road is about.. And the odd thing about the road is it never seems to disappoint them.

GEIST: (Voiceover) It is a place where the slow road and the fast road divide and where your choice makes all the difference.

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