Route 66: Lost and Found

By Russell A. Olsen / Voyageur Press




Few strips of asphalt are as celebrated as Route 66, the U.S. highway commissioned in 1926 to link Chicago with Los Angeles, winding through eight states along the way. The "Mother Road," is it came to be called, represented many things to the travelers who journeyed along it: a sense of adventure, a means of escape, and to families like the Joads in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, a journey to the promised land from the farms of the Dust Bowl.

Many books have been written about the history of this highway, and most of them focus on the hundreds of motels, drive-ins, cafes, gas stations, and tourist attractions that sprang up along its 2,400-mile length over the years.

Olsen has tried a different approach, by collecting old images of the highway's varied attractions, and then showing us that same spot today. Just finding the places was hard enough; there were other challenges: "The original idea was to take each shot from the exact spot that the original postcard or archival photo was taken from," explains Olsen. "After the first day of shooting, I realized that was not going to be possible. I found that many buildings had been expanded, or trees had grown in, making the same angles nearly impossible."

Still, the results are close enough, and as a history buff, it's a technique that I find especially appealing. Once I see an old photo of a building, I'm compelled to visit that site and see what stands there today. Thanks to Route 66: Lost and Found, I can do so from the comfort of my own armchair.

And the book is important for the simple reason that, since Route 66 was bypassed and replaced by interstate highways, each day more of its roadside attractions are lost than found. "What we sometimes forget is that from the day Highway 66 was designated as an official U.S. Highway, it has undergone change and transformation," says Olsen. "Countless motels, cafes, and service stations have been built and destroyed from the highway's beginnings."

Route 66 is actually two books — an examination of 75 sites compiled in 2004, and then another 75 locations compiled in 2006. The first half of the book takes readers westward along Highway 66 from Illinois to California, and then it starts all over again with a different set of images. Detailed maps on each page show precisely where these places are today.

Some of the changes are subtle. Except for different cars in the "then and now" photos, places like the Vega Motel in Texas or the Arcadia Court in Arizona have aged gracefully. Most of the establishments, however, have suffered over the years. The stone Conoco station shown on the book's cover, built in the 1920s outside Arcadia, California, is today a pile of rocks, and hugely popular attractions such as New Mexico's Longhorn Ranch or California's Bagdad Café have vanished completely. The then-and-now concept comes with a sense of sadness. It's inspiring to read, for example, about George and Morene Hill, who constructed the Rio Puerco Trading Post — a beautiful stucco building adorned with Native American motifs — in the middle of the New Mexico desert and even brought in a stuffed polar bear to attract tourists. But when you look at the "now" picture, it's depressing to see that their life's work has been reduced to a crumbled patch of parking lot, all that remains of this once-lively Route 66 landmark.

All in all, though, Olsen has done a great job, and if you're looking for one book that presents the story of the fabled Mother Road, past and present, then Route 66: Lost and Found is for you.

— michael finge