It's poignant to drive Route 66 southwest from Chicago. As Tom Teague writes in Searching for 66, "At its birth in 1926, this road was hailed as a great agent of progress—concrete ribbon tying the west coast to the rest of America. And for a wondrous half-century, it embraced and embodied this nation like few institutions can."
Chicago to Los Angeles: Route 66 once was "The Great Diagonal Way . . . The Mother Road . . . The Main Street of America." Bobby Troup in 1946 wrote a song, "Get your kicks on Route 66." Singers from Nat King Cole to Chuck Berry to the Rolling Stones covered it. A weekly CBS show during the 1960s, Route 66, featured two restless young men driving the highway and solving domestic disputes and other problems in an hour.
My wife, Susan, and I passed one billboard proclaiming "Industrial Renewal on Chicago's West Side," but such renewal is tough when jobs are scarce. We passed the former site of the Western Electric Hawthorne Works, where 40,000 workers made almost all telephones manufactured in the United States. We passed the former site of the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant, comprising 18,000 acres that now form America's largest "tallgrass prairie preserve."
In 1985 the U.S. highway system kicked out Route 66: Interstate highways made relics of 66's decaying motels, gas stations, and giant Rocket Man and Muffler Man figures. In 2008 the World Monuments Fund added Route 66 to its World Monuments Watch list of "100 Most Endangered Sites." We drove by a car dealership converted to a pizzeria. We saw many windmill farms, their thin, gleaming metal blades rotating over the plains.
How to react to such change? Stops near Route 66 in Illinois exhibit two different ways. When the highway passes through Springfield it's not far from the well-preserved house where Abraham Lincoln lived during the 1850s. After a single term in Congress, Lincoln spent that decade as an increasingly prosperous lawyer, able to please his wife by buying parlor furniture in fashionable black, and cherrywood furniture for her sitting room.
Lincoln's ambition, though, was (according to a close friend) "a little engine that knew no rest." Lincoln found it hard to be patient while awaiting a political comeback—but he did wait. He knew, given human nature, that utopia is not around the corner. He worked within an increasingly fractured system. In God's providence Lincoln's time came, amid national tragedy.