Route 66 in California
California. Its name beckons like a golden promise on the horizon. Route 66 travelers coming from the east were often wayfarers seeking a fresh start in a new land, and in the early to middle years of the twentieth century, California was that new land, brimful of promise and rumors of plenty. If there was ever a place that seemed to deserve the sobriquet “Land of Milk and Honey,” it was California.
But before they could reach the promised land, wayfarers had to traverse one of the most forbidding landscapes on the continent: the Mojave Desert. The Okies fleeing west from the Dust Bowl of the plains states faced one last test before they arrived in the Los Angeles basin or in one of the fertile valleys on the other side of the mountains. For people driving the automobiles of the 1920s and 1930s, this obstacle must have seemed daunting. The route between Needles and Barstow, on the western edge of the Mojave, is one of the most desolate, and in summer the hottest, legs of the road anywhere along Route 66’s more than 2,000 mile length.
But Route 66 in the desert portion of Southern California is a gateway – to such wonders as Disneyland, the Hoover Dam, and Las Vegas, all of which can be accessed by taking one of the highways that branches off the old road. It also leads to the high passes of the San Gabriel mountains, carrying travelers up to Cajon Pass, before dropping into the verdant Southern California basin.
In the Los Angeles area, the remnants of Route 66 are not a single road leading to the piers at Santa Monica; instead, Route 66 survives in fragments that fan out over part of the L.A. region like a delta. As a thruway, Route 66 has been wholly supplanted by the Freeways that criss-cross the L.A. basin in a vast arterial pattern.
But California has not forgotten its connection with Route 66. In 1990, two important events took place. One was the formation of the California Historic Route 66 Association, which was founded for the preservation and enjoyment of Route 66. The other event was the passage of state legislation designating “State Historic Highway 66,” making signage permissible on the decommissioned route.
Other developments have also helped to preserve the legacy of Route 66 in California. One is the formation in 2002 of the California Route 66 Preservation Foundation to develop resources for the preservation and benefit of the Route 66 corridor in California. In addition, there are now approximately 16 National Register listings for properties and districts associated with Route 66 in California. While the old road may exist only in fragments, there is a movement in California to keep the memory and legacy of Route 66 alive.