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Preserving Route 66

Jul 29, 2017
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DON GONYEA, HOST:

It's road trip time for many families. One of the most iconic highways to travel is the historic Route 66, which stretches from Chicago to LA. The federal government has been working to preserve the roadway. But as Justin Regan of member station KNAU reports, that program is set to expire, leaving some towns in limbo.

JUSTIN REGAN, BYLINE: Holbrook is a small desert community in northeastern Arizona. The main drag is populated with dinosaur statues, petrified wood and stylized tepees. And the number 66 is everywhere, including the mural outside Jo and Aggie's cafe. The restaurant has been feeding hungry Mother Road travelers since the 1940's.

KIMBERLY GALLEGOS: We were packed all the time. And I mean, it was - you could go out here on the street, and it was like trying to cross a freeway.

REGAN: That's co-owner Kimberly Gallegos. Her restaurant is small, but it has a reputation as a must-stop attraction in Route 66 circles. It's filled with Mother Road memorabilia and pictures of celebrity visitors like Alice Cooper and William Shatner. Like many people in Holbrook, Gallegos has plenty of stories of how the traffic used to bustle through town in the road's heyday.

GALLEGOS: You'd come in here and scrub tables because of all the soot from the diesels coming around the corner there and hitting their brakes. You had to come in and clean all that up and get them, move them in and move them out, move them in and move them out. It was - go fast (laughter).

REGAN: But when the interstate was built, the road was practically abandoned overnight. That pattern played out in many small towns along Route 66. In 1999, the National Park Service offered help in the form of the Route 66 Corridor Preservation program. It provides matching grants to businesses with historic ties to the route like Joe and Aggie's.

GALLEGOS: It helped us, you know, replace our roof we we're having some problems with. So we were able to take that cost and put another little improvements into the restaurant that helped us, you know, at that point because we were still in a struggling stage.

REGAN: Route 66 is a living economy. A study by the Park Service and Rutgers University found businesses along the road take in about $40 million in tourism revenue each year. Kathleen Smith is with the city of Holbrook. She says the grants are crucial for the local economy and historic preservation.

KATHLEEN SMITH: But without us saving these historical buildings, there's no need to show off any historical culture that we have because people won't stop.

REGAN: Smith is worried that the program is set to expire in 2019. Some members of Congress share that concern and are pushing bipartisan legislation to make Route 66 a national historic trail, increasing resources and funding for Mother Road businesses. Sean Evans is an archivist at Northern Arizona University.

SEAN EVANS: That would then put Route 66 on a par with things like the Santa Fe Trail, the Mormon Trail, things that we accept in American history as being truly historic and significant to travel and geography of the United States.

KARINA LEWIS-PACK: It doesn't really sink in to you when you're young that this is kind of a legacy.

REGAN: Karina Lewis-Pack's grandfather built Holbrook's Wigwam Motel, where travelers sleep in rooms shaped like tepees. The triangular concrete structures stick out from the rest of the landscape, which includes neon lights and vintage cars. Lewis-Pack says the preservation program has helped her keep this classic look.

LEWIS-PACK: People realize that in order to really know or familiarize yourself with a people, a place or a culture is to go and palpate it and touch it and drive through it and see and experience it. You can't just Google it.

REGAN: Lewis-Pack has concerns the park service program might go away. But she says tourism is growing. And she believes more people will take the time to enjoy the Mother Road. For NPR News, I'm Justin Regan in Holbrook, Ariz.

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