Route 66 in Oklahoma

In many ways, Oklahoma is the heart of Route 66.  Centrally located along the route, it is in a sense the birthplace of the famous highway, since its leading proponent, Cyrus Stevens Avery, was a resident of Tulsa and a leading member of the movement for better roads in America, at a time when roads outside of cities tended to be unpaved and therefore subject to the vicissitudes of the elements.  Cyrus Avery was the man who envisioned Route 66 as part of a larger national grid of hard-top U.S. Highways, and who persuaded the Secretary of Agriculture that his vision made sense.

Oklahoma is also the state that has the longest stretch of Route 66 (New Mexico originally had an early configuration that was longer, which was shortened when a new, straighter route was instituted by 1937).  Route 66 was the first major east-to-west highway across the length of the state, making it the most important road through Oklahoma until the beginning of the Interstate system.

Perhaps even more significantly, much of the fame and mythology of Route 66 is centered in Oklahoma.  The route was where tens of thousands of Oklahomans – an estimated fifteen percent of the state’s population – emigrated from the state during the terrible years of the Dust Bowl, in the depths of the Great Depression.  Most of these migrants sought a better life in California, where farm work and other employment opportunities could be had for those willing to make the arduous journey.  All of these “okies,” as they came to be called, migrated west on Route 66, the “mother road,” as John Steinbeck called it.  Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath followed a fictional Oklahoma family, the Joads, as it fled the Dust Bowl and headed toward a more promising future in California.

Significant stretches of old Route 66 can still be experienced and enjoyed in Oklahoma, particularly the stretch between Tulsa and Oklahoma City, where the roadway is largely intact.  Some significant landmarks from the Route 66 era can be found to this day in the once-bustling, now quiet towns that the new Interstates have bypassed.   As Michael Wallis has written in his excellent book, Route 66: The Mother Road, “At the height of its popularity, Route 66, especially in Oklahoma, signaled the age of the hamburger stand, filling station, and the motor court with refrigerated air….In Oklahoma, there are still garish postcards to buy and joints where patrons are serenaded by jukebox tunes.  There are still people who consider time important.  They take time to chat with a trucker or a waitress.”