Route 66 has been mythologized in popular culture since it was established as a national highway in 1926, but its origins go back long before its precursor, the National Old Trails Road. Although Route 66 was decommissioned 31 years ago and replaced by the interstate, the “mother road” still tugs on our imagination. Two new projects re-contextualize Route 66 for the 21st century.
A Contemporary Emaki of the Mother Road
About three years ago, architect John Bohn developed an interest in Route 66 as a scaffold for how we perceive experience and represent data. Adapting technology and schema from sources as diverse as the U.S. Geological Service’s soil maps and traditional emakimono hand scrolls from 11th to 14th century Japan, Bohn, who coordinates Sci-Arc’s Japan/China Studio Program, calls the project “a 21st century Route 66 emaki.” He exuberantly describes the emakimono technique as combining “parallel projection and a kind of flat, dimensionally precise, 3D representation of architecture, and people.”
Bohn is interested in resolving the technical challenges of representing this large-scale development project, but he is equally concerned -- perhaps more so -- with the narrative aspects of the initiative and concedes that Route 66 is “a literary construction as much as it is factual infrastructure; as much Kerouac and Steinbeck as it is an actual road with actual engineering.” He says his project takes license with pictorial, painterly and fictional elements in a way that places it “somewhere in between the precision, ambition and truth-telling of map-making and the subjective, willful and personal fictions of some kind of art.”
Yet, thinking in terms of data helps him find the stories that are hidden in plain sight. “If you look more closely at the facts,” he says, “they get more interesting.”
Bohn’s Route 66 emaki will be produced as a series of images printed on fabric embedded with QR codes for drill-down detail, and it will also eventually be online. It will be a curated experience with Bohn choosing content based on conversations with local communities, or that he feels is significant “either for its banality,” Bohn says, “like a warehouse in Ontario,” or for its sublimity, like the Neutra Claremont United Methodist Church -- “the kind of thing that you drive by and nobody notices.”
The project started with Bohn doing what he has always done, “which is,” he says, to “crawl around towns and places that I don’t know anything about -- drive, ride, run, walk -- and uncover stuff.” His favorite spot is the Red Hill area between Upland and Rancho Cucamonga, where Route 66 takes a small detour, and on the map, 66 shows a small bump. A few restaurants stand there, including the Magic Lamp Inn, which was once a midcentury modern structure, and the Sycamore Inn, which was a stagecoach stop. After some digging, Bohn learned that before the road, a settlement formed next to a spring, forcing construction to go around. Looking at the soil maps, he discovered a fault line.
“The soil anomaly and the fault cause the spring and the water, which then brought the people and the animals, which then brought the settlement. Those moments are everywhere,” he says. “It starts with geology and this epic time scale and ends up being a little flat bit [of road] with a bunch of parking lots and some old funky buildings.”
The history of Route 66 reaches back to the Pleistocene, when it was a path for Mastodons and other megafauna, because it connects water, Bohn says. It’s also “relatively flat,” and in Southern California, through the Cajon Pass, “the easiest way to get over the mountains and into this valley.” Like Tōkaidō road, the ancient Japanese path that connects Tokyo and Kyoto, it was first used by animals, he says, and then by people walking, followed by carts.
66, Eminent Domain and Cultural Appropriation in American Indian Territories
Lisa Snell, a Cherokee travel writer who teamed up with the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association (AIANTA) and the National Park Service Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program to re-examine the legacy of the highway, says that in California, Route 66 overlaps the “ancient Indian trade routes from the Pacific coastline, from the Serrano Indians” through the Cajon Pass, which linked the coastal groups “with the desert tribes.”
She points out that “there was also a route from the Great Lakes and the Chicago area that angled down, roughly following Route 66, which also overlapped with the Santa Fe Railroad. So you see the routes the American Indians were taking were followed by the cattlemen later on, through the Great Plains.”
When Route 66 came through, many white-owned businesses exploited stereotypes of American Indians for profit. In "American Indians and Route 66," a guidebook produced by AIANTA in partnership with the National Park Service, Snell writes, “As early as 1925, ‘Arizona Highways,’ a state supported magazine, became a driving force in promoting tourism to the Southwest, publishing articles extolling the wonders of the incredible landscape and exotic Indigenous peoples.”
In her research for the book, Snell traveled the length of Route 66 and met with many American Indian communities. She says, “There was not only a misappropriation of culture, but the highway came through and took even more chunks of land from the tribes and pueblos located in its path.”
When the railroad arrived in Pueblo Isleta, New Mexico, it went through the middle of the public square, taking the land through eminent domain. After the highway followed, Snell says the citizens took up arms and refused to give up any more of the plaza where they met as a community and where their children played. “If you look at the map where Pueblo Isleta is, the highway kind of stops and makes this little U-shaped loop around the pueblo, even though there’s a railroad depot where the railroad goes right through the middle,” Snell says.
More than a travel guide, "American Indians and Route 66" aims to move tourists -- and others -- past stereotypes of American Indians. Those stereotypes, Snell says, are the result of marginalization that comes from “years of being relegated to the past as a dying race -- I think it may have started with the photos of Edward Curtis.” And she thinks “travel is the best way for people to discover these things for themselves. They’re not going to get it on television or in popular media.”
The stories people tell are also powerful. Snell says, “My regret about the project is that I didn’t have more time. There are so many stories. To be able to dig and to get people to talk -- people don’t realize they have a story, and it doesn’t come out until you actually sit down [with them].”
Top image: John Bohn, "Red Hill Portion of Route 66 Pathway; Pomona to San Bernardino," 2016. Emaki. 108" x 42." | Courtesy of the artist.