While working on Along Route 66, I got stuck behind an oil truck on a hilly, twisty two-lane road somewhere west of Tulsa. There was no passing that behemoth. I realized that this must have been what traveling 66 must have been like from its designation as a Federal Highway in 1926 to the completion of the Interstates highways beginning in the 1960s.
When Susan Croce Kelly and I conducted our interviews of the people who invented Route 66 and roadside tourism between the 1930s and 1950s, we heard stories about how dangerous travel on the highway was. An article about the dangerous of travel through Lincoln, Illinois, ostensibly through the flat prairies of Illinois, recalled the stories we heard.
From Chicago to Los Angeles, they called it Bloody 66, but there were regional names for it also: Death Alley and Blood Alley in Groom, Texas, also flat; Camino de la Muerte in Arizona across the Colorado Plateau, not terribly hilly.
Buster Burris at Amboy, who carried a saw in his wrecker to cut off the ends of guard rails impaled in drivers’ chests, had a litany of stories about death in the Mojave Desert. From Along Route 66:
“With World War II over, civilian travelers learned that Route 66 in the Mojave Desert was a dangerous place. The 18-foot bridges that crossed the washes were too narrow for two speeding cars to pass safely in opposite directions. One car would hit another or worse impale itself, and sometimes its driver, on the wooden guard rail. Every wrecker had a litany of horror stories. But, vapor-locked gas lines and overheated radiators stopped more cars than did guard rails. Folks sat on the roadside, their radiators boiling, waiting for a wrecker to tow them to the nearest garage. Bored, they collected small stones, and laid them on the roadside berms in the shape of big letters, writing out their names.”
“What was the purpose of the low berms? They were levees. When it rains in the desert, it floods. The berms that lined the north side of the highway funneled floodwater away from the road and into the washes.” And under the bridges. Over maybe even over the bridges.
Route 66 was a dangerous place.
Of course, knowing that story, I had to write my name in rocks in the Mojave Desert.