Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Complete Route 66 Lost and Found: Ruins and Relics Revisited
By Russell A. Olsen
Osceola, WI: Voyageur Press, September 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0760334928, $25. 320 pages.
Review by Anna Thompson Hajdik, University of Texas at Austin
Russell Olsen’s The Complete Route 66 Lost and Found is a notable contribution to the history of the most fabled of America’s highways. Olsen was motivated by his own fascination with the travel route and set out to document not only the still-thriving, more touristy businesses along the highway, but also to rediscover the history and stories behind many of the now-abandoned gas stations, cabin courts, motels, and trading posts that were bypassed after the development of the interstate highway system in the 1950s. While sections of historic Route 66 still exist throughout the country, much of it has been lost in the name of modernity, progress, and industrialization, replaced by what many scholars consider an indistinct homogenization and placelessness that pervades contemporary American life.
Olsen’s main goal is to reclaim the heyday of Route 66, an era he characterizes in the book as dominated by small towns, eclectic road culture, and a wide-eyed innocence that viewed the early automobile as a symbol of freedom and adventure. The book is organized by state, beginning with Illinois and ending with California. In addition to individual businesses, Olsen devotes sections to cities, regional centers, and small towns on the route, including Albuquerque, Amarillo, Flagstaff, and Tulsa, but also Victorville, California, Baxter Springs, Kansas, Rolla, Missouri, and Chenoa, Illinois among many other communities. Historical and contemporary images of small-town main streets are juxtaposed with one another, and Olsen includes concise summaries of the town’s development and relationship to the highway. Most of the towns are still around, their main streets a bit sleepier and not quite as bustling as they once were.
Olsen is a storyteller, and that is this book’s great strength. Each stop he documents includes both a historical and contemporary photograph as well as concise vignettes about past owners, geographic details, or colorful tales related to the Old West. What is especially remarkable is the sheer number of sites that have been entirely reclaimed by the elements and natural landscape. From an abandoned meteor crater observatory near Winslow, Arizona to the now desolate Road Runner’s Retreat, a deserted truck stop outside East Amboy, California, Olsen’s chief project is to bring these pieces of roadside Americana to life. This is vividly accomplished through the use of such materials as souvenir postcards and vintage photographs that captured these businesses in all of their prosperous glory. Olsen doesn’t stop with the past however, and includes fascinating material gathered from interviews with current business owners, leaders of local preservation groups, and civic boosters. In this way, Olsen engages in a kind of vernacular approach to the history of Route 66, one that emphasizes the mostly working-class stories of the small business owner -- those individuals who lived alongside the highway, rather than the romanticized figure of the traveler and tourist that endures in popular culture.
One site that stood out in particular was the long abandoned Conoco Station near Arcadia, Oklahoma. In fact, the images from this site grace the cover of the book. The historical photograph shows the probable proprietors of the station along with their genial looking black lab staring into the camera. During the Great Depression, Olsen states, the station’s owners began a counterfeiting operation in the back room of the station. Soon enough the U.S. government traced the funny money back to the owners and only months later the station was abandoned. Olsen includes an evocative contemporary photograph of the stone remnants of the structure and intones, “The stone ruins remain, seemingly daring time and the elements to take their best shot” (222).
However, Olsen’s project falls short of the more scholarly studies of Route 66 that have been released in recent years. Because no more than a few paragraphs are devoted to each site, he’s never quite able to provide the historical background of Arthur Krim’s Route 66: Iconography of the American Highway (2005) or William Kaszynski’s Route 66: Images of America’s Main Street (2003). It is clear at times that Olsen prioritized quantity over quality with his project, especially as entries in different states begin to blur together into one giant scramble of gas stations, motels, and eating establishments that have seen better days. One also gets the sense at times that Olsen was under the gun to finish a few of his entries because he often ends each selection with trite and cliché phrases that become repetitive about mid-way through the book. Finally, the author fails to engage with other serious scholars of tourism history, a rich and diverse body of literature that has offered a much more complex understanding of the role travel has played to the formation of American identity than what Olsen presents here.
Olsen’s book however still has a place in the varied body of Route 66 literature. It may find its most receptive audience in the still vibrant community of Route 66 aficionados largely made up of nostalgic baby boomers and historic preservationists that continue to treat the highway as the original “Mother Road” of America’s transportation system. It should also be noted that Olsen includes two Route 66 fan periodicals, Route 66 Magazine and National Historic Route 66 News in his list of sources and so he knows his target audience very well. In addition, while the majority of businesses along the highway have faded into obscurity, Olsen brings much needed attention to efforts of local historic preservationist groups by showcasing sites like Soulsby’s Service Station in Mount Olive, Illinois – restored to its original appearance in 2003 and the U Drop Inn in Shamrock, Texas – restored in the 1980s. These grassroots restoration efforts are inspiring and stand as useful examples of what small communities can accomplish when they share common goals and band together. For anyone planning a Route 66 road trip, Olsen’s book would be an indispensable guide to the lost landscapes and still thriving businesses along America’s most historic of highways.

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