America's Main Street, it seems, is being left along the side of the road.
By that, we mean proposals to designate Route 66 as a National Historic Trail have stalled in Congress.
Blame a partial government shutdown in 2018.
Blame impeachment proceedings in 2019.
But for two years now, Congress has failed to pass the necessary legislation to designate it as part of the National Trails System, overseen by the National Park Service. Such a designation should be a gimme. We can't think of any reason to oppose it, and it would certainly benefit communities in the seven states — including Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma — that were home to various stretches of the famous highway.
Designation would mean federal funding would be available, and the sooner the better because more preservation could be accomplished before the highway's centennial in 2026.
Yet we wonder: Is National Trails designation enough?
What if, instead, Congress authorized Route 66 National Park, a linear park to fit historian and author Michael Wallis' characterization of Route 66 as a "linear village?"
What if select communities — one in each state, for example — were anchored with museums and visitor centers, each of which told a different chapter in the route's story?
In Oklahoma, for example, the focus could be on Route 66 "as the path of a people in flight," to use John Steinbeck's words, the route of "refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert's slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there ... 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.”
In another state, the museum might focus on Route 66 as the highway of optimism and adventure, a symbol of a united country after World War II. This is the highway of Bobby Troup: "If you ever plan to motor west, travel my way, take the highway that is best. Get your kicks on Route 66."
According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the linear village of Wallis thrived "on cooperation between its communities, the lived experiences of the people who have traveled or built their lives on the route are what make it greater than the sum of its parts: the experiences of tenant farmers growing red winter wheat, of British air cadets learning to land Spitfire airplanes before the U.S. had even entered the war, of African Americans banned from many restaurants and hotels during the road’s mid-20th century heyday."
Route 66 is a big story, a national story, and we think national park designation might just be the best way to tell it — and save it.
We challenge Congress to go big, too.
Copyright Joplin Globe. Reprinted with permission.