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COURTESY OF ROUTE 66 STATE PARK
Route 66 State Park"If you ever plan to motor west, Travel my way, Take the highway that's the best. Get your kicks on Route 66!"–Words and music by Bobby Troup
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COURTESY OF ERICH HAHNFELD
Families flocked to Times Beach and the Meramec River from urban areas. Times Beach was one of a number of resort communities along Route 66.
The Road to Recovery
I nervously watched the racing numbers on the gas pump while I filled up my Toyota Prius electric hybrid vehicle to go searching for Ground Zero of the Mother Road at Route 66 State Park near Eureka. I also reflected on the irony of the situation.
Route 66 had come to symbolize the adventure of my childhood because it linked me umbilically to my cousins in Peoria, Illinois, and reminded me of romantic road trips to Chain of Rocks Park and Meramec Caverns.
But Route 66 State Park also contained another potent symbol: Times Beach was one of the worst environmental disasters of modern times. So I headed to Route 66 State Park to search for the meaning of this contradictory symbol of American freedom.
Route 66: Fact and Symbol
Route 66 State Park is a relatively new addition to Missouri’s magnificent system of state parks and historic sites. It officially opened on September 11, 1999, to commemorate historic Route 66, the great diagonal highway that knit together the interior of the country from Chicago to the Pacific Ocean.
The park includes a supremely scenic section of old Route 66, including a historic bridge crossing the Meramec River, a visitor center in a 1935 roadhouse that features a Route 66 museum and gift shop where I dutifully purchased my Route 66 State Park T-shirt, and nearly 440 acres of parkland.
The park offers a wide variety of recreational opportunities, such as picnic shelters, hiking, cycling, and horse trails, as well as boat access to the Meramec River. This park literally grew out of the ashes of the environmental disaster that was Times Beach and returns the site to its original purpose of recreation along the Meramec, making Route 66 State Park a very special place indeed.
The park’s web site states, “The park has captured the essence of the highway.” That is a tall order because Route 66 assumed mythic proportions in both the American imagination and in the world’s imagination of America. Visitors come to Route 66 State Park from all over the world. But what about Times Beach? How does it relate to the essence of the highway?
Allow me a brief road trip here back in time …
One of my students, Dana Long, researched a former industrial waste dump that had been transformed into a delightful park. Dana later expanded her research paper into an outstanding master’s thesis that examined four such industrial wastelands resurrected as natural areas. Dana’s research taught her teacher that the magical transformation of Route 66 State Park from an industrial wasteland captured “the essence of the highway.” The road to recovery for the meaning of Route 66 really does lead us through Times Beach.
Times Beach was a Promotion
In Route 66: The Highway and Its People, author Susan Croce Kelly wrote: “From the beginning the presence of the highway—and those who traveled it—was immensely important to the towns and people it linked together. Into the rural Middle West and sparsely populated Southwest, Route 66 brought travelers and automobiles and a kind of prosperity that the land never could have provided. And in return for that, the people paid attention to the road. They worked to get it paved, they publicized it … they fought for its continued existence, and, when the time came, they lamented its demise.”
Route 66 was a key feature of the network of national highways established in 1926 to link the rapidly urbanizing nation, and it paved the way for the automobility of America. It led travelers from Lake Michigan through St. Louis through ten Missouri counties and towns—like Cuba, Rolla, Lebanon, Springfield, and Joplin—into the Great Plains of Kansas and Oklahoma through the desert Southwest to Santa Monica Pier on the Pacific Ocean.
Route 66 also led through Times Beach. Although the town of Times Beach did not receive the same attention as its peers (Nat King Cole never sang about it), Times Beach essentially symbolizes Route 66. Industrialist Henry Ford declared, “We shall escape the problems of the city by escaping to the country.”
Times Beach literally grew out of that dream. It was founded in the Roaring Twenties as a mountain getaway along the Meramec River about a dozen miles west of St. Louis. Numerous such resorts sprang up during this period to serve the urban exodus.
Times Beach also reflected the rampant real estate speculation of the ’20s. It was not founded as a town but grew out of a promotion by the St. Louis Times newspaper; subscribers to the newspaper could acquire lots in Times Beach for recreational purposes.
When the Joad family traveled Route 66, John Steinbeck’s Mother Road, to escape Dust Bowl conditions during the Great Depression, Times Beach served a similar survival function by becoming inexpensive housing, then a working-class commuter suburb due to Route 66 and the housing shortage caused by World War II.
American recreation patterns changed following World War II, so Times Beach became one of many hamlets strung together along that highway traveling west. During most of this period, the roadhouse now serving as Route 66 State Park’s visitor center was a popular locally owned restaurant and watering hole named Steiny’s Inn, similar to many other local establishments from Illinois to California.
The Interstate Highway System that began in 1956 eventually buried Route 66, but it made possible today’s sprawling metropolitan regions. Steiny’s Inn couldn’t compete with national fastfood franchises, but Interstate 44 made Times Beach much more convenient for commuters.
However, the little hamlet that just sort of happened was unable to pave its many dirt roads, so waste oil was sprayed on them to keep the dust down. In 1982, the EPA discovered high levels of dioxin in the oil sprayed on the roads, then a weeklong flood spread the poison everywhere and made Times Beach uninhabitable.
The federal government purchased the homes, and residents were relocated. During the ’90s, the contaminated soil of Times Beach was incinerated, the land reclaimed as a state park (no traces of dioxin, if that’s what you are wondering), and the site was returned to a state of nature.
People Travel Here to Touch It
The most frequently asked question at Missouri’s Route 66 State Park, according to Michelle Neubauer, the park’s interpretive resource, is “Where can I find it?” Like medieval pilgrims seeking the True Cross, visitors from all over the world (there are Route 66 societies in Great Britain, Italy, Norway, and Japan, among others) and die-hard road warriors travel here to touch a piece of our heritage and discover whatever magic it still contains.
I remember how much students in my Material Culture studies class at Washington University appreciated the Ted Drewes ice cream that I purchased for them. Concrete experiences of the past tie us together, just like Route 66 used to do.
Route 66 State Park reveals an alternative America just beneath the surface of the present if we pay attention to the road. In the visitor center, one can see and celebrate Coral Court Motel, the Munger Moss Motel, Meramec Caverns, and yes, Ted Drewes, an America of smaller scale, slower pace, and fewer franchises than today. Many festivals and restorations are taking place along Historic Route 66, which has become a kind of pacemaker for Progress to regulate the rhythms of the road.
But nostalgia is history without the pain. We tend to idealize the past and to ignore its shadow side. Route 66 transported bootleggers and migrant workers as well as happy tourists, sported speed traps as well as mom-and-pop stores, and claimed many lives on its winding curves. To its credit, Route 66 State Park does not ignore the darker side of Route 66 but addresses some of these negative aspects: the dangerous travel, racial segregation along the route, and Times Beach.
The Inessential Houses Melt Away
In The Great Gatsby, Gatsby’s luxurious automobile symbolizes his lifestyle and idealizes his image of and to the world. “There was something gorgeous about Gatsby,” observed narrator Nick Carraway, just like there was something gorgeous about Route 66. But Gatsby failed to pay attention to the road, the ash-heap of the city he regularly passed by, and to the human consequences of that path. That inattention ultimately cost Gatsby his life. Only Nick Carraway remained to tell the tale and reveal the meaning.
As Nick gazes from Gatsby’s lush green lawn at the city in the distance, he watches “the inessential houses melt away” and a vision of the original America appear, but he realizes it’s behind him, not ahead. Like Nick and Gatsby and Route 66 and Times Beach, we are “borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
The “essence of the highway” revealed at the park is not to escape but to reconnect us to nature and our history; the Open Road now means creatively conserving our resources and even recovering our wastelands. What a kick!
Call 636-938-7198 or visit www.mostateparks.com/route66.htm for more information.