COURTESY OF ROUTE 66 STATE PARK
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.