The Edmondson Blog

Route 66

Editor's True Story

Going into the exam room for my Geography O-level, I was presented with the requirement to answer four out of eleven questions. Looking through the questions, there were probably two I could take a crack at; all the rest I had no knowledge of. Then the seventh question caught my eye: “With the aid of a sketch-map, describe and account for the importance of a transcontinental overland routeway.”

Hmm. We had certainly not learnt anything (that I could remember) about “transcontinental overland routeways” but an idea entered my head. At the time the Rolling Stones were in the hit parade with their rendition of the song Route 66. In the middle of the song were the lines that would come to my rescue:

It winds from Chicago to LA
More than two thousand miles all the way.
Well, it goes through St Louis,
Joplin, Missouri,
Oklahoma City looks oh so pretty.
You’ll see Amarillo; Gallup, New Mexico;
Flagstaff, Arizona; don’t forget Winona,
Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino.

Los Angeles was certainly on the Pacific Ocean. Chicago wasn’t exactly the other side of the continent, but I was sure it was connected to the Atlantic Ocean through the Great Lakes, so Route 66 it was. Based entirely on the song and the hope that the examiner wouldn’t check too closely the facts of my answer, I set to work.

Surely, the road crossed the Rocky Mountains somewhere but I didn’t know where, and it might cross the Mississippi River, but I wasn’t sure if it actually did, and if it did, where. But I was confident that I could work around these by a bit of creative writing.

A good guess would be that Route 66 crossed some big rivers somewhere, and that a town would have grown up at the crossing. So I included a general description of the big river bridge and the well known associated town and industry, but, somewhat carelessly (!) forgot to mention the town’s name, hoping that the exuberance and enthusiasm of my answer would convince the examiner of my depth of knowledge. Similarly, the route of the road through the Rocky Mountains was described in general and suitable mountainy terms, while, again, carelessly forgetting to mention specific locations.

The answer was a masterpiece and for many weeks I impressed my friends with my enterprise and knowledge of pop music. It’s a shame that the examiner was not as impressed as I was. I failed.

Many, many years later, I was thinking back to my school days and the geography O-level failure came back to my mind. I thought to investigate Route 66 and its eponymous song.

As an identifiable long-distance road, Route 66 was established on 11th November 1926 and officially decommissioned on 27th June 1985.

In 1946 jazz composer and pianist Bobby Troup wrote his well known song after driving the highway himself to get to California. He presented the song to Nat “King” Cole who in turn made it one of the biggest hit singles of his career.

But back to my O-level failure. As far as the song went, it was factually correct. However, it is clear that in the pursuit of artistic integrity, Mr. Troup had taken some geographical liberties. Having included such towns as Winona and Gallup, two respectable but decidedly modest communities, he had left out many, much larger towns – even Albuquerque, the largest city in New Mexico, sitting on the junction of Route 66 and the Santa Fe Trail, wasn’t there (probably, in its case, for the want of a satisfactory rhyme).

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