American road trip
America's historic Route 66 fascinates visitors from other countries.
Soulsby's Shell station in tiny Mt. Olive, Ill., seems like an unlikely attraction for international tourists. The gasoline pumps, which first started dispensing fuel in 1926, have been dry since 1991. But its position alongside historic Route 66 draws scores of visitors from every corner of the globe each spring, summer, and fall.Skip to next paragraph
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Between 1927 to 1985, Route 66 stretched 2,448 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles and was a major thoroughfare for Americans traveling west. A John Steinbeck novel, a hit song, a television show, and several movies helped transform the stretch of pavement into an international symbol of American wanderlust.
Today, tourists who want to experience the thrill of the wide-open road for themselves have taken to motoring what's left of the distance – sometimes even in vintage cars or astride Harley-Davidson motorcycles bought or rented especially for the trip.
"For the four of us it was the desire to see the 'real' America and to experience for ourselves the amazing pioneering spirit Americans had and to try to appreciate the trials endured on their search for a better life out West," says Michael French of southern England, who rented Harleys for a 2008 trip with his wife, Vanessa, and another British couple.
The international interest in Route 66 is extensive. There are Route 66 clubs in Norway and devoted websites in Romania and the Czech Republic. A Belgian man created the Historic Route 66 website (www.historic66.com), which has complete turn-by-turn descriptions of the highway to help in trip planning.
With this kind of cult following, it's hardly a surprise that a now-defunct gas station on a remote stretch of highway has become a retro motorist's mecca.
Mike Dragovich, the owner of Soulsby's, says the little building that once pumped gasoline for travelers "is better known overseas than it is in this country."
Soulsby's status as an original Route 66 icon is exactly the type of attraction international Route 66 groupies want to see in person.
Linda Persson from Sweden and a friend rumbled along old 66 in 2007 in a 1975 Pontiac purchased especially for the trip. "Route 66 is just something everyone has heard about," says Ms. Persson. "When I told my grandmother what I was going to do, she knew right away what it was."
Swa Frantzen, who created the Historic Route 66 website, has made the trip twice with his wife. "Route 66 is seen everywhere as a symbol for adventure, freedom, being a rebel, being on the road, even rock 'n' roll," he says.
'Mother Road' legacy
The legendary pavement first aroused international interest in 1939 with the publication of John Steinbeck's novel, "The Grapes of Wrath." Steinbeck referred to the highway as the "Mother Road," and described how it represented a path of opportunity for people seeking a new life in the American West as they fled the Dust Bowl during the Depression.
The 1946 song "Get Your Kicks on Route 66," a musical travelogue of a journey along the highway, has been recorded by more than 200 singers in several languages.
The early 1960s weekly television show "Route 66" featured two young men traveling across America in a Corvette and was rebroadcast overseas.