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FIXATIONS : Road’s Scholars : Route 66 still gives Orange residents Dan Harlow, Rich Huffnagle and Geoffrey Willis their kicks. They say that it’s a part of America that needs to be preserved.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Let’s see now . . .

Flagstaff, Arizona

Don’t forget Winona

Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino

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When tunesmith Bobby Troup was out getting his kicks on “Route 66,” that’s about as close as he came to the city of Orange. The legendary Chicago-to-Santa Monica highway, once dubbed America’s Main Street but since bypassed by interstates, followed the base of the San Gabriel Mountains before turning to the sea.

But even though the route never passed this way, Orange has become a bastion for the Route 66 revival in the highway’s 66th anniversary year.

One resident, Dan Harlow, is now president of the California Historic Route 66 Assn., a nonprofit group dedicated to promoting and preserving the old highway within the state. Also, Harlow runs a mail-order business with fellow Orange resident Rich Huffnagle that designs and sells nothing but Route 66 merchandise: posters, T-shirts, satin jackets and books.

Route 66 Clothing & Goods has other items in the works, including a children’s activity book that Harlow says will help pass an interest in the old highway on to a new generation.

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And then there’s Geoffrey Willis, who decided the time was right for a new Route 66 tune, which he wrote since his move two years ago to Orange from the Route 66 city of St. Louis. Willis, who calls himself “A” Side Willie, has recorded two versions of “Old 66,” one with a swing sound that he cut on a trip back to St. Louis, another with more of a pop-country feel that he recorded in Orange.

Never be a route like this again

Don’t let the legend fade away

People all along it say

My heart belongs to old 66

Ironically, nostalgia for Route 66 was just taking hold as the last stretches were being decommissioned in the mid-'70s. Since then, even as parts of the old highway have fallen into almost undriveable ruin, interest in the road has continued to climb. There have been books about the highway, group tours along the old route, and the growth of state groups committed to saving some of the old roadside landmarks along the way.

Huffnagle, who traveled the highway several times as a child, attributes the resurgent interest to a combination of domestic nostalgia and international interest in Americana.

“We have a lot of ambivalent feelings as Americans,” said Harlow. “We’re questioning ourselves, and we’re looking back at what America was, to see if America’s still there.”

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Said Willis: “You don’t realize sometimes that you have a gem to protect until somebody wants to take it away.”

The first highway to connect Chicago with Los Angeles, the two-lane Route 66 was commissioned in 1926, although parts of the road weren’t paved until 1932. Passing through eight states, it became the path West for many during the Great Depression (such as the fictional Joad family in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”).

Weird and wonderful tourist traps sprang up all along the way, from hotels shaped like tepees to plaster dinosaurs. The road became enshrined in popular culture, first in Troup’s oft-recorded song and later in a weekly television series about a couple of guys cruising America’s back roads.

But the new interstates began to bypass parts of the old route, turning some of the tourist stops into ghost towns and slowly turning Route 66 into a crumbling memory.

Harlow says he remembers hitting Route 66--"at least once with my thumb out"--after his return from Vietnam. After his marriage in 1982, he and wife Sheila, both photographers, began traveling back roads together, from California to Maine.

It was on the old 66’s 13-mile run through Kansas that he first realized that the highway “was still there physically,” though the old 66 signs had been taken down. Four years ago, he joined a Route 66 association in Arizona.

About then, he met Huffnagle, who had started a small side business selling Route 66 merchandise at swap meets. They decided to join forces and create a mail order business, working with various artists to create T-shirt and poster designs.

It’s not the only business specializing in Route 66 memorabilia. “There’s at least one in every state” along the route, Harlow said, and there is proprietary bickering among some of the companies.

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He and Huffnagle have made an effort to ensure that their merchandise is manufactured in the United States, and they turn over 10% of their profits to the state historic group.

“It’s not supporting either of us yet,” said Harlow.

Even though they’ve gotten orders from as far away as Wisconsin, both of the men are far from giving up their day jobs: Harlow runs his graphics business out of his home, and Huffnagle is a park ranger for the county.

Harlow’s involvement with the nonprofit California Historic Route 66 Assn. has been building. He first revamped the organization’s newsletter, then took over as president at the group’s annual dinner in March.

The group now has about 300 members, a figure Harlow hopes to raise to 1,000 by year’s end. “Right now, we’re just trying to gain strength and support,” he said. “The interest is there. It’s just getting the information out.”

Once the group gets more firmly established, projects will include raising funds for an office and museum in a restored ‘30s gas station it hopes to buy (the group now operates out of the home of its secretary-treasurer in La Verne).

The association also hopes to build ties with groups in other states for a large-scale interpretive program.

And then there’s the political angle: saving the buildings along the old route. Some are already gone and some have gone out of business; others have slipped a notch or two since the highway’s heyday.

The Wigwam Village Motel in Rialto, a classic example of roadside architecture, is a case study in what has happened to many of the old businesses. Where the slogan for the 19 stucco tepees was once “Sleep in a Wigwam, Get More for Your Wampum,” the marquee was later changed to read “Do It in a Tepee.”

“You might call it Foothill Boulevard on the Thomas map, but it’s still Route 66,” said Harlow, who explained that many civic leaders aren’t sold on the need to save such landmarks. “It doesn’t have to be Victorian” to be worth saving, Harlow believes.

There are signs that the sentiment is catching on. California has designated old Route 66 as the state’s first historic highway, and 66 signs are reappearing.

“It’s just nice that now I can drive 66 and see highway markers on it,” said Willis.

The songwriter, who plans to release “Old 66" on his own, loaded his song with specific references to a number of 66 landmarks, from the Coral Court in St. Louis to the Blue Swallow Inn in Tucumcari.

Willis said he was inspired to write the song after reading an interview with Jim Powell, president of the Route 66 Assn. of Missouri.

With all the fuss over Route 66, “there’s been everything but a new song,” Willis said. “A new song was in order, one that focuses on the sentimental attachments.”

Route 66 “gives you a common bond with so many people. They all have a Route 66 story,” he said. “It’s the most famous highway in America.”

For more information, contact the California Historic Route 66 Assn., 2127 Foothill Blvd., No. 66, La Verne, Calif. 91750. (714) 593-4046.


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