A Route 66 Crash Course

Originally published on the LHIP blog site.


For my project with the National Trails Intermountain Regional Office, I will be putting together a set of interpretive materials about the history of Route 66 and Hispanic heritage along the road. It’s an exciting project, but also a massive undertaking when it comes to condensing history and making it meaningful, interesting, and understandable to a public audience. So, for my first official week with the National Trails as a LHIP Intern, I have immersed myself in the history and have already begun thinking about how to best package the information using digital tools like StoryMaps.

An example of a StoryMap project, “The Lands We Share: America’s Protected Areas.”

The more I read, the more challenging this task seems to be. Putting together a StoryMap and creating interpretive materials is more than just copying and pasting information or dumping pages of historical context on a webpage. Even this early in the project, I have to consider what material will be of most interest to a wide audience, relevant to community members, and can craft a good narrative through mixed media ranging from map-based visuals to text to photographs.

One of the core texts I am currently looking through is “The Historic and Architectural Resources of Route 66 Through New Mexico,” a report by David Kammer published in 1992 that, in part, is used as a foundation to add certain historic markers to the National Register, preserve important locations along Route 66, and track the overall history of the road. The first pages of this text open not with a description of the road as is, already built, and ready for eager tourists to traverse, but with a thorough investigation of the landscape of New Mexico and how this influenced the construction and path of the road. From the outset, it asserts that “More than any of the other seven states it crossed, New Mexico presented highway engineers with a variety of landforms [which presented a range of obstacles and challenges]. . . . As Route 66 made its way across the state, a course of 399 miles (506 miles prior to its straightening in 1937), it crossed over three of the state’s four physiographic regions. . . . The eastern third took it through the Pecos and Canadian Valleys of the Great Plains Province; the middle third through the Basin and Range Plateau; and the western third through the Intermountain Plateau.” (p. 4) As a result, Route 66 followed traditional pathways in an east-west flow that had been used for centuries, first by Native Americans who lived and traded in the region then by Spaniards colonizing and exploring the area and finally by American traders, expeditionaries, and settlers.

This postcard (c. 1940-1949) shows the extended history of travel in New Mexico and confluence of east-west travel across different eras. Center for Southwest Research, University Libraries, University of New Mexico.

This mirrored movement over time is fascinating. It illustrates the power of the land to affect human migration and ultimately influence centuries of travel. This is one of the major themes of Route 66 in New Mexico and, ideally, will be illustrated in a transitioning map. If anything, this component is easy to conceptualize. Show the movement of people over time across New Mexico as connected to different trails along the 35th Parallel from Route 66 to the Santa Fe Trail. However, this is just a small part of the story. Following the physical location of a trail, how do I show individual stories and experiences? What about movement of businesses to correspond with the emergence of different forms of transportation? What themes do I find in these components and how do I best illustrate them through maps and interactives?

These are the questions I will tackle this summer. It is a daunting task, like staring down the entirety of Route 66 and seeing the expanse of road you’ve yet to travel. But I have time and resources and, hopefully, the skills needed to best complete the task. Any journey begins not with a first step but by looking at a map and planning a route. So, the best thing I can do this week is read and absorb and piece together the history of the trail and how Hispanic residents of New Mexico were impacted and influenced by this historic road.

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