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ILLINOIS GROUP IS STRIVING TO KEEP ROUTE 66 FROM FADING FOREVER INTO SUNSET

A group of nostalgic Illinoisans with fond memories of two-lane blacktops and cruising on country roads are trying to rally support for the historical preservation of a highway.

But they're not trying to save just any piece of asphalt with white lines and gravel shoulders.This group wants to preserve and commemorate the legendary U.S. 66, which was wiped off Illinois maps in 1976 upon completion of Interstate 55 and erased nationwide in 1985. More than half of the old roadway is gone, while other pieces exist as local stretches of road.

"You'd be surprised how many people have a love affair with that old road," said Mike Yates, one of the group's leaders. "But there's a lot of people out there who have strong feelings about Route 66 and what it represents."

To Yates and about 35 other people scattered around the state, Route 66 represents a bygone era of small towns bustling with business created by travelers funneled down Main Street by the nation's highways.

"Many people associated Route 66 with freedom, opportunity, adventure and romance," said another organizer, Tom Teague of Springfield. "It was the epitome of the open road."

Yates fondly remembers small motels, roadside hamburger joints, shade-tree mechanics and others who made a living in rural America thanks to highway traffic.

"Route 66 really was Main Street, U.S.A.," Yates said. "It was the `mother road,' as Steinbeck called it, that carried people west from Chicago to all the way to the shores of the Pacific Ocean at Santa Monica, Calif. It was an important road for Americans traveling by car."

According to the book "Route 66, a Photographic Essay," Route 66 was formed in 1926 when 2,448 miles of existing and new roads were connected to establish a link between Chicago and the West Coast.

It was dubbed the "gateway to the West" and linked eight states and such cities as St. Louis; Tulsa, Okla., and Oklahoma City; Amarillo, Texas; Albuquerque, N.M.; and Flagstaff, Ariz., on its way to the Los Angeles basin.

Yates and Teague are trying to form a Route 66 Association of Illinois. Two preliminary meetings have attracted three dozen people interested in preserving and enjoying the estimated 1,000 miles of remaining highway.