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`ROUTE 66' LEADS TO A WILD, YOUNG, ACCESSIBLE PAST

SHARE `ROUTE 66' LEADS TO A WILD, YOUNG, ACCESSIBLE PAST

You're heading southwest out of Springfield, Ill., on old 66 - the Mother Road, as John Steinbeck called it once and Michael Wallis calls it often - when you come on Our Lady of the Highways.

She's nothing much, really, but she's really something. A statue of the Virgin set in an alcove on the edge of a cornfield by the side of the road, she's advertised by a series of hand-painted signs leading you phrase by phrase through the Hail Mary along half a mile of fence posts. Schoolchildren made those signs, and dreamed up the Virgin and paid for her in 1959 (she cost $400, shipped from Italy, plus another $500 for the construction of her grotto), and the farmer who gave her a piece of his cornfield back then is still taking care of her today.An item about Our Lady of the Highways: When the interstate came in, blowing the communities along this section of Route 66 back into the socioeconomic equivalent of the previous century, the Feds wanted the signs taken off those fence posts. Devotional hand-lettering and modern superhighways, they felt quite rightly, do not mix. But the signs were 4 inches inside the farmer's property line, and the farmer wasn't an easily intimidated sort, so today you can still read that sequential Hail Mary and view Our Lady of the Highways. If, that is, you're not in a hurry to get somewhere.

But then, if you were in a hurry, you wouldn't be on old 66 in the first place, would you?

So why would you be? Well, as Michael Wallis' opening line observes, "Route 66. Just the name is magic." That it is; those double sixes roll fast and snappy with a gambler's edge, a certain smooth swagger perfect for the first (and American) internal-combustion century. And then also there's "Route 66. An inspiration to literature, music, drama, art and a nation of dreamers," which it certainly has been. And there's the highway as "truly a road of phantoms and dreams" that was "fashioned from vision and ingenuity." There's a great deal else besides - Wallis is really gunning the gush here, honking his hyperbole - until, finally, the promotional prose concentrates itself into two themes that will accompany your whole long ride.

The first theme is "Diners and cafes with big-boned waitresses. Waitresses who served up burgers, plate lunches and homemade pie. Waitresses with coffeepots welded to their fists. Waitresses with handkerchiefs and corsages pinned to their bosoms. Waitresses, like Steinbeck's Mae, who called everybody `Honey,' winked at the kids, and yelled at the cook."

That's how it is in Wallis' book, and that's how it was in reality throughout many years of 66's pre-eminence, a series of greasy redolences motivating generations forward: Kerouac wanna-be's looking for America, the Beaver in the back seat on the traffic-jammed holiday road, millions getting their first sight of mountains, deserts and ultimately ocean.

The second theme of the book emerges from all this shifting gastronomy, these ghostburgers and big-boned waitresses and their surrounding Americana. From beginning to end, Wallis equates Route 66 with a familiar nostalgicist's package: the combination of small-town culture, high personal individuality, low technology and crime rates, and other pleasant attributes that make up the generally agreed-upon family version of Yesteryear's U.S.A.

He mines this vein with a vigor leading almost to exhaustion and doesn't stop there; we're also hard-sold the proposition that the modernity supposedly visited upon us by the interstates that replaced Route 66 - the fast food, the cultural standardization, the shopping malls, the small-boned waitresses - is deeply regrettable.

It's the feeling of a uniquely American past still young and wild and accessible that distinguishes the book. Often all you need to see this history is a slightly different angle on the everyday. That's what Wallis has given us, and quite nicely too.