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Legendary U.S. Route 66 made a relic by freeways

They shine in the barber's eyes as he talks - memories of an era he lived through and watched ebb.

He walks his streets, and the echoes are everywhere: echoes of a town that claimed his lifetime loyalty. Of travelers long departed, cars long obsolete, and an important, exciting road that led people to important, exciting adventures.Two decades have passed since the echoes replaced reality - 2 p.m., Sept. 22, 1978, the day that wiped the grin from Angel Delgadillo's face. He rose from the barber chair he inherited from his daddy, walked outside, pursed his lips and watched everything slip away.

That day, I-40 opened a mile away to carry cars back and forth at 70 mph. In an instant, the 9,000 automobiles that passed through town each hour vanished and the legendary U.S. Route 66, Seligman's life force and main street for three generations, became a relic.

"I stood out there, looked either way and saw nothing. We, the people of these towns, had been forgotten. It's sad when the world forgets you," Del-ga-dillo says.

"Our home," he says, "was history."

Trapped in a landscape shaped by and for the road, Seligman joined the list of death-row towns condemned by the very brand of progress that originally energized them - a new, faster highway system. Businesses closed. People left. Buildings decayed.

Then something curious happened. Today the barber waits in his shop and, once again, the cars pull off. Americans and Germans, Japanese and Scandinavians, they come with cameras and money just to see people like him - Angel Delgadillo, 70, who cuts hair and carries the torch of another age.

He encourages this interest. Because for him - for all of those who still populate the towns and not-quite-towns along the 2,400-mile expanse that once was Route 66 - it offers a narrow chance at a future.

Today, the "Mother Road," a cauldron of American memories real and wished, lives again. Today, people are looking at communities like Seligman for more than just food, phone, gas and lodging.

Today, Angel Delgadillo's grin has returned.

Not so long ago, journey mattered as much as destination. And between 1926 and the 1960s, Route 66 was the ultimate road trip through the essence of pioneer spirit - the American frontier.

Those lands - the Midwest and Southwest - were the regions that inspired Disneyland and its two-thirds-scale American experience. And 66 in its heyday was an equivalent of Disney's "PeopleMover," except the landscape it traversed was real life.

It meandered through Ad-entureland's undulating hills, mountains and desertland so novel to touring Easterners. Through Frontierland, with its promise of unfettered access to all parts of the once-wild West. And most of all through our Main streets the patch towns that grew from Western settlements and, decades later, formed the dots connected by 66, the first federal highway to link the Mississippi River to California's boomtown shores.

It began in Chicago, dipped south to Texas, then snaked through the Southwest to Los Angeles and the Pacific. It carried cars through major towns like Oklahoma City, Amarillo and Albuquerque, but its heart was the in-betweens - dusty places like Tucumcari, N.M.; Barstow, Calif.; Seligman. Nineteenth-century Americans may have pioneered this frontier, but in this century Route 66 helped populate it.

This highway had something its horse-trail predecessors lacked: From the day 66 opened in 1926 - parts paved, others simply dirt-and-gravel roads elevated into mass use - it and the American obsession with the automobile evolved together.

Driving was still an adventure. Windows were left open. Automatic gas pumps, automatic tellers and drive-through speakers had not supplanted human contact. And what better vacation than to pack the family and head west to picture-postcard places like the Painted Desert, the Grand Canyon and Hollywood?

"You were actually living instead of being projected through space in some enclosed, air-conditioned vehicle," says Terri Ryburn-LaMonte, who teaches a course on Route 66 at Illinois State University.

When Depression and dust storms filled Oklahoma with scarred fields and destitute farmers, Okies packed belongings and drove west on 66 looking for fruit-picking work in California. Shippers turned to trucks to augment trains. And, since 66 was assembled from local roads, it acted as a regional highway that streamlined a vast patchwork of commerce and transit.

What grew from this combination of local and national travelers was an individualistic landscape of motels, restaurants and gas stations, built by entrepreneurs who believed drivers passing at 35, maybe 45 mph would be enticed by colorful signage, pull off and participate in whatever good or service was for sale.

Then, in 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, enamored of smooth roads he saw in Germany during World War II, launched the Interstate Highway System as an American Autobahn - a limited-access, high-speed way to ride.

In the Southwest, it was I-40. Each year another segment opened, often paralleling 66, sometimes bypassing a town by mere yards. Ribbons of smooth macadam unrolled across the land, placing travelers atop their landscape rather than within it. In 1985, the government decommissioned U.S. 66 into official nonexistence.

With each new section of interstate, towns whose livelihoods rested upon the attractions-at-roadside layout were left to grapple with the consequences. The lucky few located at freeway exits, like Seligman, hung on - barely. The in-betweens were left to fall away.

For the people of those places, life - and landscape - changed forever.

Tourists trying to retrace old 66 today face an obstacle course of dead ends, crumbling pavement and sporadic signage.

Though parts that pass through cities like Albuquerque still thrive, many stretches of 66 are dilapidated and neglected. And nature, with typical ashes-to-dust efficiency, has retaken many of the smaller places - entire towns, in some cases.