The Visitor Experience: What Should Historic Route 66 Look Like?

(May 23)  By Ruth Musser-Lopez
May 23, 2014.  A second “webinar” meeting of the “ad hoc” committee made up of those members of the public desiring to participate in the development of the Bureau of Land Management’s Route 66 Corridor Management Plan (CMP) was held yesterday, Thursday, May 22 from 10:30 to noon.  The “Visitor Experience” was the topic of this discussion.  Also discussed was the type of facilities and conveniences which should be available for the visitor driving Route 66 between Barstow and Needles.  The BLM administers the 50% to 60% of the Route that is on public land.
Jim Klein, BLM’s lead project consultant, initiated the conversation using a live broadcast over the internet along with phone conferencing.
The 21 participants were asked “What do you think a trip along Route 66 should be like through the Mojave Desert? We need your creative ideas and suggestions.”  Klein suggested a range of desirable visitor experiences or “outcomes” including interpretive, services, programming, events, educational activities or recreational experiences. Primary themes associated with the significance of Route 66 were listed and shown on the screen while participants considered who the target audience might be and how themes could be expanded or revised to develop exciting story lines that would be more interesting and meaningful to various target audiences.
Some of the themes suggested were the railroad era, where the original stops along the route were the water stops for steam engines on the adjacent railroad track—“book ending” the corridor are the Santa Fe Harvey Houses at Barstow and Needles as attractions drawing the Route 66 visitor.
Another theme is the 1930s depression and “Grapes of Wrath” era.  Scenic landscapes seen in the movie can still be seen almost entirely unaltered in their appearance today.  World War II and Patton’s maneuver area is another theme.  The Roaring 20s and the Prohibition is a theme that should be considered.   The “Doo Wop,”  “Googie” or Atomic style architecture of the late 1950s and early 1960s represents yet another theme.
Klein asked “Is the audience the existing Route 66 enthusiasts or should we be thinking about a future audience of the “millennial” generation. It was suggested that interviews be conducted with local business owners who now cater to these visitors in Barstow and Needles to learn who is currently visiting.  Participants suggested motorcyclist or bikers as one audience.  Another audience currently being developed is the Asian and European tourist market.  These visitors would be flown into Los Angeles, from where they would begin a “golden triangle” trip route, lured by Las Vegas, they could then see the Grand Canyon and drive back to Los Angeles via Route 66.
Organizations and businesses are interested in stimulating the economy and are hoping that new experiences along Route 66 might entice visitors not just to come but also to stay longer.
An overriding general concern of the group was the desire to keep Route 66 authentic and how to do this while protecting it.  According to Klein, a study by Rutgers University indicated that most visitors were there to see the real America, the authentic ghost towns, the deteriorating, dilapidated structures in real time, not reproductions. Klein used the example of the Sidewinder Café near Newberry Spring, saying that visitors appreciate it for what it is and want to see the old, not something new–what is there now, not a commercialized version.
While authenticity is desirable, it creates the dilemma of what to do in the way of installing new convenience stores, gas stations, cafes, overnight accommodations and new museums along the way, should visitation increase.
On the other hand, Klein said, there are some visitors who have stopped at the new gas station in Fenner and they will be heard saying “There is nothing to see along Route 66. There is nothing there.   So we want to achieve a happy medium, put a little more information without intruding.
Chris Irvin, a volunteer with the Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association in Goffs, presented a method which could be used to help visitors visualize what Route 66 was like “then” in the past.    Using historic photos on a translucent frame posted at the location where the photograph was taken, one can look through the frame and see the photo of what was “then” framed in the context of the background scene of the “now.”
For example, in preparation for his African campaign, General Patton trained troops in the Mojave Desert.  One of the locations was along Route 66 between Essex and Fenner.  One of the tell tale signs of his maneuver areas are the rock alignments made by the troops as busy work—alignments bordering pathways from the tents to the mess hall tents, etc.  These alignments are not readily seen from the road. However if the visitor sees a signpost they would know to stop and see the interpretive signage which could potentially include a “then” framed photograph on a translucent background which the “now” can be seen through.
QR codes (Quick Response Code) on mounted posts in the locations of points of interest could be used to display text and photographs on the visitor’s cell phone when the cell phone reader is directed at the code. QR codes would be less costly to install and maintain; they could be inconspicuous and bullet proof.  The expense would be in developing an application that could be downloaded on visitor’s cell phone for use when touring Route 66.
These roadside interpretive stations would be in addition to visitor information kiosks that could be established in the Harvey Houses in Barstow and Needles as well as at existing area museums and cultural heritage centers.
Representing the Archaeological Heritage Association (AHA) of San Bernardino County, I asked what the BLM’s approach would be to managing the corridor in the interim between now and when the CMP is completed and approved.   I represented AHA’s suggestion that a Route 66 Heritage Commission be established by the BLM to review proposed projects along the corridor to ensure that they are “in kind” with the character of the route that we want to preserve.  “Inevitably the increased activity along the route will spark new business ventures, gas stations, cafes, sleeping accommodations, camp grounds, and rest areas such as the one the BLM installed at 5 Mile Road recently.  We recommend that the BLM engage knowledgeable volunteers, historians and, or, those trained in cultural resource management be appointed to a Route 66 Heritage Commission for the purpose of reviewing proposals and to make recommendations to the BLM, the county or other pertinent administrative authority.
“Funding will be needed to stabilize and strengthen the timber trestle bridges along the road and to install the interpretive signage.  This week, I submitted the required paperwork and became a certified write-in candidate for the position of State Senator in California Senate District 16, which district includes the Route 66 corridor between Barstow and Needles” I announced.    “If elected, on my agenda for future accomplishments while in office is state funding to correct and stabilize the historic bridges and the paved road itself so that Route 66 may eventually be used, if necessary, as an emergency route alternate to Interstate 40 for moving traffic in and out of the greater Los Angeles region.”   Potentially, there could also be funding for interpretive signage through state parks.

Syndicated 2014, Ruth Musser-Lopez—Small quotes citing author, the Sentinel and publication date are permissible under copyright law.  Please respect the rights of those quoted herein by referencing source:  Lardner/Klein may be contacted at  Permission to reprint this article may be obtained by contacting Ruth at the Archaeological Heritage Association (AHA) 760/885-9374 or via email at

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