ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.-For Route 66, it's another summer of love.
The road more taken in the migration from East to West, Route 66 has always been a favorite-especially when school's out. But this November ``The Mother Road,'' as John Steinbeck called Route 66 in his classic ``Grapes of Wrath,'' turns 75. Birthday bashes for this American classic have been thrown all summer and one of the biggest was July 19-22 in Albuquerque, N.M.
Tire dealers-long an important oasis along that highway-have been a part of the celebrations.
The mystique of Route 66, which linked Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif., before being superseded by the superhighways of the interstate system in the 1970s, has survived far longer than its concrete.
Today it's far more than a 2,400-mile trail of trinkets. Memorabilia hunters prize original postcards, signs and maps from its heyday. Others will go anywhere to retrace long-ago lost stretches of road. Like archaeologists of America's golden age of automobiles, they're armed with shovels, satellite images and off-road vehicles. Authors and photographers, not to mention foreigners, flock to it.
Thousands indeed get their kicks on Route 66. But some get flats. And so it came to pass that the tire dealer became a fixture of the Route 66 landscape-then and now.
Tom Chavez Jr. has lived near that highway his entire life. Mr. Chavez, 45, has operated, along with co-owner Jim Tabor, Downtown Tire & Automotive Service in Albuquerque since 1993. The 10-bay shop on Central Avenue/Route 66 had long been a tire store.
``A couple of years ago a guy came in for a tire repair. It was non-repairable,'' Mr. Chavez recalled. ``We sold him a set of tires. It turned out he came to us because in 1949 he had a flat coming into town. In those days tires had tubes in them. He said he had had to pull over to the side of the road in 90-degree heat, break the tire off the rim and remove the tube, patch it and air it up with a pump. Then he drove it into town.''
``Route 66 brings back a lot of memories,'' Mr. Chavez said. ``People come back because their families drove it-five or six people in a car headed to whatever their dream was. It's something I hope will never die.''
Downtown's stretch of memory lane was dying in the mid-1980s, he said. Once thriving with big stores like J.C. Penney and Sears, Roebuck and Co.-and movie theaters where, after church on Sundays, his family would take in a double-feature matinee, complete with popcorn and hotdog, for $1.50 a person-the area had decayed. Drunks, panhandlers and litter were in abundance. ``It was very sad. The community, the mayor and a couple of city council members made an effort to bring back downtown and Route 66,'' Mr. Chavez said. ``We used to get together at Lew Wallace School and have soda and cookies, then go down Central and just start picking up trash and beer bottles.''
Besides the fabled route, cars are in his blood. Mr. Chavez's 82-year-old father, Ray Chavez Sr., ran the body shop business for a major General Motors Corp. dealership and still drops by his son's tire store to offer help and advice.
Downtown Tire, part of the American Car Care Centers Inc. marketing program, specializes in Michelin, BFGoodrich and Uniroyal. Big customers include the U.S. Forest Service, Immigration and Naturalization Service, and city and county employees.
It's not unusual to see foreign tourists cruise Central, hanging out their car windows videotaping as they drive by, the younger Mr. Chavez said with a chuckle. On weekends a lot of the traffic consists of classic cars like Corvettes. The owners, he explained, ``like to get them out of their garages. They only drive them on Sundays.''
Mr. Chavez recently picked up a retro-styled ``Sunday special'' himself: a black Chrysler PT Cruiser. The only challenge is finding time to drive it. Mr. Chavez, who still puts in the occasional 15-hour days, often leaves the Cruiser parked in the front of the store, a Route 66 banner draped across its windshield.
Three hundred miles west of Albuquerque another tire store has discovered that collector cars and Route 66 are a natural combination.
``A lot of people come through and they're doing their Route 66 thing. They'll see my '68 Pontiac Firebird out front and stop in,'' said Kevin Russell, general manager of High Country Tire & Auto in Flagstaff, Ariz., a seven-bay shop that once used a dilapidated portion of Route 66 to test suspensions.
Quite a few car clubs come through town, he said. ``We've had guys who've had problems, where I've actually used parts off my car to get them on the road.'' Then there was the time a road crew doing some construction on old 66 ``took the pavement off the top. We had tourists coming back and picking up the pieces of concrete underneath that were from the original highway so they could say they owned part of Route 66. That was cool.''
Mr. Russell, his wife and a son are in a band called ``The Route 66 Players.'' Mr. Russell, 37, plays guitar and bass. ``We play a lot of the '50s and '60s stuff,'' he said. ``We play at a lot of car shows and a studio here in town wants us to record there, so we'll be doing some work in a professional environment.''
Show business has been one of the prime draws of Southern California. The desert town of Barstow, Calif., is strategically sited along ``old'' Route 66, roughly midway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
Wander into Barstow Tire & Brake, on Main Street/Route 66, and you'll quickly spot on a wall near the corner, several autographed publicity shots from the likes of Bo Derek, Rich Little, Buddy Hackett, Jerry Lewis, former Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda and Eddie Albert.
Leonard Purdy, who's owned the shop since 1975, has rescued more than his share of entertainment industry folks. Over the years, Mr. Purdy said, movie studio transportation departments have come to trust his help and attitude, often recommending Barstow Tire & Brake (they're also a AAA 24-hour towing service) to celebrities who call for help.
``(Actor) Wilford Brimley broke down here in Barstow about 10 years ago,'' Mr. Purdy recalled. ``I think it was a fan belt. We got him on the road. He was so impressed with the work and the price that he actually has us work on his vehicles when he drives through here. He has a ranch in Utah. He's a real gentleman.''
Mr. Purdy, 58, who has been in the tire business ``all my life,'' is a hometown hero known for quietly helping town folk and strangers alike. He's replaced tires, fixed radiators and done repairs for free. ``People come through town and they have no money. I give people used tires to help them get them on the road,'' he said.
His three locations carry Mastercraft tires by Cooper as well as Michelins, BFGoodrich and Toyos. He has been part of a Route 66 club for 10 years. ``I donate stuff. We try and keep it going. I remember in high school that this used to be one of the busiest roads there is. Right across from me was the biggest Standard gas station in the country. You would just spend hours trying to get through Barstow.''
A lot of people still come through and they ask where the highway started,'' Mr. Purdy said.
For Becky Ransom, human resources director for The Big Texan Steak Ranch, an Amarillo restaurant famous for its huge steaks, Route 66 changed her life.
``It's meant wonderful friendships,'' she said.
``I'm either traveling or meeting people with a passion for traveling.'' More importantly, the former history teacher added, ``people who become interested in Route 66 become interested in their own community.''