On the Road Again: The Stories Maps Can Tell

On the Road Again: The Stories Maps Can Tell

The American love affair with cars, along with a national heritage of exploration and discovery, has created a mythology about the open road that has existed from the first European landings in America. The roads that we have travelled have developed their own persona. The Cumberland Road was a wagon road in Maryland that became the National Highway allowing settlers to migrate west. The Lincoln Highway was built as a way to bring the east coast in touch with the west coast and Route 66 became the road of choice for the Dust Bowl travelers.

Being a west-coast girl, I jumped at the opportunity in 1975 to try some new adventures in the mid-west. Fresh-faced and eager to start, I packed up my 1962 Ford Falcon truck named "Rosie" in Los Angeles and headed east to Mid-America. Picking my route was easy—one straight shot out of Los Angeles, Route 66. For hundreds of miles, on sometimes two-lane roads, Rosie and I traveled up the hills into Barstow and across the desert into Flagstaff where I marveled at mountains that exist in the middle of nowhere. Across New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma, we met strangers who became friends and ate diner food to experience the local flavor. Scores of French fries later, we arrived at our destination.

I hadn't thought about that trip for a long time until this last summer when we took a road trip to Colorado. We took the big, modern highway that got us there quickly; and while the travel was good, I missed the connection that one gets when traveling along the smaller by-ways.

As usual when looking into the past, I got to thinking about how we could connect this kind of past—a simple highway, full of colorful characters, settings, and definitely full of history—and it occurred to me…wouldn't it be fun to take students on a virtual field trip across the U.S. via iconic highways? What if students created their own historical field trip using maps, images, stories, and other primary sources? They could write their own travelogues and illustrate them; they could create a Google map route, or design a scavenger hunt for their classmates using map clues to get to their "prize" all the while learning how to unpack primary sources, locate information, and read and navigate with a map.

Given that most students today use GPS devices to give them step-by-step instructions on how to get to any destination, it is useful to take some time to teach map and location skills. Road directions guide us to landmarks and give us the ability to move ourselves towards our destination, but they don't place us within a geographical context. We might be able to find the restaurant we want to go to, but we don't learn from our GPS directions that beyond the restaurant's corner there is a historical land marker or Pony Express stop. With a map in hand, we can decide to take a local road instead of a highway or see that there are alternative routes or possible scenic vistas.

Geography is often taught within history classes mostly as infographics used to study historical events: war battles, migrations, or other human events. Physical geography may be a part of a science course within an earth science unit. So it is that often students graduate today without ever having learned how to use a road map. Some may say that map reading is no longer needed, but having a sense of location within a larger area is an important part of knowing and understanding our environment and where we fit within it. Map skills teach that "big picture" context that scientists need as well as historians or geographers. The new C3 Social Studies Standards support this need by spotlighting this skill as part of the geography "dimension." Here is sample wording: "D2.Geo.2.6-8. Use maps, satellite images, photographs, and other representations to explain relationships between the locations of places and regions, and changes in their environmental characteristics."

Imagine the virtual adventures we could give our students using the highway as a guide. Let's look at what Route 66 offers us as a way to engage students in historical and cultural investigations—possibly as an alternative to the old "state report" or "country report."

Get Your Kicks

Route 66, an iconic road hailed by song, poetry, and television, has been cast aside for more modern highways that allow travelers to slip through the miles with ease and speed. With much the same characteristic of any other primary source, this route tells the story of a culture through time and it is worthwhile to approach it as the subject of study just as we might collect and look at images and documents relating to a time period. Think: Revolutionary War documents, or Cold War documents: The individual pieces of paper or images tell the story of the war across time. Highways, and the businesses, towns, cities, and open spaces along the route, can tell the story of those locations. A close look can give us clues as to how people lived in a particular time and place, as well as how they viewed their lives. (Social Studies lens: change over time.)

Route 66 was commissioned in 1926 as a way to connect smaller towns with each other all the way from Chicago, Illinois, to Santa Monica, California. It was difficult to drive in the beginning because much of it was dirt roads, but by 1936 bridges had been built over rivers and flood areas, and roads were paved. This created a mostly flat, direct road across the country.

The Great Depression landed squarely on the shoulders of farmers and workers in Oklahoma and other nearby states. The reliability of route 66 allowed people to give it a try. Packing up their belongings into cars and trucks, they headed west. Route 66 was given its name "The Mother Road" by John Steinbeck in his book The Grapes of Wrath: "And they came into 66 from tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads, 66 is the mother road, the road of flight."

Route 66 was also the opening needed for the trucking industry to get started. With a reliable road connecting many towns across the country, small trucking firms began to go between towns, expanding as the markets grew.

After World War II, the interstate highway system expanded across the nation with large, straight-shot multi-lane roads, and Route 66 was no longer considered an official highway. More and more Americans prospered, and were able not only to purchase cars, but also to take vacations. With their families, they took to the road to explore their country, and while Route 66 didn't attract those who wanted to get to their destination quickly, it did inspire many to explore back roads, small towns, and interesting people. Today, there are many websites devoted to Route 66 and it's history, quirkiness, and sense that it is indeed, the "mother road" for a period of American history. It is worth using it as an anchor for the study of much of 20th century culture. Check out the following resource ideas, but take time to explore the vast Internet: there are many more out there!

By introducing the route as not only a highway, but also as a means to re-create a way of life all along the way, students can indeed take a close look at how America and Americans changed during the 20th century. We often hang century studies on the backs of war: "Americans before World War I," "Americans on the Homefront," or "Americans in the Vietnam War." How much more creative would it be to examine change over time by looking at "Americans on the Road"?

What Could We Do with This?

Inquiry Research

Use the Route as the launching pad for an inquiry into 20th century America

Possible Essential Questions to launch investigation could include:

  • How has American's love of the automobile defined our interstate highway system?
  • How has America's music reflected our idea of "Manifest Destiny?"
  • How does Route 66 reflect changes in our culture?
    Examine the following as possibilities:
    • Growth of the American diner
    • Fast food evolution
    • Even though the television show "Route 66" had little to do with the Route itself, the show popularized the idea of "hitting the road" for young people. How might this cultural shift affect young people—e.g. Jack Kerouac's On the Road, the film Easy Rider, and the hippie travelers in the 1960s and early '70s ?
    • Oral histories and memoirs
  • How did Route 66 change American life?
    • Movement of people, goods, and services
    • Effect on how people ate, lived, and traveled?
    • Economic impact
  • How does our modern day travel industry capitalize off our history or geography?
    • Legends—there are some incredible ghosts that have haunted this Route. See: http://www.legendsofamerica.com/mo-jerometears.html—by reading about this one man's tribute to the Trail of Tears, jump off into the Trail of Tears. Because the memorial is now crumbling, consider how archeologists and historians trace history through ruins.

Investigations into the history, geography, and culture of Route 66 lend themselves beautifully to natural differentiation. Inquiry, when chosen by the students, allows them to jump in not only at their own level, but at their own level of interest, and with the huge array of possibilities that these resources offer, we can support student learning while giving them opportunities to "stretch" their research skills including: curating information, evaluating resources, and creating presentations.


The connection with John Steinbeck is undeniable. Those classes reading Grapes of Wrath could easily follow the Joads using Google maps or a print road map.


Using YouTube videos, follow the history of the iconic song "Get Your Kicks on Route 66." Written by songwriter Bobby Troup, it became a hit sung by many others. Let students explore the song as it goes through genre, generation, and style starting with Nat King Cole…possibly ending with Natalie Cole as a full circle. What does each artist bring to the song that exemplifies his/her generation?

  • Nat King Cole (1946)
  • Bobby Troup—songwriter (1946)
    Follow it up with:
  • Chuck Berry (1961)
  • John Mayer (2006, for the movie Cars)
  • Asleep at the Wheel (1992)
  • Rolling Stones (1964)
  • Manhattan Transfer (1981)
  • Natalie Cole (1991)

Teach Map Skills

Go to AAA and pick up several print maps that cover an area of the Route—perhaps the road the Joads may have gone, or have students study one of the sites listed above and have them choose a state or several states.

Assign small groups and give each group a map. Show them how to read the map. Identify the legend, look at the mileage markers, identify the different state lines, etc. If your students are young, or have never read a map, spend a bit of time with this preliminary activity:

"Road Rally"

  • Give each group a map of your town.
  • Hand out a list of mileage directions that you made up in advance.
    Example: "starting at school go 3.5 miles east. List the cross streets there. Then turn north and travel 5.6 miles. What could you do there? (the zoo—pet the animals; etc.)
  • With only their ruler and map, have them follow your directions from your school to a designated place (do not tell them their ending point). Each group could have the same ending point, or if you have time, make up several. Have them "race" to the end.

Once they know how to navigate using a printed map, have students create their own road rally adventure for the other groups using Route 66. They must include the route (by mileage or other map-readable method) and an ending point of interest with enough stops along the way to be interesting.

Consider Diverse Perspectives

While thousands of Americans took to the road in the 1930s, '40s, '50s, and '60s, people of color wanting to partake in the same opportunities that travel affords, more often than not found themselves in places where they were unwelcome at best, and threatened, harassed, or victims of violence at worst. The Negro Motorist Green Book was the guide African Americans could count on to guide them to cities, towns, restaurants, hotels, and sights that would welcome them. This book is downloadable and can be used for classroom activities of all kinds including having students plot out a trip that an African American might make using the guidebook, and then asking: what sights are nearby that whites could see that might not have been accessible by African Americans on a similar trip? Was the "freedom of the open road" available to all? (http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/collections/the-green-book#/?tab=about).

Works Cited

Green, Victor H. The Negro Motorist Green Book. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division. NYPL, New York. UUID: 9ea5d5b0-1117-0132-7932-58d385a7b928. Digital file.

"Legendary Route 66: History, Places, and People of the Mother Road." Legends of America. Legends of America, 2016.
http://www.legendsofamerica.com/66-main.html (accessed January 8, 2016).

"The People's Highway: Route 66." Exhibition: America on the Move. National Museum of American History, http://amhistory.si.edu/onthemove/exhibition/exhibition_10_2.html (accessed January 12, 2016).

About the Author

Connie Williams, MLS, is a National Board Certified Teacher Librarian. She is a member of the California State Library Services Advisory Board, and is a past president of the California School Library Association. She is currently an on-call librarian with the Sonoma County Public Library and adjunct with Santa Rosa Junior College. She is the author of Understanding Government Information: a Teaching Strategy Toolkit for Grades 7-12 (Libraries Unlimited 2016).

MLA Citation

Williams, Connie. "On the Road Again: The Stories Maps Can Tell." ABC-CLIO Solutions, ABC-CLIO, 2022, educatorsupport.abc-clio.com/TopicCenter/Display/2015991?productId=2002&topicCenterId=2257524&subId=2275091. Accessed 4 Oct. 2022.

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