The idea of “motoring west” had only started to become really romantic—or feasible—following World War II.
These days, people talk about “going out west” largely in terms of taking a vacation. The population of the U.S. is extremely mobile, and one person might live in California but have a sister in Florida and a brother in New York, so flying out west is no big deal.
Back in 1946, though, it took days or sometimes weeks to get from Chicago to California. People had generally made trips to the west for serious economic reasons, for example to seek land or work in anything from fruit fields to gold mines. During the 1930s, California’s reputation as a place with jobs and opportunities brought tens of thousands of migrant workers, but lots of people who actually moved out there found the western dream to be a tough reality.
By the 1940s, economic prosperity returned to the country during and after World War II. Riding the tides of romanticized cross-country songs like ”This Land Is Your Land”, songwriters took up the call and encouraged Americans to go west with fervor.
Americans have been heading out west since before there even was an America, but didn’t hurt that there was finally a highway to drive on.
Before the 1920s, there was no such thing as an interstate highway. Some people had cars, and those who did could tool from town to town on what were literally known as “auto trails,” rough roads that may or may not have gotten any upkeep from the localities they stretched between. Federal legislation passed in 1921 dictated the creation of a network of U.S. Highways, now known as the U.S. Highway or U.S. Route system. Route 66, which ran from Chicago to L.A., became one of the most famous, in part because of the major cities that it passed through, but also because of the notoriety it gained through this song.
But if you were Nat King Cole, why would you want to leave Chicago?
Although he’d begun his life in Montgomery, Alabama, Nat King Cole was a proud Chicagoan. His preacher father moved the family north in 1921, when Cole was only two. (Incidentally, 1921 was also the year that work began in earnest on the U.S. highway system.) The Chicago jazz and blues scene, which has close ties to the U.S. highway system because of the Great Migration, was Cole’s musical home.
Later, though, Cole would end up in L.A., and not just any part of L.A.—the nearly all-white town of Beverly Hills. Cole, an African-American, became something of a trailblazer by buying a house there despite the fact that he was pretty much the only black person who lived there at the time. The move made waves, but he stood by it. After white racists attacked him on stage in Montgomery, AL, he never toured in the South again. Luckily Route 66 doesn’t really go through the South.
Two thousand miles was, like, wicked far then.
Post-war Americans were beyond the days of horse-drawn carriages, for sure, but not by all that many years. The first direct, paved route between these two major cities was only about twenty years old at the time this song was released. Of course, these days we probably wouldn’t consider Route 66 a very direct way to get someplace, as it winds through small town after small town with stops and starts for the entire two thousand miles. And let’s not even talk about gas prices. Most people would just try to wait for a good deal on a flight.