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Sat, Jan. 18

Kingman's already taken a huge first step for Route 66 heritage

Note: Kingman is the third Route 66 city Miner reporter Hubble Ray Smith has called home. He offers these memories as Kingman prepares to celebrate the International Route 66 Festival.

When the International Route 66 Festival rolls into Kingman today, people will know they've arrived in a town that celebrates America's historic migration west.

They'll learn about 19th-century mining towns such as Oatman, Chloride and Peach Springs. Like it or not, they'll hear that train a comin' around the bend. And they'll drive the iconic highway that's the focus of this weekend's festivities.

It took me less than a week living here to understand the highway's significance to Kingman's well-being. I watched a couple from Spain trace the Route 66 map at Dambar Steakhouse. A few days later, Spanish tourists were taking pictures of the Route 66 emblem in the middle of the road in downtown Kingman.

I lived in Victorville, Calif., for two years during the 1970s and never encountered one tourist from Spain. I'm sure not many people in Spain have heard of Victorville.

That's not a knock on Victorville. It's not a glorious town, but I had a glorious time there playing my last year of organized baseball at Victor Valley College and I came away with an appreciation for the beauty to be found in the high desert - the shades of brown, purple and grey in the mountains contrasted against a burnt-red sunset.

Did I gain a sense of Route 66 history there? Not at all.

Interstate 15 is now the lifeblood of Victorville, and the Seventh Street business district (old Route 66) left no remnants of the historic highway. There were no Route 66 signs on the road, no restaurants with Route 66 in their name, not even a rundown Route 66 motel.

I worked at a Mobil station off I-15 at Stoddard Wells Road and the only people who stopped by were busted gamblers coming back from Vegas, most of them purchasing on credit, others looking to pawn something.

So city officials and festival promoters in Victorville shouldn't have been disappointed when fewer than 5,000 people showed up at their Route 66 International Festival two years ago. Victorville did nothing to embrace its Route 66 heritage, at least not when I lived there. They opened the California Route 66 Museum in 1995.

How did Victorville miss the boat?

Maybe it's the misfortune of being left out of Bobby Troup's famous song. Kingman has that going for it. Victorville was barely a dot on the map in 1946. Of course, the highway has experienced a renaissance over the past 10 to 15 years, mostly due to nostalgic baby boomers romanticizing their past and classic car clubs out for a Sunday cruise.

The difference I see is that Kingman is on board.

The city has found a "sense of community," as festival officials have said. You can feel the Mother Road vibe. It helps being in the heart of the longest remaining stretch (160 miles) of the highway.

We can measure the festival's success by attendance, but if it falls short of projections, we're disappointed like Victorville.

We can measure it by taxable sales, though those figures can be rather tricky to calculate. Who spent the money and during which weekend of the month?

One thing is guaranteed. After three days here, people are going to know Kingman as more than a town in the lyrics of a song. They're going to live part of history.

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