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Vintage rigs get their kicks on Route 66

Courtesy of the American Truck Historical Society

A roll down memory lane with these heavyweights will showcase their role in the nation's expansion.

Mercy sakes alive, looks like they got themselves a convoy.

On Sept. 6, a fleet of vintage trucks — Fords, Macks and Peterbilts — will “motor west on Route 66” in the inaugural Historic Highway Convoy, a 10-day tour that will combine daily truck shows, an industry primer and an eight-state drive down memory lane.

“A lot of people have never seen trucks like these,” said Bill Johnson, executive director of the American Truck Historical Society (ATHS), which organized the event. “Many don’t realize that the trucking industry helped open up a lot of areas of the country that the railroads didn’t serve.”

To honor that history, 30 trucks — “bobtails,” cabovers and the occasional pick-up — will convene in Morris, Ill., on Thursday and follow (what’s left of) the legendary road, ending up in San Bernardino, Calif., on Sept. 15.

Along the way, the group will coordinate with local antique-truck clubs to put on shows at Petro and TA truck centers, giving other travelers the opportunity to look under the hoods and learn more about the industry.

They may also get to meet ATHS members like Terry Klenske, whose passion for trucks dates back to his teen years in the 1950s, when he got his first rig, a 1953 Ford, to haul hay and cattle.

“I used to love seeing those big trucks pass me and figured that someday I’d like to have a truck like that,” he told NBC News.

Actually, he now has 12, including the 1955 Kenworth three-axle he’ll be driving in the convoy, along with a full-service trucking company that allows him to indulge his avocation.

But personal nostalgia aside, Klenske, like Johnson, sees the convoy as a way to showcase the role trucks have played in the nation’s development. As people began moving west in the early 1900s, trucks followed, hauling beef and manufactured goods west from Chicago to California, then loading up with fruits and vegetables for the long drive back.

And many of those trucks would come to travel Route 66, which was established in 1926, almost a decade before the road became famous as the escape route for Dust Bowl refugees seeking the promised land of California.

In fact, what John Steinbeck would come to call the Mother Road was actually created to foster cross-country commerce, says David Knudson, executive director of the National Historic Route 66 Federation.

“Prior to the opening of Route 66, trucks had to drive the Lincoln Highway (a more northerly route) and they often got snowed in during the winter,” said Knudson. “Route 66 was commissioned to provide an alternative and became known as ‘the fair-weather highway.’”

Today, of course, the fair-weather highway’s past is a lot brighter than its future. Rendered obsolete by the creation of the Interstate Highway System, it was officially decommissioned in 1985 and now exists primarily as disparate sections managed by individual states.

In that regard, much of it is still drivable — around 85 percent, says Knudson — although those undertaking it would be advised to get a map or guidebook before setting out. You won’t make good time, but you’ll get a good look at what Knudson calls a “2,400-mile museum of roadside Americana.”

And if you make the trip in the coming days, you might also catch a glimpse of a convoy of vintage rigs working their way west just as others have for almost a century. A lot has changed, but when it comes to trucks, roads and people, some things are forever.

“Kids go by and they still make the sign of blowing the horn,” said Klenske. “They still get a big kick when you give ‘em a big honk.”

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.

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