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Taking the scenic route

“Dear Shirley,

We decided to take a little drive, so here we are at Alturas. Last night we stayed at Redding. There are a lot of nice trout streams in this part of the country, so I intend to try my luck.

Hope to see you soon,

Love, Anita.”

Written on the back of a postcard depicting Mount Shasta, this message was sent in 1952 to Anita’s friend Shirley in Napa, California, for a mere two cents.

The spectacular photo of snow-capped Mount Shasta on the front of the postcard is the cover of Carole MacRobert Steele’s book “A Pictorial History of Highway 99, The Scenic Route.”

Spanning the early 1900s through the 1960s, the 423-page book is the Merlin author’s sentimental journey along U.S. Highway 99 from the foothills of the Red Bluff-Redding area to the outskirts of metropolitan Portland. A story played out in more than 600 rare vintage postcards, it’s a nostalgic ride through a patchwork of landscapes along stretches of highway in the Rogue and Willamette valleys where motels, auto courts, roadside diners and filling stations once thrived.

Steele’s fascination with old Highway 99 was birthed on family vacations in the 1950s. Traveling by station wagon between the San Francisco Bay area and Portland every summer, she was enthralled by the wide-open vistas, the blue skies, the trees and the roadside attractions.

“As a 6-year-old sitting in the back of the station wagon, I became fascinated with Black Butte,” she said. “In the 1950s, the highway literally ran right at the base of the mountain as depicted in my postcards.”

Officially, Highway 99 ran from Calexico, California, on the U.S.-Mexico border to Blaine, Washington, on the U.S.-Canada border. It closely followed the track of the Siskiyou Trail, which was carved out of a network of footpaths trod by Native Americans and later the Hudson Bay fur trappers. Mule train trails, stagecoach roads and later the Southern Pacific Railroad followed the same route. By the middle of the 1930s, motorized travel became more popular, paving the way, literally, for the highway, later dubbed “The Pacific Highway.”

Steele chose the section from Northern California to Portland “because it is truly the most scenic stretch.”

These days, Highway 99’s scenic route is the road less traveled. Readers will discover sections of Highway 99 once made up the main thoroughfare in Medford and Grants Pass before Interstate 5 bypassed both downtown corridors. In Medford, the highway was considered the “Gateway to Crater Lake.” Coming into Grants Pass, motorists traveled “The Miracle Mile.”

“My objective was to show the highway the way it looked from the turn of the last century through the 1960s, showing roadside attractions that no longer exist,” Steele said. “I wanted to show the actual road and how it’s changed through the decades. Therefore, there are a lot of images of the road itself.”

Much of Highway 99’s charm and allure, however, vanished with the construction of Interstate 5. The freeway was built in segments between 1956 and 1978, bypassing many small towns along the route. By 1968, U.S. 99 was completely decommissioned.

Long before we shared our travels via Facebook and Instagram selfies, postcards were snapshots of tourist stops, and the messages scrawled on the back mini travelogues.

This one, mailed in 1951 from Medford for one cent, reads:

“Dearest Mary and John,

You never know from one day to the next where we will go! It’s the gypsy in us. So cool, green and nice here. We’re having so much fun eating. Wish you were here. Thinking of you always.”

In 1937, a daughter wrote her mother about the “profitable morning” she had on a shopping spree in Medford. The photo on the front, she said, reminded her of the “place we lunched just out of Bend.”

Steele’s 50-year bout of “postcarditis” began in 1970 when her father-in-law gifted hundreds of postcards to her and her husband after their wedding. The elder Mr. Steele ran an antique shop and estate business and had acquired the postcards dating back to the pre-1930s, but he had little interest in keeping them in his inventory. The collection represented a broad range of subject matter and images depicting the tapestry of American and European landmarks.

“I was immediately intrigued and fascinated,” Steele recalled.

She was attracted to the black-and-white and sepia photographs and captivated by the history the images represented.

“I consider myself a nostalgic person,” she said. “I love the feeling I get reading about places that no longer exist and seeing their images in print.”

In 1976, Steele began collecting in earnest. Combining her three passions: history, writing and deltiology (the hobby of collecting and researching postcards), she soon became a regular contributor to Barr’s Postcard News. Drawing from her vast collection, she was able to use her own postcards to illustrate all 36 articles.

By 1980, Steele had acquired so many postcards that she started selling, and for the past 25 years has marketed her rare and vintage cards on EBay.

After she and her husband retired and moved to Merlin in 2002, Steele self-published “A Pictorial History of Mono Hot Springs, California” in 2003 and “Phoebe’s House — A Hearst Legacy” in 2016. She spent the next five years working on the Highway 99 tome.

“Capturing and preserving history is so important, because in the blink of an eye, places, buildings and sites can be gone. Luckily, as in the case of Phoenix and Talent, I have images of those towns in the book.”

“A Pictorial History of Highway 99, The Scenic Route” is available at Barnes and Nobles in Medford, Oregon Books and Games in Grants Pass, and on Amazon.

Reach Grants Pass writer Tammy Asnicar at tammyasnicar@q.com.