It was once hailed as “The Mother Road,” saluted as “Main Street U.S.A.”. There have been songs written about it, books, movies, a television show. In our collective imagination it carries us back to a more innocent time, when America was young, when entrepreneurialism was grass roots, before cookie cutter chains and faceless corporations, when driving across the country from Chicago to L.A. promised an epic adventure. Most of it is still there, 2,400 miles of it, cutting through seven states, functioning as frontage roads or business routes. So what is Route 66 today? What does it tell us about ourselves? I was bound to find out.
A Giant Man with a Rocket and Advice from Professionals
Out of Chicago the snow was spitting and the sky was gray, about right for late February. The temperature was 27 degrees. On either side of the road the dead grass had been flattened by heavy snows only recently melted away, patches of it here and there. Near Joliet an industrial complex was billowing smoke, all curved pipes and smoke stacks. The stanchions of a bridge were rusting and corroded. Particles of ice were peppering my windshield.
At Wilmington a giant man was holding a rocket ship, grinning. On the radio they were announcing the final flight of the space shuttle and discussing the defunding of NASA.
At Dwight I stopped. Here stood a perfectly restored Texaco gas station circa 1955. “You can trust your car to man who wears the star.” Remnant of a bygone era. I fueled up at a nearby auto plaza. The gas cost $3.19. When the pump failed to produce my receipt I hitched up my collar and went into the convenience store to ask for it, inconvenienced.
I aimed my car down the narrow gullet of I-55 with old 66 running beside, took it up to the limit, rolled past empty farm fields, billboards offering advice on abortion, seed signs, attorneys offering to get me money for my injuries. The sky was blotted out by clouds, the sun a distant memory. Grain silos and water towers. Quality Antiques. Click it or Ticket. Adult Video. Temperature 43.
Keeping America Safe From Itself
Overnight in St. Louis in the shadow of The Arch: an upside down necklace, a legal U-turn, one half of a McDonald’s logo, Gateway to the West. Down through the
heart of Missouri where the land starts to pitch and roll. Dollar stores and Trailways. The Ozark poor cannibalizing their spare belongings, rusting out the relics of their existence in the brows and declivities of the land. The smell of sodden soil.
Through the shelf rock and knurled fissures of numerous road cuts. Out of the morning mist a man came walking, ambling along, bright orange cap, rifle slung over his shoulder, a black Lab beside him.
Outside Joplin there’s a break in the clouds, the first blue I’ve seen.
It’s all rigs and me. 18-wheeler escort into Oklahoma. Entering Cherokee Nation. Do Not Drive Into Smoke. Knives, Moccasins, Fireworks. Look to Jesus. Gas $2.99, a steal. Temperature 58 degrees.
At Catoosa there’s a blue whale made of concrete and steel, a whimsical swimming platform made by a father for his children, shut down by the lawyers in ’88, keeping America safe from itself. Hunter’s Choice: Firearms & Ammo. Lucky Star Casino. Toby Keith’s I Love America Café. The clouds are beginning to clear but I’m bewildered.
Down through Tulsa to OK City. A roan stallion tossing its mane in a golden meadow.
A herd of black Angus grazing beneath a lone cottonwood. Red earth where the pale grass has been scoured away. The road rises and falls. A bristle of cell phone towers. The National Cowboy Museum. A giant blue inflatable gorilla selling Fords. Oklahoma City ain’t all that pretty, truth be told.
The landscape goes flat. You can see for miles. This is Tom Joad country, the once-upon-a-time-dust-bowl, the place that launched a thousand Oakies down the asphalt barrel of 66 and into the heart of California, changing everything.
A Kingdom Beckoning
At Clinton the Route 66 Museum tells the story: a nation of dirt and mud, and then in 1927 a road, Route 66, connecting Chicago to L.A., a single paved conduit through the heart of the country. In 1934 an escape route for starving farmers to migrant farm jobs in the west. In 1942 a river of asphalt carrying off
eager young soldiers from a thousand rural tributaries to basic training and the war. In the 1950’s and 60’s a passageway to paradise for vacationing families with kids, lined with whimsical attractions, giants and whales and wigwams and, at the end of it all, a magic kingdom, beckoning.
By the 1970’s the interstate was siphoning off the slow moving traffic, the rubber neckers, the lingerers, firing them down four lanes of carefully crowned and graded aggregate, bypassing the towns. Route 66 fell into decline. OPEC was on everybody’s mind. Where are we going to get that energy now?
Any Crazy Notion on Route 66
At Weatherford rank upon rank of giant windmills, sleek, white, imperious, throwing their slowly spinning shadows on the ground. Further along, the dipping bird wells sit idle, dipping no more. Temperature 74.
Into the dusk, chasing the sunset into the panhandle, the Texas high plains. The land sprawls and stretches, diving, caving, eroding, leaving flattops, flat as anvils, and suddenly reverting back to innocent grassland again, like something coy and elusive.
At Shamrock a perfectly restored 1930’s gas station. At Groom, Texas a leaning tower, a hare-brained utility, off-kilter. Any crazy notion. Cadillacs stuck nose down in the mud, six cars in a row, raked back. A profligacy of fuel and transport, so much you could primp it, play with it. You could delight in it.
My last image this day: an old farmyard windmill, a third of its blades missing, solitary, black and conspicuous against the orange stripe of the sunset, creaking slowly, turning round and round. It was here.
It lives on.
Route 66 Map, Xnatedawgx; The Gemini Giant, Studiofox; The Blue Whale, Malcolm Logan; Conoco Tower Gas Station, Malcolm Logan; The Leaning Tower, Malcolm Logan; The Cadillac Ranch, Sukuru; An Old Farm Windmill, Public Domain