Wednesday, September 05, 2001
Route 66 - The trip
There’s an old story about two burros (donkeys); one which had always lived in the wild, and had never known a day of work in his life, and the other belonging to a prospector - that was domesticated and loaded down with a mountain of supplies and equipment. The wild burro asked the prospector’s burro how he could stand with such a heavy load on his back, to which the prospector’s burro replied, “What load?”
After forty years of life, (including seventeen years of organized education, four years of military service, ten years of marriage, seven years of fatherhood, and almost twenty years of employment) I’d forgotten what it felt like to be unencumbered. The constant pressure of schedules, assignments, responsibilities, and expectations is something that few of us acknowledge, or even notice. We willingly (and in most cases, lovingly) plod through life carrying enormous responsibilities, yet unfailingly ask one-another, “What load?”.
Over the past fifteen years, I began to take notice of the weight I was carrying around, and occasionally fantasized about throwing off my adult responsibilities, if only for a few days. These daydreams began to take shape about ten years ago, when I decided that I would do something big to mark my fortieth birthday. I didn’t want a depressing party with presents, and the inevitable gag cards that typically accompany one’s passage into ‘middle age’ to make me fell like a walking anachronism. As fun as that party might have been, I selfishly decided to do something entirely for myself.
A few weeks ago, with the consent of my wife and kids, I flew (alone) to Chicago, rented a car, and spent a week-and-a-half driving the old Route 66 cross-country to Los Angeles. I brought maps with me, but made few real plans beyond the decision to adhere to the following seven rules:
No Alarms - Wake up only when my body has slept enough.
No Meal Times - Eat only when I feel hungry.
No Itinerary – Drive only as far as I want.
No Pressure – Stop whenever and wherever I want.
No Common Sense – Buy lots of roadside souvenirs, curios, and junk
No Expectations – Open my eyes and just let the trip happen.
No Limits – Bed down at sunset or drive through the night. No day is over until I say its over!
My trip started where Route 66 started... from Lake Shore Drive in Chicago heading south towards Joliet, IL. Almost immediately I could feel the layers of civilization peeling away. Tall buildings fell behind, to be replaced by more intimate roadside structures; Gas stations…diners…drive-in-theaters. In central Illinois I noticed the sounds had also change. Instead of car horns, and sirens, Cicadas buzzed in the treetops, and ice cream trucks slowly jangled their way down shady streets aptly named Elm, and Oak, and Willow.
I normally hate the time I spend behind the wheel - The traffic, the routines, the constant pressure to arrive on time. However, nothing about this trip offered even a hint of routine. And with the Interstate rumbling along in the distance, I had Route 66’s quiet two-lane pavement mostly to myself. In truth, back home there are plenty of two lane alternatives to the highways. But I only consider taking these slower ‘service roads’ if traffic is absolutely stopped on the Interstate. In all fairness, I shouldn't compare either coast with the ‘Heartland’. In Connecticut, towns tend to sit check-to-jowl along even the most rural secondary roads. In most places the only discernible transition from one town to the next is the Elks or Rotary sign welcoming a driver to the new municipality. However, in the Mid-West, towns exist independent of one another. As cornfields part to reveal a smattering of houses, and then a small grid of buildings and cross streets come into view, one knows he has arrived in a town. As fewer streets radiate outward and the road is once more enveloped by the comforting monotony of alfalfa and corn, a driver slowly realizes he has left another town behind.
South of Joliet I passed a small red sign on the side of the road, and then another, and another, before realizing with delight that I was seeing honest-to-goodness Burma Shave signs! I turned around and went back to the first sign in the series in order to savor them slowly as they passed:
“DOES YOUR HUSBAND”
“GRUNT AND GRUMBLE”
“RANT AND RAVE”
“SHOOT THE BRUTE SOME”
Further along towards St. Louis, another series came into view, and I read aloud:
“THE WOLF IS”
“ SHAVED SO”
“NEAT AND TRIM”
“RED RIDING HOOD”
“IS CHASING HIM”
Intellectually, I understood that somebody must have recreated or salvaged signs for a nostalgic display along the old road, since the Burma Vita Company (now a subsidiary of the American Safety Razor Company) hasn’t used the catchy roadside device since the mid-sixties. Never-the-less, seeing the rhythmic phrases flashing past was like stepping back in time.
In many places Route 66 hugs the Interstate, serving as a frontage road on one side or the other. But in some areas the road heads boldly off across the countryside, between farmer’s fields, over hills, and through fragrant valleys. The road blends into the landscape so completely that one occasionally forgets it is the work of man and not nature. These are the sections that take your breath away. It isn’t until the crumbling remains of abandoned stores, gas stations, and houses come into view that you realize it isn’t Route 66 that left the Interstate, but rather the Interstate that left Route 66 and its many small towns. These wandering twists and turns that made the ‘Old Road’ so interesting are the very things that Eisenhower’s Interstate system was created to eliminate. Hundreds of little communities simply dried up and blew away when the big, straight, “super slab” highways carried the traffic away from their gas pumps, cafes, and motor courts. A silent stroll through the overgrown cemeteries, with their unassuming headstones and weed choked paths offers a stark narrative of how and when the people, and later their towns, had lived, and ultimately died.
As I drove through the Missouri Ozarks, the southeast corner of Kansas and across Oklahoma, I found myself drawn to these dead and dying towns. In the one’s that still clung to life, I saw modest houses and businesses, numerous churches, and lots of kids. The kids were not the sullen mall rats you see back home, but something closer to my recollection of youth. They were dressed in dungarees, check shirts (or t-shirts) and sneakers (ok, they were Nike’s and Reeboks… not Keds or PF Flyers). These kids were outside riding bikes, playing hopscotch or throwing around well-worn baseballs. I didn’t see one Game Boy!
While many municipalities continued to thrive because of their proximity to the Interstate, they had paid a steep price in strip malls and Starbucks. The few remaining buildings dating from the 30’s and 40’s are now preserved as landmarks and tourist attractions. To get an honest look at how people lived and worked during the Great Depression, throughout the war years, and on into the post-war boom that gave birth and name to my generation, one needs to explore the little, one street municipalities, and the abandoned ghost towns.
One of the things that surprised me as I drove from one town to the next was how much I enjoyed the look and feel of the road itself. The silky smooth Portland Concrete, laid down in the early ‘30s, has a unique pinkish / rust colored cast. It even has a sloped curb on the edge of each shoulder to offer the least offense to the weak tires and wheels of that bygone era. Long sections of this pavement are still drivable, and are banked and contoured so thoughtfully that one has the feeling of being carried through the countryside rather than driving over it. It amazes me to see road crews back home repairing year-old pavement when these venerable old byways continue to laugh at the passing seasons.
Whenever a section of old road surface came out from hiding beneath modern blacktop, a voice inside my head whispered, “Hello mother”, recalling Steinbeck’s description of the route as the “Mother Road” in Grapes of Wrath. When a section of old pavement coincided with a long jog away from the Interstate, I usually took it as a signal to pull over and stretch my legs. On one such walk I stumbled upon an old section of the road that diverged from a newer alignment, ending abruptly at the verge of a riverbank. At some point the bridge that spanned the river had been torn down, and the road had been straightened to cross a newer bridge thirty yards upstream. Climbing down the crumbling embankment in front of the old alignment, I was able to see the secret of the road’s longevity. The concrete roadbed was incredibly thick when seen in cross section, and had been laid down over a hard packed sub-straight. As I climbed back up the bank to return to the car, a piece of this beautiful concrete that had carried countless Model Ts, Packards, and Studebakers westward, came away in my hand. As I write this, it occupies a place of honor on my desk.
One of the joys of traveling the old road is finding the vintage businesses which are still open to serve the traveling public. Roadside stores, restaurants, and motor courts are almost a lost breed. Sure, there are still diners and motels around the country, but few of them understand the needs of the family traveling across the country on a budget. Having crossed the country with my own family twice as a kid (once on a portion of Route 66) I have fond memories of the curio shops, motels, camp grounds and cafes. As an adult, I was pleased to find that there are still a few of these family-owned businesses left on the old route serving up good coffee, Kachina dolls, and a comfortable night’s sleep. My mantra for the trip: “There is no reason to have a cup of coffee, a dish of ice cream, or a night's rest in a place built after 1960”. As a result, I enjoyed countless stops in places where I was able to enjoy old songs on the Seeburg-O-Matic in my booth. And in this age of generic Motel ‘6’s and Holiday Inns, I happily bedded down each night in vintage neon-lit motor courts, offering value, charm and convenience unmatched by the big chains. Those art-deco signs along the road must have been a welcome sight to families driving west with all of their possessions (or even to those on vacation).
One of the highlights of my trip revolved around a topic on which my wife and I agree to disagree - antique shops. I love them…she hates them. I’m not referring to those precious East Coast museums with the glow of hand-polished oak and gilded mirrors, tastefully arranged for optimal viewing. I’m talking about the jumble shops with cases, cabinets and trunks overflowing with stuff most self-respecting garage sales wouldn’t display! I can spend a whole day picking through cast iron skillets, fading photographs and colored glass medicine bottles. Cheryl loves me enough to accompany me to one - sometimes two - of these mildew emporiums a year. In less than two weeks on the road, I explored no less than fifty! The section of Route 66 that bisects Amarillo, Texas has over fifteen wonderful antique shops in the space of a only few blocks! If you’re wondering what I bought in these ‘Casbahs of cast-off’, please reread rule #5 above, paying special attention to the last word.
Just west of Amarillo I had to stop for a few minutes to pay tribute to world-class eccentricity at the Cadillac Ranch. Back in the early seventies, a wealthy land owner along the route allowed a group of artists to bury ten old Cadillacs (ranging from a ‘49 Club Coupe to a ‘63 Sedan) face down in one of his wheat fields. This array of vintage car fins pointed skyward has been a landmark for travelers ever since.
Further into Texas I stopped at the semi-official mid-point of Route 66 (1139 miles from both Chicago and Los Angeles) to chew the fat with Fran, the owner of the Adrian Cafי in Adrian, TX. The cafe has been serving up good food to travelers and local ranch hands since time out of mind. Other than a few ranches and an enormous grain silo, there isn’t much else to see in Adrian, TX.
Continuing across the Texas panhandle and into New Mexico, I noticed countless freight trains passing in both directions. Back east, one tends to think of trains only in terms of moving people from place to place. We tend to lose sight of the fact that many of the raw materials our country relies upon are shipped in big boxcars. I never got tired of seeing these giant messengers and frequently pulled over to watch them – many with over a hundred cars – sail through the uninhabited desert and across empty prairie. It wasn’t until the plaintive air horn and metallic din of the Santa Fe locomotive had echoed far off into the distance that I got back into the car and resumed my own trip. On one such occasion, I placed a pocket full of coins on the tracks, and was rewarded with a bunch of squashed metal disks to give to my kids.
People who have never traveled through the South West often make the mistake of thinking that the landscape in each of the states is basically the same (think 'Road Runner' cartoon backgrounds). Nothing could be further from the truth. New Mexico is full of towering buttes and jagged wash-outs. West of San Fidel NM, there are large areas covered with jet-black lava flows indicating significant volcanic activity in the not-too-distant-past. The road builders were forced to wind the route around these massive flows since they lacked the tools and explosives to cut through them.
A violent rainstorm appeared in a mountain pass almost directly ahead of me one afternoon in Western New Mexico. As I drove towards it, lightening flashed from the clouds to the desert floor and back again. The early afternoon sky was almost completely dark by the time I entered the storm, and after a few minutes of driving through blinding rain, I decided to pull over. After about twenty minutes the rain slowed to a trickle, the sun came back out, and I got out of the car to look around. It’s hard to say how long the rain lasted, but by the time I got out of the car, several ravines were thundering with flash flood waters. The following morning, as I ate my breakfast at a scenic roadside turn-out, I noticed that the desert landscape was stippled with tiny flowers. I will always regret not having ventured out to pick some.
One small cluster of crumbling buildings appeared along the road with a sign declaring the name, “Villa De Cubero”. The only inhabited building was a small general store / gas station. While waiting for the gas tank to fill, I flipped through a guidebook to see if anything significant had happened here. It turns out that the crumbling buildings were all that remained of a cafי and inn where Ernest Hemingway had stayed while writing “The Old Man And The Sea”. Amazing! Hemingway had ‘holed up’ in this secluded corner of the desert to write about man’s love-hate relationship with the ocean!
Arizona, by comparison, is much flatter than New Mexico. The road winds past table-flat mesas and occasionally crests small hills. In many places, it is possible to pull off the road, get out, and not see any signs of human influence in any direction! The whisper quiet, combined with the humbling sense of one’s vulnerability and insignificance, provided one of the trip’s truly inspirational moments.
There is an old section of Route 66 just past Kingman Arizona that twists and turns its way over some spectacular mountain passes. This section was so dreaded by motorists traveling the early route that by 1951 it had been bypassed by a less treacherous alignment. I traveled this early section at night to avoid the desert heat. After passing the skeleton of an old gas station near a mountain pass, I wound my way down a seemingly endless series of switchbacks to a small mining town called Oatman.
Oatman, AZ seems like something out of a movie back lot. It consists of one street, faced on both sides by fading wooden buildings. I parked the car in the center of the sleeping town and turned on the reading light to look up Oatman in the guide book. I read with fascination how Clark Gable had frequented the little mining town in his single days to play cards with the miners. According to local history, he also spent his honeymoon at the Oatman Hotel! I turned off the light and got out of the car to look for the Hotel and realized not only were there no streetlights, but I had temporarily destroyed my night vision with the car's overhead reading lamp. After standing for a few minutes in total darkness waiting for my vision to return, I started to hear sounds all around me that sounded like footsteps and breathing. Not wanting to open the car door and further degrade my vision with the flash of light, I waited a moment longer and started to discern dark shapes wandering all around me. I finally realized that what I was seeing (and hearing) was a pack of wild burros. I found out later that when some of the local mines had closed, they had let their pack animals free to multiply in the desert.
I made my way through the crowd of burros and walked up the street to the Oatman Hotel. To my surprise there was a faint light coming from the doorway, and the sound of voices spilled out of the open door. I went in, and found myself in a small saloon (no kidding) where an elderly woman stood behind the bar serving beer to a couple of miners (yes, there is still a working mine in the area). I was reluctant to have a beer since I still had a lot of driving left in me, so I settled for a cold sarsaparilla. Looking around as I sipped what one of the miners had dubiously called ‘a ladies drink’, I noticed that the walls, ceiling, doors, window frames and almost every visible surface were covered with money. One Dollar bills were stapled and taped everywhere. Each bill had a signature, and sometimes a short message from the person who had left it, and many were darkened with age and exposure to the smoky atmosphere in the saloon. I asked the bartender how long this practice had been going on and was told that the oldest bill she had been able to find was from the early thirties. She also told me that on several occasions she had attempted to count all the bills around the first floor rooms of the hotel and had yet to come up with even a rough estimate. I realized, the only thing to do under the circumstances was to take out a bill of my own, write a brief note to my children (who one day may wander through) and staple it up between the coat rack and a doorframe. Granted, it wasn’t like being invited to leave my footprints in cement outside Sid Grauman's Chinese Theater…but it offered a tiny sliver of immortality, and I jumped at the chance.
I ended up driving through the rest of the night through the beautiful desert. I crossed the border into California at Needles and followed the old road as it wound its way towards the Mojave Desert. Around midnight, I passed the spot where a drunk teenager had cut short the life of comedian Sam Kinison. No marker or monument…just a scribbled notation on the map and silent desert.
In the hours before dawn, I continued west through San Bernardino and the sprawling communities east of L.A. As in the east, there were only the signs to tell me when I was leaving one town and entering the next. There was the occasional glimmer of the old road here and there. A few old Drive-In theaters and a couple of restored motor courts, but for the most part the end of the drive to the ocean was like re-entering earth’s atmosphere in a space ship. Time seemed to speed up and the glass and chrome of the roadside office buildings seemed to gain momentum as I passed.
It was just after sunrise when I parked the car across from the pier at Santa Monica. I walked the last few hundred yards down to the water, and strolled right in! After a few minutes of standing knee deep in the surf, I wandered up onto the pier and stared out at the ocean for a while. I’d forgotten how different the Pacific is from the Atlantic. The color and texture, coastal features, smells and sounds, are all different. I could write all day without giving the reader the slightest hint of what I’m trying to say. Like so many things I experienced on my trip, The Pacific simply has to be experienced to be understood. I had intended to see the sunset on the pier, but in retrospect, the solitude and intimacy of the sunrise that morning in Santa Monica was much more appropriate to the occasion.
I had arrived in L.A. a day earlier than planned, so after sleeping the morning away, I drove down to San Diego and went surfing for a few hours at La Jolla Shores. I hadn’t been surfing since my Navy days (For the record, I was terrible at it, even then!) but I had a great time anyway. I think the longest I was able to stand up was five or six seconds, but it was great fun. If I didn’t score points for style from the local surfers, I at least earned grudging smiles for consistency!
It was a bitter-sweet trip to the airport to catch my flight home. I returned my rent-a-car, which by now was plastered with dead bugs, road grime, and mud. Before getting on the shuttle to the terminal, I took one last walk around the car. I was sorely tempted to get back in and drive back to Chicago. There must be thousands of things I missed along the way - Roadside attractions, curio shops, root beer floats, giant teepees. But then I realized that this was only my Mid-life crisis...I have the rest of my life to go back.
As I contemplated the real world I was going back to, I began to take inventory of the coming weeks – appointments, deadlines, reports, oil changes, yard work, back-to-school shopping – I began to feel the load creeping back onto my back. But having had the opportunity to step back and experience a different, unstructured life for a few unencumbered days, I came to realize that my responsibilities back home are mostly tied up in family and friends. I found that on many levels, I really enjoy the fact that people rely on me. I like being predictable. Most of what makes my life so special is really quite mundane. We all like going to the amusement park …but we should also recognize that the bedtime stories with the kids are especially sweet after a day on carnival rides because of the return to well-loved routines.
As I sat on the flight back to the east coast... to my world... to my life... I wondered what all the urgency had been about. Why had I felt the pressing need to venture off on my own? It wasn’t from physical exhaustion. All across the country I had seen people who really work for a living…people who get dirty working every day outdoors, in the fields and under cars. Considering that I work in a climate controlled building in midtown Manhattan, I felt a little embarrassed at having professed the need for a vacation. The funny part is that I really missed the very things I had taken a vacation from. I missed the yard work. On some level, I even missed going to work. But most of all I missed my wife and kids.
A friend once told me “Responsibility is like having your head repeatedly banged against a brick wall…it feels so good when it stops”. And, in fact, it had felt pretty damned good to wander, carefree, across the country for a couple of weeks. But if anyone ever asks me how I manage under the weight of marriage, family, mortgage, car payments, private school tuition, schedules, deadlines, commuting, and on and on…I’d have to answer honestly that I don’t really mind my load. In fact... on most days... I’d probably ask, “what load?”