Looking for the hopeful truths that endure on Route 66
Editor’s note: Once we’re turned loose into a post-COVID-19 world, a solo road trip is the perfect way to maintain some social distancing while indulging the human impulse to travel.
“Let’s call her Lavinia.” That’s what the woman said, referring to herself in the third person. Maybe 90, give or take a late night. Former cocktail waitress, doughnut maker, short-order cook, exotic dancer, chicken farmer, Avon Lady, and failed real-estate agent — a true Route 66 denizen, sharing a double-wide with more plastic plants than I’ve ever seen, right on the railroad line in Needles, California (which she calls “Needless”).
I was fortunate enough to meet her because I’m a dog person and a former infielder. When Sammy, her Pekingese, broke free and dashed across the road, I made like a shortstop, which she appreciated enough to invite me in for pink lemonade. (This was a few months before the coronavirus reached America.) According to our mutual count, 238 train cars pulled by a BSNF diesel electric locomotive passed us by. Rather pleasant to count rail cars with a friendly stranger. (Only later did it occur to me that the road was rather quiet and maybe the dog hadn’t been in much real danger.)
I was on a recent soul safari and photo pilgrimage to Flagstaff and back to Vegas. I’m not sure I buy Sinatra driving out from Palm Desert in a white Cadillac to see her every weekend, but there was a man in a crinkled photo stuck to the fridge, who did look a lot like James Garner circa The Rockford Files. If ever stories mattered more than the truth, it’s on Route 66.
My love affair with the Mother Road began at 19 when I hitchhiked from Barstow to Hydro, Oklahoma, where I was rewarded with a tornado that whisked a giant plaster ice-cream cone over the rainbow. I’ve haunted this highway ever since, because it’s an essential avenue of American mythos. The Okies fled the Depression dust bowl along this ribbon, making repairs to their claptrap jalopies with shreds of stockings and bits of bacon rind. Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac are still out here somewhere — as is a certain convertible Corvette Stingray. This is one of two main Greyhound routes. Get your kicks. There might be a girl in a flatbed Ford slowing down in Winslow, Arizona. Latino farmworkers, secret project scientists, escaped convicts, Hollywood stars escaping paparazzi cameras … you never know who’ll be out there. Or was that yesterday? Time bends here.
You can still hear someone order mocha java in Ash Fork. In Seligman, Arizona, I stopped at a bar to catch some musicians who bill themselves as a “Mexicano motorcycle mariachi metal country blues band,” with song lyrics in English such as, “My wife’s too fat, my Chevy’s too old, and I got too many kids still living at home.” (Post-pandemic travel note: Seligman is a wonderful, brash, innocent, colorful tourist landmark that is hugely popular with bikers and vintage car folks.)
I take a special interest in documenting the dying Atomic/Googie style of architecture and graphic design before it’s gone. This legendary road has become a true blue highway now — when it’s not Interstate 40. Many of the once-charming (and sleazy) motels are boarded up, waiting for bulldozers. The pools are empty. After a freight train, you can hear skinny dogs barking.
Some of the fun has been dampened in recent times by environmental concerns about car travel, and now we have COVID-19 and even more uncertain times ahead. Still, nothing can change the rough beauty of the landscape … or the still-palpable sense of history.
The route was once as vital to Southern black people as the way north from the Delta to the factories of Chicago and Detroit. Thousands came west to find work in the shipping yards of the Bay Area and the L.A. manufacturing plants and aerospace industries that boomed around WWII. Route 66 looms large in Latino cultural memory, and in every town, the presence of Chinese restaurants with names like The Panda Garden testifies to an entrepreneurial spirit of the past. Opportunity. Of course, this road traverses some of our most important Native American culture.
Then there is the undeniable inspiration of the scenery. I love how the shadow-and-light play of the Mojave seems to actually hum — strange rock formations changing color as you watch … and then yucca desert subtly gives way to an emergent green as you near the higher, cooler pines of Flagstaff. I like to imagine myself in a movie based on a Tom Waits or Johnny Cash or Merle Haggard song. Or maybe I just like looking at the Navajo patterns of the clouds.
There’s a tremendous amount of vivid photography that captures both the romance and the rugged truths of Route 66. The “keepers of the flame” are dedicated amateur historians, who are tightly networked from California to Oklahoma. Their numbers are dwindling, which is a great loss to the understanding of American cultural evolution. But a couple of insights became very clear this trip. The decade between 1975-85 saw the most profound, irrevocable changes. That was when the chains and franchises appeared in earnest. Sifting through old photos, you can literally watch the changes, like a slow-motion movie. In Bullhead City, I came upon the largest Walmart I’ve ever seen.
Thirty miles east the next day, I drove past a cinderblock Fraternal Order of Eagles outpost in the rain, a couple of rusted trucks parked outside. Will there be Eagles and Elks Lodges in the future? Will we still see emblems for Kiwanis, Lions, and Rotary? These kinds of organizations have been an important part of communities for a long time. Is their time over, perhaps accelerated by this virus?
There are a lot of self-storage facilities along the road. (That’s one of those phrases you don’t want to think too much about.) Gutted car washes, closed-down dry cleaner, a phantom garage … but a tattoo parlor and a Mexican barbershop with a bright paper rooster in the window endure. As I’m crossing the Colorado River, listening to a radio evangelist elucidate the prophecies of 1,260 days in Daniel and Revelations, he mentions the Beast right on cue — the first beast that comes out of the sea and is given authority by the Dragon of Satan. I think of the Number of the Beast … and realize I’m wearing a Route 66 T-shirt!
HAWAIIAN SHAVE ICE. Pulled Pork. Lemon Meringue Pie.
I feel as American as a U-Haul, thinking back to an early morning in Kingman, a row of ragged kings of the road, already drinking Ripple and Thunderbird wine, their St. Vincent de Paul coats pulled up against the wind coming down Slaughterhouse Canyon Wash from the Hualapai Mountains. I overheard one of their damaged voices say, “Pues no hizo nada … El dinero habla siempre.” I hear him still.
Ghost signs, played-out mines, missing persons, trailer parks, and a special brand of painted-desert Naugahyde diner/Magic Fingers motel loneliness. Yet, after the rain … if you jut your left arm out the window and turn up the pirate radio station in your mind … some of the old American optimism, possibility, perhaps even freedom may find you. Now, more than ever, we need the history, the mythology, the wisdom of Route 66 country. Pack some food in an ice chest and get away from the worries. Hope is still on the map, and everywhere you look is rich with stories.
Kris Saknussemm is the author of the novels Zanesville and Private Midnight, the memoir Sea Monkeys, and other books.