~ Todd VanDerWerff, A.V. Club
Not so long ago, I was shuffling around the yard taking care of tasks I’d been wanting to get behind me. Suffering from what I self-diagnose as infrequent-but-spontaneous obsessive compulsive disorder, I was on a mission to conquer several over-due projects that had mysteriously remained unfinished. Returning to the garage, I attempted to balance my tool belt atop a shifting collection of discarded parts and gear laying scattered across my toolbox. But it wasn’t so much the balancing act that presented my challenge, it was the steady distraction of thoughts, images and experiences from an earlier weekend stuck in a pattern of continuous replay. It was a reminder that if we are willing to pay attention, life often affords us an opportunity to experience something we at first may not understand, and that only time and innate curiosity will sustain through to the point of understanding.
Ideology and adolescence often coalesce into a wonderful and thought provoking energy, creating the type of philosophical and mental imagery which inspires a population to take action for what is thought – at the time, anyway – to be the best of intentions. Bouncing noisily along old Route 66 somewhere east of Ludlow, I unexpectedly found my senses stirring fluidly with images and thoughts of what must have been. The scenery and noise allied to form a conflicting message, where both past and present struggled to display what once was, and what remains, and the ever-evolving social dynamics which forbid any permanence to that which we create and ultimately cast aside. We are a society beset with conflicting values and enslaved by symbolic gestures. We are at once compelled by obsession, obligation and fear, where the only noble path is that which strives towards progress. Yet we feel obligated to remain mindful of our past, respectful of those who’ve come before, and forever vigilant in maintaining the tether to various and romantic versions of an idealic past.
Of course none of this occurred to me as I drove across the Mojave Desert, seeking out evidence of the past in boarded up and crumbling buildings, behind the occasional chain-link fence, and the barely evident remains scattered like patchwork along the miles of open area following the old road. It was throughout the subsequent days when thoughts and images resurfaced, as if to casually yet restlessly inform me of unfinished business in what was supposed to be only an afternoon road-trip which had eluded me for too many years. It was a fascinating drive, where inside of ten hours I discovered evidence from a period spanning over forty years. I had witnessed what was possible for those bold enough to create and exploit an opportunity that was there for the taking, and observed the unforgiving nature of time and progress when the construct of an era is no longer suitable for the needs of society.
What Route 66 was – and remains – probably depends more on who you ask than on the actual highway. In the physical sense it is obviously a road and, more specifically a highway, which, in California at least, generally followed the original National Old Trails Road established in 1912. By 1926 the road had been designated as U.S. Highway 66, soon to be better known as U.S. Route 66. And as I would later discover, even though this narrow ribbon of road – connecting Santa Monica and the Pacific Ocean to Needles and the Colorado River – was the first section of Route 66 to be paved, by virtue of its crossing the Mojave Desert it was the section most feared by travelers. Ultimately much of the old Route 66 east of Pasadena would be bypassed in 1972 with the opening of Interstate 40 through California. These days, for those so inclined, most of the old highway can still be travelled, revealing faded snapshots of American history, infrastructure, ambition and decline.
So here we are many decades later, still discussing Route 66, attempting to explain its significance in American culture and understand its symbolic label so often postulated by fans of the old road and those wanting to attach themselves with undefined and vague American values. This is clearly an area open to interpretation. Because you see, while the old route is rarely traveled these days by anyone outside the random and curious fan of history, foreign tourist seeking a ‘wild west’ experience, meandering motorcycle group or desert dwelling local, its romanticized legacy appears forever secure in the thoughts and words of enthusiasts and idealists, who sustain their vision of epic journeys and modern-day manifest destiny along with an occasional side-bar of westward expansion. It appears the legacy is poised to outlast the fractured remains of asphalt slowly being reclaimed by the desert.
But as I discovered, even my sometimes cynical self can get caught up in the moment. And I did. With each passing mile I became more immersed, slowing down to take a longer view, stopping at every turn-out and abandoned driveway, straining to see remnants, artifacts, something, ……..anything. The thrill of the search, discovery, mystery, by-gone eras, the infinite possibilities of the unknown and, perhaps, witnessing the beginnings of a lost civilization. As I would unexpectedly discover, it’s all out there along the old road. Route 66 is a living piece of history, a random mix of maintained and crumbling asphalt guiding us back into the past so that we can glimpse where the future is most likely to deliver us. Rolling across the expansive landscape of the desert along a narrow strip of asphalt, particularly one constructed long ago with different goals and objectives, conceptualized from a mind-set premised in what we consider outdated ideas, is entirely effective at deflecting the static and resilient nature of human values and desires, and the dynamic nature and creative capacity utilized in methodically satisfying those ends.
“You probably don’t want to drive that section unless you’re in a rental car” explained the clerk from behind a glass counter. I was viewing several varieties of Route 66 memorabilia secured behind plate glass when the young man kindly provided these words of advice. He spoke with an aura of authority, as though he had been on the road his entire adult life, which, at his age – 25 at most – could not have been in excess of 5 years. Still, from our brief yet detailed exchange it became obvious that he was a much more suitable Route 66 road warrior/poster-child than I, so I listened to the youngster as I would a college professor. The topic of the moment was a particularly rough section of the old road between Newberry and Ludlow. Of course I soon forgot this as our conversation progressed and more information was shared, with the inevitable result being a reminder several hours later via a cacophony of noise as I fought the steering wheel against a sudden transition from smooth pavement to shattered asphalt and gravel. Welcome to the outskirts of Ludlow.
I was straining to read the lettering on a faded price chart, neatly painted – once upon a time – upon the back wall of a service bay shadowed within the ruins of a gas and service station abandoned long ago. Nearby a small car approached and then parked, which, as I thought about it, seemed odd considering I was standing alone in the middle of nowhere. The driver, a clean-cut young man, stepped out and began approaching me. Vivid memories of scenes from “The Hitcher” reeled across the right hemisphere of my brain. This, too, struck me as curios considering I last watched the movie some 20 years earlier. As the driver approached and we exchanged hellos, I found myself involuntarily looking over his shoulder and into the back seat of his econo-car……(movie reel still rolling….). “Better to be a little guarded,” I justified to myself, and chalked it up to the remoteness of the place stimulating my survival instincts. The young driver and I continued to exchange greetings and small talk, and I discover his name is Richard, here on business in Los Angeles before returning to his home in the U.K. Richard was driving back to Los Angeles after hiking in Joshua Tree National Park, and wasn’t sure what to make of the ruins alongside the desert highway. I explain that this is an historic highway, old Route 66. “So, what is Route 66?” asked Richard. “Route 66 is…” I began, pausing as I realized in mid-sentence that I didn’t know how to frame or compose a sufficient answer. And I don’t think I ever properly answered Richard’s question because, even now, many months later, I’ve yet to formulate a convenient and concise explanation that captures everything the road represents. What is Route 66?, indeed.
My self-imposed destiny for the day was Amboy and, by the time I could see the unmistakable form of the landmark “Roy’s” sign, held high above the desolate landscape across the horizon, I was beginning to see the old road from a different perspective. Veering southward into the desert for many miles away from I-40, Route 66 began to show its raw edge and pragmatic disposition. “This was a tool” I thought, swerving to miss a patch of open asphalt on what was otherwise a beautiful piece of road. Today, we travel this meandering piece of roadway because of what it represents in our minds-eye, which, of course, is inextricably tied to some obscure and mysterious emotional link that transcends logic and rational thought. But this, of course, demonstrates the wonderful and tragic duality of human-kind, because it makes possible romantic and noble reflections of a time gone by that, decades later, is remembered and conceptualized by those never having traversed the barren landscape, in what was – by any measure of modern technology – a leaking and underpowered tin-can.
I suppose economic hardship and hopelessness would have a tendency to impart a measure of bias in one’s perception. In John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath”, the Joads, a family of poor, tenant farmers desperately trying to escape the Dust Bowl and depression-era poverty of 1930’s Oklahoma, are in dire need of a change of luck. Steinbeck generated a fair amount of criticism with his novel, primarily from those who apparently thought his depiction of the Joad’s journey west along Route 66 reflected poorly and unfairly upon law enforcement and Corporate America. Conversely, most of the public apparently agreed with John’s version of events. The point is that even here, in a best selling novel based upon the experiences of many who traveled the old highway, we find that it’s simply impossible for us all to agree on what is real and true. But for those souls escaping desperate situations during trying times, Route 66 must have been viewed with both dread and anticipation, as a journey to be feared, fraught with danger and uncertainty, but also as a necessary path to opportunity, prosperity and redemption. A paved, necessary evil, if you will. In his novel, Steinbeck referred to it as “the mother road, the road of flight.” That Route 66 was a tool would conjure no negative ruminations from a desperate Dust Bowl escapee. After all, for these folks that was the entire point of its existence, and with life in the balance there was little opportunity to ponder or brood about the absence of sight-seeing opportunities during the family’s escape west.
So why do we choose to see the old road differently today than those forced to see it for the scary, arduous, utilitarian beast-of-burden that it really was? Well, that’s what I’m still trying to come to terms with, but I think, in broad terms, it has to due with the luxury we’re afforded in reflecting upon history not as the ‘first-person’, but as an observer with pre-conceived ideas, biases and, yes, preferences. As American’s we like to believe opportunities will always abound, that with each tragedy seeds are shed and somehow nurtured into a new beginning. It’s part of being American – probably a carry-over from Manifest Destiny – so we dare not tamper with it. That the truth is typically not quite so rose-colored is a burden most of us care not to shoulder. Instead, many choose to see the past from the perspective of hind-sight, after the fall-out of shattered lives and economic despair have either been forgotten or glossed over with favorable spins, palatable to those unable to accept, or those wishing to justify, the less angelic capacities of human nature.
Walking through Amboy, and stepping into areas that probably haven’t seen a paying motorist in decades, doesn’t feel like progress. The same feeling came over me outside Ludlow, as I watched the rusting skeleton of a sign and the roof sheeting of its namesake motel resist and deflect against the steady winds rolling across the desert. But it was progress, if that is the label we choose to apply, that inevitably lead to the undoing of Route 66 commerce and culture, with the only remains being the vestigial evidence seen today along the roughly 320 miles of California traversed by the old highway. If we accept that it was progress which lead to its decline, perhaps it is easier to accept that Route 66, like everything else in life, served its purpose and received its fate, as intended. I’ve often thought that we occupy our space in time only momentarily, essentially leasing a seat in the theatre of life, and once the movie is over leave the premises so the next person may enjoy the experience. The history of human-kind suggests there will always be someone in line waiting to take our seat in the movie theatre, wanting to share the experience as we did. That will probably never change. What will always change is the movie, its content, its sound, its theatrics, and, periodically, the theatre itself.
Leaving Amboy on the old highway, I watched as a BNSF train climbed and snaked east through a broad and shallow valley north of the highway. Much of Route 66 through California generally parallels the path of the old Atlantic Pacific Railroad – the route being determined for its gradual ascents – which worked favorably for the generation of automobiles first occupying the old highway. This point, I’m sure, was not lost on the engineers assigned with determining where the asphalt was going to be put down. But as I stood along the highway watching the train disappear into the upper reaches of the valley, I realized that Route 66 was just another moment in time reflecting a transition in our country’s history. And that’s not a bad thing, at least to me. That it faded from relevance as part of the American infrastructure is a reflection of changing ideas and needs, and in my opinion should mean nothing more. The country has moved beyond what the old highway could provide, and, the country keeps moving, and always will. We’ve simply changed the script.
“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a persistent one”
~ Albert Einstein
I think for all of us, in some measure anyway, reality is what we perceive it to be. Consistent with the emotional animals that we are, this, of course, creates challenges, ranging from disagreements about such inconsequential things as sports trivia to civil disobedience and unrest. It’s just the nature of the beast, so to speak. But the inescapable fact remains that each of us creates our own reality. Albert Einstein has been quoted as saying, “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a persistent one”. And there it is, folks. And so Route 66 will remain something different for each of us, being both what we want and need it to be. For me it’s a snap-shot of social and economic evolution, a fascinating and poignant reminder that time rests for nobody, and that aspirations, at least in our modern, consumer-driven culture, will always trump nostalgia. For others, Route 66 continues to be a reminder of what is possible in America, and reflects the American ideal of expansion, ingenuity, and prosperity. For others yet, the old highway is nothing more, or less, than an interesting drive into the desert, a curious glance at the past, an opportunity to escape the familiarity of life as we know it. All of this makes for a compelling argument that, even now, the old highway is still serving us, after all.
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