My short, rather hasty Route 66 trip (Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5, Day 6, Day 7) was the first time I traveled. Before this, I had only visited. On Route 66 I traveled over a huge distance, passed from the hot and humid East to the hot and arid West, crossed the Continental Divide that represents a boundary between pieces of the Earth’s crust, saw plains turn into mountains, mountains into desert, saw races and languages shift, but most fascinatingly, got a vivid flavor of what road travel used to be in its previous generation.
I realized that in the era of automobile travel I was given a taste of, individuality thrived along the highway. One independent gas station, one independent restaurant, one quirky local logo could become well-recognized and well-liked throughout the more than 2,000 miles of highway. I saw Lucille Hamons’ gas station, where she provided such caring attention to her customers for 50 years that she came to be known as the Mother of the Mother Road. I saw the Ariston Cafe, famous not through media advertising, but by word of mouth. I saw the Meramec Caverns, the Jack Rabbit Trading Post, the erstwhile Club Cafe, local businesses whose signs and logos got plastered all over the highway until they became symbols of an adventurous Route 66 trip itself. The most storied Route 66 symbols were not Meteor Crater or the Petrified Forest or Grand Canyon. They were individuals, their diverse establishments along the route, and their frequently eccentric creations.
Road trips are poorer for having lost such kaleidoscopic companionship along the journey. Today, who has a fond attachment to a particular location of a chain restaurant along the freeway, or the person providing service there? This loss was so vividly clear to me when I had a drive-through meal at a chain restaurant on this trip. I am not fanatical enough to claim that the interstate highway system is an evil that should never have come into existence. But I do see the compromise travelers have had to make with the replacement of the neighborly 2,000-mile Main Street that used to be arrayed on both sides with an unrestricted variety of creative money-makers.
I have a vague feeling I have been exposed to a lesson for developing nations. However, being convinced of the necessity both of efficiency and of individuality, I am unsure what the lesson is. What I am certain of is I now have a dread of the replacement of personalities with corporate logos.
Once I saw how personal Route 66 was to the people who worked it and traveled it, I acquired a fondness for finding and staying on the old road. Taking the necessary freeway shortcuts to make time seemed like a betrayal. But there’s more that adds pleasure to sticking with Route 66—it’s often a hard road to find, and rewards you with a sense of satisfaction when you do manage to join the dots between successive pages of your map book and manage not to veer from it. In fact, an obsessive person could easily become consumed by the urge to follow every alignment of Route 66. I can see particular personality traits that probably run through devout Route 66-ers, and can understand why someone might devote his life to documenting every scrap of this road.
I didn’t suspect in advance that Route 66 would grow on me this much during the seven days I followed it. When I halted at Flagstaff, I felt regret at not being able to extend the journey all the way to the end of Route 66, to Los Angeles and Santa Monica. Maybe it’s for the better I couldn’t, since it is now certain that I will return to Route 66, starting with the parts in California, where I live. When I do return to the road, I hope not to take any shortcuts anymore.
I wonder, when I do return, how many of those neon signs will still be there? When I was passing through Albuquerque, I saw a motel being bulldozed. Was it a Route 66 era motel? I don’t know. Eventually these withering leaves will completely fall off and disappear. But while they exist, they will be a treat for lovers of Americana like myself. American popular culture and signs from the middle of the century fascinate me, as they do many others, so Route 66 was a treasure trove to me.
But as I relived this slice of American history, a new desire grew inside me. I started wanting to explore India the way I have been exploring this country, to taste history that is more personal, that surrounded my own ancestors. Being at such a distance from India for so long has had the positive effect of getting me interested in the country from the perspective of an outsider. Combining this perspective with all the knowledge I have about India as an insider, I will truly be able to understand the land now. I look forward to making those journeys.
Driving Route 66 has changed the way I experience the pavement through my car. I am now aware of how well the grade of the road follows the land, what discontinuities exist in the pavement, what the vintage of the road might be. Before this trip, I used to be oblivious to frontage roads running parallel to the freeway, and never recognized the significance of the brown “Historic Route 66” signs I noticed in so many places in California. I paid no particular attention to neon signs, never tried to divine what era they might be from, or why they became defunct. I will look at all these things differently now. I used to take for granted the freeway as the default means of long-distance driving, never reflecting on what it might have evolved from. I now see a fuller picture of how things have been in the past, thanks to driving on this old road and noticing how it ran along the older railroad, noticing how it often intersected with old cattle and people trails running over plains and through mountain passes. I no longer think of Route 66 as yet another road trip from one place to another. This trip has closed a loop in my life between today and about 15 years ago, when I checked out John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath from the school library and relished every page. It didn’t stick in my consciousness that the road I had read about in that book was the same Route 66 I would start hearing about when I moved to the US many years later. But the dusty, epic nature of the journey in that book did remain in my memory. Driving many of those same miles delivered me closer to that time in my youth.