Posted by: cousindampier | 22 October 2015

The Great Road Trip: A Route 66 Story

We drove all day.

Four Corners was muddy. Snow and rain pelted down as we turned from highway to smaller highway to dirt road and in front of us appeared what seemed to be an arena surrounded by dirty, short wooden buildings. The Nissan’s wheels churned through mud as we came to a stop.

The Four Corners are the dividing line between Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico, the only spot in the country where four states meet. Four semi-squares embedded in the ground with sharp 90 degree angles marks the location, and on a cold February day, it seems even more lonely, as if we’d travelled through nowhere to get to its middle. We were freezing in the desert and nobody was about except for a bus full of students who seemed to be everywhere at once. We walked around, jackets bundled up as far as they could go. Neither of us had anticipated the sleet and the cold, and we wore every layer we had.

The center of the monument finally cleared out and we got a couple of pictures before stepping back through the mud to the Nissan, the trusty Nissan and we headed away from the monument, west to Flagstaff and Los Angeles.

The weather remained poor as we drove west. Around a few bends, the snow came down hard enough to make visibility low and it added a strange sense to driving through the desert. On some stretches of road, we’d be by ourselves, just Curtis and me and his Nissan and the white-brown sand and the gray sky. Sometimes the sky would open just enough to allow us to see miles around, and it was like that night back in Silverton – just us against the earth. We had a destination – San Diego – but the excitement of driving to San Diego was suddenly mixed with the reality of driving to San Diego, the twelve hours we had to go.

At some point, I drifted off for thirty minutes or an hour. When I came to my senses, we were out of the desert snowfields and driving through what seemed more appropriate desert scenery. The skies were still gray, but the snow was gone and the earth took on its appropriate red and brown colours.

We were also seeing signs for Route 66.

Much like the skiiers, if one were to poll drivers about the dream roads to drive, the answer would be ‘all of them;’ yet Route 66 remains The Road, or more frequently, The Mother Road. Myth runs rampant. The singer Bobby Troup’s wife leaned over and whispered into his ear, “Get your kicks on Route 66” and a song was born. Ghosts exist. Kerouac allegedly heard the song and decided to go west, and though he only mentions Route 66 briefly, the road was the icon of the traveling beat generation. Forrest Gump ran parts of it. As America became a driving nation, and as road trips entered popular consciousness, Route 66 entered legend as the road from Chicago and the east to Los Angeles and the Pacific.

As the Interstate system came into being, Route 66 was forced out; sections of I-55, I-40, and I-44 making up the path from Chicago to the Californian Coast. Some of the road was co-opted into the new interstates and much of it was bypassed but it remains in lore with Troup’s refrain,

‘It winds from Chicago to L.A.
More than two thousand miles all the way/
get your kicks on Route 66’

And finally, somewhere before Flagstaff, we found a stretch of old Route 66, a spur moving away from the Interstate. It is a state highway now, one of those two lane roads where you are just as likely to see a tractor as a car. We pulled over and Curtis let me behind the wheel, an old pair of aviators we found in his car on my face, one of the nosepieces missing so it pinches my skin. I throw on a song – Springsteen, or maybe Everclear’s ‘Santa Monica’ since we are headed to Los Angeles, but the stretch of 66 we are on is straight and runs into the horizon, down a small grade and then it runs straight with a slight uphill, a path that leads somewhere but there are no other cars, no other people, so wherever it leads isn’t somewhere anyone wants to be.

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The Mother Road

We drive, not in silence – the radio is on and I am probably singing to myself – but we’re both with our own thoughts. The road trip, that thing which Route 66 is a symbol of, is different now. We’re not out of touch and on our own unless we want to be. We can stop and take a snapshot of any place or sign or monument we want. We are instantly connected, and yet there is something in the movement, the constant movement which forces upon us the realization that nothing is happening, that being instantly connected is still a thing, but we don’t need to be because no matter how many times we check our phones, it is still just Curt and I driving along a vacant stretch of highway in the middle of Arizona and the things on our phones are the same as they were an hour ago. We are missing nothing; life back home is just the same as it once was and whatever monotony we feel in driving is overwhelmed by the sense of purpose in going somewhere.

Wherever my thoughts may be, they get snapped back to the present by red and blue flashing lights. A set of three police cars is ahead of us and the highway is roped off and I slow down to pass them. We move past a motel and a restaurant and see a sign leading back to the interstate and only then realize we have not seen a single 66 sign. There are no more of them, or just very few, because they are so iconic that people pull over and tear them down as mementos and I am sad about that because more than anything I can hold in my hand, I just want a picture of me and Route 66.

We are both looking at the road, trying to find a painted image of the highway sign when Curtis sees it in the rearview mirror. I slam on the breaks and turn around and come to a stop underneath a nest of signs, three of them stacked on top of each other, and the topmost sign was the most pleasant scene of painted metal I may have ever seen: Route 66, the old highway sign, ten or twelve feet off the ground, above the green signs proclaiming distance to wherever, impossible to steal unless you have a ladder. And we stopped and got out and took a picture and then, only then, did Arizona end and Los Angeles begin.

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