One of my best friends is living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for several months to complete a project — and I thought, what a perfect excuse for a road trip!
“I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.” — Jack Kerouac, On the Road
The first day was a long one, taking me from Houston and the coastal plains of Texas up to the Panhandle and Amarillo. It’s easy to write off this part of Texas — vast flat fields that stretch on forever, but it was magical that afternoon in the failing light.
Driving through Chillicothe and Quanah, Childress and Memphis became a de-and-re-acceleration rhythm of 60 miles per hour then 50 — 40 — 35, a stop at a traffic light, then 40 — 50 — 60, and back up to a cruising speed of 75. In each small town, grain silos shown in the slanting sun, first silvery, then golden orange.
The Mercedes ate up the miles and as I left Goodnight, Texas, there was another forty minutes to my hotel in Amarillo.
Outside of Clarendon, I passed two tractors in line, close to the highway, kicking up dust that trailed out far behind them. Many times meadow larks flew dead-straight towards the car, then corrected their flightpaths for several wingbeats to fly alongside me, before abruptly veering off, back into the fields.
When the sun hung low on the horizon, I passed fields of harvested cotton, where the low angle of the light caught the spent plants, turning them golden.
As I came closer and closer to Amarillo, there were not many clouds, just a few wisps in front of me as the sun set to my left. Behind me the sky turned indigo at the horizon, edged with magenta above, then both deepening to purple.
Travel My Way, Take the Highway that’s the Best
I slowed down on Interstate 40 to get off into the towns and find a little of old Route 66 in Amarillo, then in Tucumcari and Santa Rosa, New Mexico.
I made my visit to Cadillac Ranch in a cold field post-dawn at the edge of Amarillo.
Only one other person there — a guy about my age with his phone and a selfie stick. We danced around one another to get pictures without the other in them. It was a companionable time — exchange of a few words, hand signals, and a final salute as we left the ten Cadillacs behind.
There are many famous American road trip routes — Highway 1 in California certainly comes to mind — but none can eclipse the Mother Road as the nostalgic icon of the freedom to roam America.
Route 66 was born November 11, 1926, when the Federal Government officially established Highway 66, leading from Chicago to Los Angeles. By the following year, road signs were up all along the way, even as states worked on paving their sections.
In the 1930’s, Route 66 provided a way west for desperate families fleeing the Dustbowl; John Steinbeck chronicles the migration along Highway 66 in his novel, The Grapes of Wrath, describing the flow of people “into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.”
Then when World War II ended, and fuel rationing ended, Americans were free to drive again, and they took to Route 66 in droves.
Our affair with the car blossomed; we did EVERYTHING in our cars — ate, watched movies, made love. It was the age of motor courts, roadside hamburger joints, and drive-in movies. In 1946, Nat King Cole recorded the Bobby Troup song, (Get Your Kicks On) Route 66, — the anthem of the Mother Road.
Then in 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act into law. It was the death knell for Route 66 — but it would take almost thirty years to be buried.
In the meantime, the highway became even more famous in pop culture with the CBS television show, Route 66, which ran from 1960 to 1964 for a total of 116 episodes.
Gradually more sections of the highway were replaced with super-roads, until in 1985, Highway 66 was officially decommissioned. Of course it lives on — kept alive by those who make the Route 66 pilgrimage each year. A 2011 study showed the direct impact of Route 66 as $132 million annually.
On this trip, I only traveled the Mother Road for 250 odd miles before I turned north, headed to Santa Fe. But I’ll be back. I see a full Route pilgrimage in my future . . .
The Great American Road Trip
Road trips exist as a key part of our country’s psyche. Two formidable road trip books from the 1957 and 1962 come to mind: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America.
Here is a classic excerpt from On the Road:
“I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was – I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.”
Never mind that neither of these books is exactly what it purports to be — they are both good stories, stories that caught the public’s imagination and entered the collective American consciousness. Even if you haven’t read them, you are likely familiar with them.
The On the Road legend is that Kerouac wrote the book in three weeks on one continuous 120 foot scroll of paper.
“Kerouac cultivated this myth that he was this spontaneous prose man, and that everything that he ever put down was never changed, and that’s not true,” Kerouac scholar Paul Marion says. “He was really a supreme craftsman, and devoted to writing and the writing process.”
The truth is that Kerouac created six different drafts of On the Road between 1951 and 1957 as he worked hard to get past multiple rejections to have the manuscript accepted with a publisher.
Viking Press marketed Travels with Charley as a true account of Steinbeck’s three month solo trip around America with his poodle, Charley.
Bill Steigerwald spent weeks traveling Steinbeck’s route, and then nine months fact-checking and came to the conclusion that very little of the book represents Steinbeck’s actual journey and experiences:
- Steinbeck was almost never alone. His wife Elaine accompanied him for 45 days of the 75 day trip.
- Another 17 days of the trip he stayed in motels or camped on friends’ property.
- He almost never camped out at all. He spent many evenings in motor courts, and often on the trip he and Elaine stayed in very fine hotels.
- Many of the people who he wrote about meeting were fabricated.
The truth is that at 58, Steinbeck was in poor health, but he longed to take another epic solo journey into America. The reality: he took a long trip with his wife and his dog and visited friends. He came home with few notes, but penned a book that Americans still love. I think I can cut him some slack.
In the end, it doesn’t make any difference whether we shelve Charley with Steinbeck’s fiction, because Steinbeck and his poodle will always drive the blue highways of the American consciousness in a travel camper named Rocinante.
The end of my journey outward . . .
At the end of a second day on the road, I pulled into Los Suenos RV Park — to the cutest little cabin I’ve seen in a long time. A Tiny Home for my home away . . . and it was so great to find my friend Joyce and head out for margaritas and classic New Mexican enchiladas with green chile sauce!
More to come on my New Mexican rambles . . . Here, a look down the road towards Ghost Ranch.
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Sources for those interested in reading further.
Listokin, D., and D. Stanek. Route 66 Economic Impact Study: Synthesis of Findings. Rep. N.p.: Rutgers, 2011. Print.
Mcgrath, Charles. “A Reality Check for Steinbeck and Charley.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 03 Apr. 2011. Web. 11 Mar. 2017. <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/04/books/steinbecks-travels-with-charley-gets-a-fact-checking.html>.
Payne, Adam A., and Douglas A. Hurt. “Narratives of the Mother Road: Geographic Themes Along Route 66.” Geographical Review 105.3 (2015): 283-303. Web.
Shea, Andrea. “Jack Kerouac’s Famous Scroll, ‘On the Road’ Again.” NPR. NPR, 05 July 2007. Web. 11 Mar. 2017. <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=11709924>.
Steigerwald, Bill. “Sorry, Charley.” Reason 42.11 (2011): 58-62. EBSCOhost. Web. 11 Mar. 2017.