Julia Dean, of this blog, was born in the town of Broken Bow, population 3,491 (give or take), in Custer County, Nebraska. The town’s environs are home to Nebraska’s largest cattle feedlot. Julia’s father, Henry Judson “Bud” Dean, a sign painter, was once the mayor of Broken Bow. His grandfather, James R. Dean was an associate justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court. The railroad runs right through the center of Broken Bow. (Press “play” on the video.)
When Julia was still a girl, there was a woman in her town who actually traveled to a very far place called Switzerland. When she returned, she gave Julia a small camera as a gift. Thus was born the woman this writer knows today, a kind companion who has accompanied him, with camera, on many journeys that were the fulfillment of his dreams. One dream, since childhood days in New York City watching Buzz and Tod tool around the country in their Corvette, was to travel the length of Route 66. In 2006, the highway’s 80th birthday, we flew to Chicago and did just that, to the Pacific Ocean.
Stand in so many small towns across America – a town, say, like Dwight, Illinois, through which Route 66 runs – and watch the train pass through, even now. Listen to its whistle. Hear it “moan mournfully,” as Thomas Wolfe’s Eugene Gant heard it. Far places, it says. Distant lives. The great, wide world. Teasing you with its call. Passing on. For so many who longed for experience, the train’s receding rumble, the lingering whisper of it gone, uttered the great paradox of the nation – that while one might live, it seemed, smack-dab in the middle of it all, one felt stranded so far from everything that was happening. To live in the middle, it turned out, was to reside at the edges. To move to the center meant to travel to the boundaries, because the boundary – the frontier – is where the “other” is, and the other is experience.
from “The American Road: Route 66 at 80,” originally published in DoubleTake/Points of Entry magazine, winter 2007