In the summer of 2006, the year of its eightieth anniversary, Julia and I flew to Chicago to drive the length of old Route 66 from its starting point at Michigan Avenue to its end at the Pacific Ocean in Los Angeles. Our article on the history of the route, and on westward travel in the U.S. in general, was published in the Winter 2007 issue of DoubleTake/Points of Entry magazine. This is its conclusion:
There will be the mesa you round, and the moment you stop and get out of the car to feel the silence, hear the stillness, listen to no wind blow through you. A deer will fright on a low crag across the road, start and stop, bound to the cliff top and lift its ears, run as the earth rumble grows. From out of the pass, the train will come, long and steady, brown cars, red cars, yellow, reminding you, as you stand and watch, that while you are always alone, you are always connected.
And then, finally – at last, you may think – curving and cornering through the mountain switchbacks on the stretch between Kingman and Oatman, Arizona, the old gold mining and western town where burros roam and Clark Gable and Carole Lombard spent their honeymoon night – you catch sight of the wide, sweeping valley below, and still more mountains beyond, and you wonder, as they must have back in ’26, and on how many horses and wagons before: Does it never end? Does it go on forever, this country? Is there always another valley, another mountain, another plain? They say there is an ocean.
But you will arrive. And the road will return you to yourself, whether it is the route called 66 or another. Because Route 66, as Kerouac knew, as the makers of the TV series knew, is just the emblem of the open road, which is to say its essence. We are alone and connected, and the road tells us both.
In a world in which the daily coffee Americans buy may or may not enable a Guatemalan farmer to live, or the sport shoes we wear lead a Chinese child to labor 12 hours a day in a sweatshop; in a world in which the toot we put up our nose loses a child’s policeman-father his head in Rosarito, and the computer we buy starts a new life for a young woman in Bangalore (and the gasoline we put in our tanks fuels the terror against us) – in such a world of six billion people, to insist we can live by the libertarian ideals of an 18th century agrarian society of just under four million may seem a stretch of the common in sense.
And yet… And yet…
And yet, there are those who recoil to think they are born into an ant colony of genetically and socially contracted roles and regulations, that they evacuate the womb to be captured by government forms, numbers, and imprints before they are even really people. (Though the number that gets you cash from the Bank of America drive-in machine when you’re running low in Tulsa comes in pretty handy.)
On the road, at least – if not, soon, in Britain, at least still here – you can regain your anonymity, disappear into the human grove of earth at this overpass or that T, or along the “let’s see where that goes.” You can leave behind for awhile the Middle East, and Darfur, and Tamil Tigers, and the forgotten prisons of Myanmar – the my God, your God, whose God, no God – and try to remember something. Maybe you recall it in the Petrified Forest or great Meteor Crater of Arizona, maybe in the desert, maybe in a bar.
There may be troubles behind and uncertainty ahead. But there is possibility too. And while your destination lies before you, for now there is the journey. Winds come up, and they cease. Islands of white cloud hang suspended in the blue. Fields go by. Towns go by. Rivers and bridges. Mountain. Valley. Mesa. Butte. In what seems a dream of life, and not life, which is to say life at last, and not a dream, the rhythm of the road, the quick of perception, both lull you and drive you on. You are individual and alive, and everything that passes catches the sun.
And so we begin.
Banning, California; November 2008