The Mother Road

Today Dawg and I woke up east of Joplin, Missouri, bound for Oklahoma by way of Kansas.  It’s day 2 on Route 66, and I’ve figured some things out.  I’d done some preliminary research before I came, but just enough to be dangerous.  I knew that you couldn’t just find Route 66 and drive it; it doesn’t exist any more, not like that.  I kept hearing about “turn-by-turn” maps, and places where the road fell apart, and how you needed to plan ahead.  I didn’t really plan ahead.

Route 66 is actually pretty easy to follow.  I don’t have time to do the whole thing, but you can pretty much pick your starting point and a direction, and go from there.  I started in St. Louis, since that’s the closest place I could reach, and I’m driving to Amarillo, or thereabouts.  I found Route 66 with no trouble, and it’s pretty well signposted.  It’s not nearly as high maintenance I as I thought.  There’s a lot of kitsch.  That’s part of what you sign up for.

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Route 66 has been replaced, moved, and rerouted a whole bunch of times, and then it got overtaken by the interstate highway system.  Most of it is still in use, one way or the other, but it hasn’t functioned as a cross-country route for decades. In Missouri, long stretches of it have been turned into frontage roads along I-44.  It’s kind of disorienting to drive the frontage road on the south next to a major highway.  It feels like you’re trying to drive in the left lane.  Other long stretches jog around and through small towns.  Other long stretches are countryside.

If Route 66 is easy to follow, I’m here to tell you that it’s also easy to lose. Sometimes you’re cruising along and you see this:

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and then you have to backtrack and figure out where you missed a sign.  Coming through the backwoods of Oklahoma today, I would have sworn I hadn’t missed a turn, and suddenly I was on fifteen miles of this:

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and I figured I was about to drive off the face of the earth.  When I finally hit real road again, we found this:

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and I realized we’d been on a tiny piece of the original road, long since left to time forgot.

Speaking of forgotten, there are some towns along the road that need saving.  There are miles and miles of what we’d call “placeless space” in architecture school: strip malls, the same ten chain restaurants, the same big box stores that could be anywhere, USA.  There are some places with real character in there, too: “God’s Storehouse” self-storage (what would be in there, exactly? The locusts? The Ark of the Covenant? Do we really want to know?) and “Last Ride Motorcycle Hearses” for those who want to go out the way they lived (is it “Live Hard Die Free?) and all kinds of other fabulous places.  And then there are the crumbling towns, the ones where all the jobs evaporated and the people left with them.  Galena, Kansas is the one I want somebody to save.  Imagine what you could do with a place like this one:

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And there are pieces of the post-war boom, still there as placeholders for the next big thing,

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and little downtowns which are fighting to come back, with beautiful old storefronts and details which, back in architecture school, we’d refer to as “finely textured.

ImageAll of that, plus the endless miles of rich farmland, dotted with barns and homesteads.

Oh, ‘Merica.

Dawg and I pushed it too far by about an hour, yesterday, and were a little travel-weary.  It started raining around noon today, and the skies are quite literally threatening snow after yesterday’s 87 degrees. Today I was pushing, pushing, pushing for Oklahoma City.  And then a little roadside motel, a string of cottages with benches and a little lawn overlooking the highway, sprang up on our right.  We stopped early.  We threw the tennis ball.  We repacked everything that had become a jumble.  We rested.

ImageTomorrow: Oklahoma City, a dangerous boot purchase, and Texas.  Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise.

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