For generations, Americans have “found themselves” by hitting the road and discovering America, and many of them did that on Route 66. It’s time we hit the Mother Road again.
In the early 1970s, I decided to hitchhike across America. I was discontented with college and had decided to be a missionary for awhile. I had a couple of months to kill before my training started, so I decided to spend them on the road seeing America.
I wasn’t the first in my family to do this. Back in the 1920s, several of my granddad’s brothers and cousins decided to drive from North Carolina to California, working their way across. Keep in mind that Route 66, the first interstate road in America, did not exist until 1926. Even then, it was just a patchwork of backroads and main street,s loosely joined together, that meandered from Chicago to LA. It wasn’t until later that the “official” route was built. So my great uncles were setting out on a true adventure.
My adventure started in Lenoir, NC, my hometown, with my dad letting me out on the highway to hitch to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where I was going to hook up with my high school class for a couple of days and then head out for California. Dad had done his best to talk me out of my trip, but my mind was made up. His eyes were filled with tears as he let me out on the side of the road. He thought he had lost me forever. What he didn’t realize was that I had been hitching back and forth from college in Chapel Hill for a year, and thought I had a pretty good system down for getting rides. Just that little bit of success emboldened me to take the plunge and head west.
It was pretty easy getting to South Carolina since it was summer and everyone was going to the beach. What wasn’t so easy was getting from the beach to my next destination, Georgia. I got stuck out in the middle of nowheresville – or, to use some of Jack Kerouac’s “beat” talk, “squaresville” – and ended up sleeping on a mosquito-infested golf course with my sleeping bag closed up so tightly it’s a wonder I didn’t suffocate. I made it through the night with some blood left in my veins, and the next day was able to cross Georgia and get into Florida.
Once I was in the panhandle of Florida, I hooked up with a truck driver that was going all the way across the Gulf coast to New Orleans. That was a good ride. One of my most vivid memories was seeing the Gulf coast all lit up at night – it was magnificent. Unfortunately, my driver had to let me out in the middle of the night on the east side of New Orleans, and I spent half the night walking through some residential areas to get to the highway on the other side of the city. That was surreal.
In Tyler, Texas, which is on the east (or green) side of the state, I stopped to visit some folks from my home town – a preacher and his family that used to live next door to us. A female friend of theirs, about my age, took me around the University of Texas campus, and then let me out on the highway for the next leg of my journey. But before I cross Texas, let me comment briefly on the history of this whole concept of being “on the road” and “discovering America.”
Once Route 66 was formed, people started hitting the highway with their families, just as my great uncles did. As a matter of fact, that’s probably why they decided to go: the opening of Route 66 was a very big deal. Before that, it had been impractical and even dangerous to set off across country in a car – most people still travelled by train. But with better automobiles, and now the beginnings of a road system, small-town America became accessible to the adventurous motorist.
John Steinbeck was the first writer to talk about Route 66 and coined the phrase “The Mother Road” in his novel, The Grapes Of Wrath, published in 1939. Back in the 1930s, when drought hit Oklahoma and turned it into a dust bowl, causing thousands of families to lose their farms, Route 66 was their escape route to the promised land of California. Only, California turned out be an inhospitable, even hostile, environment for these unwanted refugees, and many died from starvation. Among the most memorable chapters in The Grapes Of Wrath relating to Route 66 is Chapter 12, where Steinbeck uses “stream-of-consciousness” writing to describe the road itself and all the difficulties people had traveling back then. They were dirt poor and could hardly afford gas, let alone fix their vehicle if it broke down. Many could hardly afford to eat. In another chapter, 15, the writer describes a diner along the road and how a family stops and begs to buy a loaf of bread because they can’t afford anything else. It almost breaks your heart. But that is nothing compared to later chapters, where the people are stripped of everything, including human dignity. Steinbeck pulled out all the stops, and when his book came out, it created a sensation and an uproar from those he had chastised – greedy bankers, the California Farmers Association and others.
If you’d like to read The Grapes Of Wrath online, it’s an easy read. Also, check out director John Ford’s film adaptation, which is very true to the book and stars Henry Fonda. I’m not a big fan of Steinbeck because of his socialist leanings and what seems to me to be the suppression of God and Christianity in his books; but The Grapes Of Wrath is so well-written and has such a good description of life during the Depression, that it is a must-read, especially to gain perspective on our own times. You can see from it that what we are going through now is just a bump in the road compared with what people went through back then; and so for Obama to take the drastic action he did with his so-called bail-outs, plunging our nation into deeper debt, was totally unwarranted.
After Steinbeck, the next writer to expand on this idea of hitting the road and seeing America was Jack Kerouac. In his autobiographical novel, On The Road, which he wrote in 1951 and was published in 1957, Kerouac takes his readers on several different journeys, the first of which is his hitchhiking trip from New York to Denver. Kerouac is not the best role model, as he lived a libertine existence. But he did love the road, and especially the people he met on the road; so his depiction of what it was like to hitchhike across America in the 1950s is lively and entertaining. Kerouac is best known for coming up with the concept of “beat,” from which we get the name “beatnik” and which today we would call “cool.” He is known as the Father of the Beat Generation, which included coffee house beatniks and jazz bar intellectuals, as well as Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack and everyone in between. A must-read is his Part I, Chapter 4, which he calls “the greatest ride in my life.” It really is a hoot.
In the 1960s, Route 66 came into its own with a television show by the same name. It was one of the hottest shows back then, and the reason I caught the bug. Two friends, Tod and Buz, both without families, decide to take the Corvette convertible that Tod’s dad left him and hit the road – supposedly Route 66, but their travels take them far afield of the Mother Road. It was a great show, well-written, with Christian themes and new guest stars each week, and an instrumental theme song by Nelson Riddle that topped the record charts and is still one of the great theme songs in all of television. The music from the show alone sends my heart thumping. Who wouldn’t want to be like the two beatest dudes in America, driving the beatest car, with who-knows-what waiting around the next bend in the road? The Route 66 TV show is out on DVD, but is already sold out. You can still rent it on Netflix.
So back to my trip. There I was, traveling across America like Tod and Buz, minus the car. But as everyone connected with Route 66 the highway will tell you, and as the TV show emphasized, and as both Steinbeck and Kerouac pointed out, it’s not about the road – it’s about the people. That is what hitting the road and seeing America is all about, because that is what America is all about – which is how you’re able to find yourself when you go searching for America. You find yourself when you get out of yourself and get into the lives of other people, which is what Tod and Buz do. You don’t have to hit the road to do that, of course. But sometimes it’s good to go somewhere else and be around new people so you can see that the problems in your life are not being caused by other people – they’re because of you. You’re the problem; finding yourself in Christ and serving others is the solution; and sometimes The Road can help with that.
So there I was in Texas. I was having some good rides and a couple not-so-good ones. I met a lot of nice folks, some of whom bought me meals and even invited me home. I also met some characters and a few weirdos; but no one dangerous. I finally ended up in El Paso: that was the turning point. That was the point past which I was “way out west.” That was when the scenery changed dramatically and became awe-inspiring.
There is nothing more spectacular than the western sky at sunset. Standing out on a little state route, you can really take it in. Our Interstate system misses our small towns and the countryside in between, and so it misses the real beauty that is America. That’s why we need to preserve and use our backroads and downtowns because that is where you find America. That is why we need to preserve Route 66: it helps to tell the story of America.
Besides the landscape, the people out west impressed me. I think I stayed in two motels on my entire trip: one in El Paso and one in Arizona. The one in Arizona was modest, neat and clean as a pin, with a Bible lying on the nightstand like it was meant to be there. And the owners were the nicest people. I thought, “This is America – these are good people.” I met that kind of people everywhere I went.
I was traveling parallel to Route 66 at this point. When I was in El Paso, a little over 200 miles directly north of me was Route 66 going through Albuquerque, New Mexico. After El Paso, I don’t remember much until we were driving across the mountains and coming into California. That was a spectacular scene, and seems like we were coming through mountains to me; but coming from the east, they could very well have been hills. 🙂 I’m guessing I came in through Fortuna Foothills and Yuma on Interstate 8, because I believe I ended up in San Diego for the next interesting thing that happened to me; but I could be wrong about exactly where I was.
I was standing on the side of the highway hitching with several others. I got to talking with one of the guys, a hippy, and I told him where I was headed – San Francisco. He said he had a pad near Highway 1 (one of the beaches in northwest LA, I think) just about where I would end up that night, and offered to let me stay there, even though he wouldn’t be there himself. He told me where he had the key hidden and to make myself at home. That is how people were back then. Can you imagine that today?
When I got to the guy’s pad, he hadn’t paid his electric bill, so there were no lights, and the place was infested with fleas. But it was on the ocean, so I slept on the beach and loved it. The next morning, I stood out on Highway 1 that runs along the coast all the way up to and past San Francisco. There were dozens and dozens of us standing out there hitching. I must have been the most clean-cut of the lot, because I hadn’t been out there more than fifteen minutes when a man in a suit came up to me and asked if I would drive a car for him up the coast. He was a dealer, the car was a Mustang convertible, and his customer was in San Francisco. It couldn’t have been sweeter.
So I got to drive the whole scenic highway in a convertible and arrive in Frisco in style! There is no road like Highway 1, because there is no coast like California’s. That is the only way to see California. It is a coastal country and they are coastal people. I don’t know how Highway 1 is today, but back then, it was the perfect road for a sports car convertible.
I stayed in the Bay area for several weeks, living with friends in Alameda, which is just across the Bay from San Francisco. After that, I headed back east, taking a more northerly route through Reno and Salt Lake City, and traveling by bus because I just couldn’t get a ride out of San Francisco. I ended up in Ohio, where my training to be a missionary was to take place. But, because I had come by bus, I got there early; so I decided to hitch up into Canada for several days. It didn’t work out because I didn’t have enough money on me to satisfy the border guards. So I contented myself with just hitching around Ohio to kill time.
That was my hitchhiking across America experience. I don’t know that I “found myself” on that trip. What I did find was that people are pretty much the same everywhere, and that, no matter where you are, there will always be someone willing to help you, because God always provides. That is America to me.
As far as Route 66, I don’t believe I’ve ever even seen the road, unless it was without knowing it when I was in Santa Monica; in which case I would have seen the Mother Road emptying herself into the Pacific Ocean at Santa Monica pier. That’s where it ends. So one of my goals before I die is to travel the whole thing, from Chicago to LA, but this time in a convertible the way Tod and Buz did.
I’ve been watching a set of DVDs called Route 66: Marathon Tour: Chicago to LA. They start out in Chicago and take you the entire route to Santa Monica, stopping along the way at diners, motor inns, downtowns, historical sites, famous landmarks, natural wonders – all the while interviewing the people whose families have been running those places for years and have beaucoup stories to tell. You get a real taste and appreciation of what Route 66 was like in its glory days and what it’s like today. It’s a great experience and makes you feel like you’ve actually been there, met those people and know some of the road. There is where America resides.
If you’d like a set, I’d go ahead and get one because they look like they’re almost sold out. They’re only $20 for 5 discs. You’ll get all the information and contacts you need to plan a trip or just learn more about The Road. You can pick up a set at http://www.amazon.com/Route-66-Marathon-Chicago-L/dp/B000CCZR86 or at http://video.barnesandnoble.com/DVD/Route-66-Marathon-Tour-Chicago-to-La/e/628261035298 Let me also recommend Michael Wallis’ book, Route 66: The Mother Road. Mike is THE authority on Route 66 and runs the Route 66 Museum in Clinton, Oklahoma. You can pick up a copy of Mike’s book at http://www.amazon.com/Route-66-Mother-Road-Anniversary/dp/0312281617/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1310440241&sr=1-1
One of the most interesting things about Route 66 is that the largest group of people traveling the Mother Road today are Germans, and they do it on motorcycles. They LOVE Route 66. Other foreigners seem to have similar feelings. Why? Do they see in Route 66 something they’ve lost in Europe, and something we’re in danger of losing in this country? That’s why I say that Route 66 is the Real America. Not New York, not LA, not even Chicago or Atlanta; but small towns scattered across this country where people own a little downtown or roadside business and interact with the public on a daily basis, sharing their joys and their sorrows. People. That’s what The Road and America are all about.
Waitsel Smith, July 11, 2011
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Text © 2011 Waitsel Smith. Photos © various sources or as indicated. All Rights Reserved.