It’s been alleged that COVID is in recession in America, and with that news, along with the arrival of summer and increasing vaccinations, Americans are looking to rid themselves of a side effect of the pandemic; let’s call it hometown-itis.
Whether they contracted the coronavirus or not, most Americans have exhibited symptoms of hometown-itis; alternating feelings of restlessness and hopelessness, outbursts of frustration, general malaise and wild hallucinations that might include standing in front of the local Walmart and imagining it to be the Gucci store in Rome; Rome, Italy – not Rome, Georgia.
There’s only one cure for hometown-itis and that’s travel. Setting aside some lingering COVID qualms, Cora and I have decided to self-medicate with a healthy dose of travel, but with one chief precaution; we’re avoiding airports.
So with air travel off the itinerary, Cora and I, along with our dog Lexi, are travelling in the legendary, old fashioned way. We’re embarking on The Great American Road Trip. The road trip is an American tradition, a paean to this nation’s twin love affair, with the highway and with the internal combustion engine.
When I was a child, the road trip defined travel. It was symbolized by American steel, the big station wagon, powered by a rumbling V-8, and bedecked with faux wood side panels, a roof rack and plenty of chrome. Bench seats, no center console, no cup holders, and only a radio, the scenery and conversation for entertainment. No Hondas or Toyotas thank you. It was a time when cars made in Japan were considered to be unreliable, puny, tinny, toys.
There was no GPS, and there were no cell phones and no Google lady compelling you to have abiding faith in her judgment when she tells you to make a right turn in 400 feet.
In the old days you simply hailed some guy on the street, “Hey buddy, can you tell me how to get to the historical museum from here?”
That’s unless you’re a man. Men are notorious for refusing to cave in to asking for directions.
“Dear, why don’t we ask that guy?”
“Hell no. I can figure it out myself.”
I’m reminded of the trip to Boston and the search for our hotel after we’d landed at Logan, an excursion that had us traveling in a loop. I knew it was a loop because we kept passing Fenway Park. It was fun on the first lap when we were still filled with anticipation,
“Hey, look, it’s Fenway. I’ve always wanted to see a game in that old yard”
By lap five or six, we were hungry, tired and disgusted, and Fenway had shed its historical allure.
“Screw Fenway and fuck the Red Sox.”
Mom and dad were armed with maps. For those born in 1990 or later, a map is a large, paper navigational aid that depicts, highways, roads, cities, towns and various points of interest. Those adept at using a map can plot a route between, say, Santa Fe, New Mexico and Abilene, Texas, and can even determine the mileage between those two cities.
Maps are still readily available and come, as they always have, conveniently folded into a handy 4 inch x 9 inch rectangle. Once unfolded, the user finds it almost impossible to return the map to its original folded configuration. This often results in a flurry of invectives hurled at the inanimate and uncaring map.
As our day of departure approached, mom and dad began planning the road trip with the care and precision of a general putting together his battle plans. Having studied some military history myself, I’m confident that in some cases mom and dad displayed more care and more precision, the names Burnside and Montgomery come immediately to mind. But that’s all for a different post.
With the routes plotted, the drive times estimated, and overnight stops determined, mom would study the Mobil Travel Guide to find suitable motels along the route. A swimming pool was the single most important requirement so that I could be kept busy while mom and dad would unwind from a long drive, by downing a couple of cocktails.
Like the night before an amphibious assault, the day before departure was dedicated to staging the operation. Dad checked the fluid levels in the car, made sure that the tires were properly inflated, the spare tire in good order, the gas tank full, and the portable cocktail kit stocked.
Since all of our trips involved passing through the scorching Great Basin Desert of Nevada, dad insisted that we leave the house early in the morning so that we could arrive at our first overnight stop in Winnemucca, Nevada by early afternoon. The early start time was non-negotiable because by three o’clock of an August afternoon, the sun had become an unforgiving broiler that seared Highway 80.
A car pulled off to the side of the road, hood up and radiator boiling like a cauldron was not a rarity. Seeing a forlorn family crowded around the front of a car, staring down at the steaming engine was one of those, “There but for the grace of god go I,” moments. So Dad was deadly serious about that early morning shit. Early meant out of the house and on the road by four in the AM.
Up by three, dad and mom would have their coffee, make double and triple sure that the plans were all in order and then we would commence with another venerated tradition of The Great American Road Trip, what mom called, “the last five minutes.”
“The last five minutes,” is filled with indecision, confusion and lots of assorted bullshit; final trips to the toilet, a check to make sure that the coffee maker is off, and of course, some necessary jiggling, first, the handle on the runny toilet, and second, on the back door knob.
“The last five minutes” cannot be initiated until all of the family members are buckled into the car and the motor started. With those conditions met, a random family member announces the need to pee a final few drops. Once that person, wearing a smile of relief, is headed back to the car, another gets out to check that the thermostat in the house is turned off. This sets in motion a series of people embarking and disembarking until “the last five minutes” has sucked up about thirty minutes of actual time. No Great American Road Trip can be launched without a period of pre-departure disorientation.
A half century later some elements of The Great American Road Trip have changed but, for me at least, a lot remains as it was during my childhood.
While I use the internet for reference I still use real, bound, travel guides and maps and carry them along during the trip. While I do depend on the Google lady for directions, I’ve been burned enough times to know that she sometimes has a brain fart, or maybe she’ll just decide to fuck with us a bit and send us west when we really want to go south. That’s when the map comes in handy.
For the most part, Cora and I have finalized our plans. We’ve decided that since we’re taking The Great American Road Trip we should pay homage to road trip history by taking the Mother Road, Route 66. Planned and paved in 1926, Route 66 is a journey, not just across a swath of America, it’s a drive through history, tradition and kitschy Americana.
Route 66, bookended by the giant cities, Los Angeles and Chicago, traverses hills, prairies and deserts and passes through cities like Tulsa, Oklahoma and Flagstaff Arizona, as well as the solitary remains of what were once vibrant communities. Dusty, forsaken waifs like Montoya, New Mexico; Amboy, California; and Hackberry, Arizona, dot the route from the Midwest to the crashing waves of California.
Route 66 traverses decades of history. It follows the route of pioneers and of the desperate, “Oakies” who journeyed west to escape the devastation of the Dust Bowl only to find hostility and disappointment in California. It’s the paved, concrete monument to Americans’ yearning to throw the luggage, the kids and the dog in the car and explore the country.
Route 66 has been made famous in literature, film and song.
John Steinbeck’s Joad Family in the novel, The Grapes of Wrath, travel Route 66 from Oklahoma to California. It was Steinbeck who coined the term “The Mother Road.”
Movies shot on or about The Mother Road include:
No Country for Old Men
Grapes of Wrath
Natural Born Killers
In 1960, the popular T.V. series Route 66 debuted. The series was about the adventures of two young men, Tod Stiles and Buz Murdock, as they travelled from place to place (not always on Route 66, mind you), in Murdock’s Corvette convertible.
The theme song, composed by Nelson Riddle, is still recognizable by those of us old enough to have watched the show.
In 1946, The Nat King Cole Trio, recorded a hit version of Bobby Troup’s, (Get Your Kicks on) Route 66. The song contains a listing of many of the stops along the now decertified highway. Decades after Nat King Cole’s hit, his daughter Natalie covered the song.
Cora and I will drive south to pick up Route 66, in Victorville, California. I don’t figure there’s much to be gained by starting at the terminus at the Santa Monica Pier and going through the concrete jungle of L.A. Been there done that; once through the congested hell of the L.A. freeway is one time too many.
We’ll follow The Mother Road from the California border and then across Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, all the way to Stroud, Oklahoma. At Stroud we leave The Mother Road for good and head to Rogers, Arkansas. From Arkansas it’s north, and we pass through, or at least touch, Missouri, Kansas, and Iowa. Then it’s west through Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Washington State, where we veer south through Oregon, and then finally home.
Some stops will be for one night only; Kansas City, for instance, just enough time to have barbeque at the famous, Arthur Bryant’s. Other stops will be for multiple nights, like tiny Red Lodge, Montana, gateway to the Bear Tooth Pass and its spectacular 11,000 foot summit. We’ll drive the scenic Bear Tooth Highway, I might spend a morning or two wetting a line, and we might just do nothing for a couple of days.
Our original plan was to just drive and then stop when and where we pleased but that plan was tossed when we decided to bring Lexi. Not every motel accepts dogs, particularly dogs over 50 pounds.
And so, the route is plotted, the reservations made and a week from today we do what Americans have done for over a century – we go through “the last five minutes,” only we do it in 2021 style.
“You got your phone?”
“Wait!. I forgot my mask.”