“Well, we’re not in the middle of nowhere, but we can see it from here.” ~ Thelma & Louise
It seemed that way sometimes, those times when we got a little bit lost and found ourselves on a long stretch of a desolate county road. It’s on those roads when you haven’t seen a passing car for miles and miles on end that you feel as if you’ve driven yourself out of civilization.
We got lost in Arizona and drove 50 miles on two rutted lanes to a shack and some outbuildings that Google tried to sell me as being the Painted Desert. It was certainly desert but the buildings were in sore need of a coat of new paint. Except for the reds and browns of distant mesas, the land had an ashen complexion.
Yet even in what seemed smack in the middle of empty, we always saw random traces of civilization, either abandoned or lonely or somewhere in between.
We passed old barns suffering the ravages of time and seasons, rain, wind and sun. Though rotting and dilapidated, they take on a character that they never possessed in the days of their newly painted youth. They aren’t unlike people in that way.
We saw rusting metal shacks, and enough hulks of old cars to put together a respectable vintage car museum.
And the single wides. Plenty of those. The nearest neighbors are coyotes and jackrabbits. Out front, in a plot of dirt that passes for a yard, as if the whole of the barren land isn’t the yard, we might see a giant satellite dish. They belong to the loners who live on the outside lines of the grid. The others, the real hermits, they’re the ones without a dish. They either left the grid or never bothered with a grid.
A rail corral might house a horse or two, maybe a cow.
I imagine if you drive down the dirt road that leads to one of these hovels, you’ll be greeted by a barking old mongrel that wears the same dust he donned when he was a pup. That’s the movie stereotype anyway.
Between the shacks and mobile homes are wide sweeps of nothing.
Cora wondered aloud how they survive. She was looking at it through suburban eyes, someone who holds her manicurist, trusted doctor and local supermarket close to heart.
On the other hand, I wonder what it would be like to live that sort of solitude. Is it peace and freedom from worldly stress or is it an empty, friendless isolation?
I made the argument that this is likely the life they choose, are perfectly happy with it and wonder how we can tolerate suburbia.
I actually wouldn’t mind giving it a try. That would be easy though, knowing that I always have suburbia to fall back on. But what’s it really like? Really, meaning that there’s no back up plan.
At times it wasn’t a case of getting lost but more a purposeful, “I wonder what’s down that road?”
In South Dakota we took a county road that went from paved to potholed to gravel. We took that road until I decided that whatever it was that we were looking for wasn’t worth the anxiety of having a breakdown in the middle of desolation.
Was it South Dakota? Maybe it was Wyoming or Montana or New Mexico. I’ve lost track of those lonely little roads.
And then there was the long stretch northbound on Highway 49 in Missouri, headed towards the crazy little women and barbecue of Kansas City.
Somewhere between the Arkansas border and Joplin, Missouri, you couldn’t see any of the state for the trees. The highway there, smooth as the Indy Speedway, is enveloped in lush, green trees. You wonder what’s on the other side of those trees. More trees?
It turned out that looking at miles and miles of that unbroken green wall was a monotony more tedious than the Mojave Desert.
In the desert there’s an expanse that changes color and contour with the miles.
In the high country of New Mexico, we drove through a buff land speckled with scrub grass but the clouds; the clouds, you could almost stick your hand through the open sun roof and grab a handful.
Back on 49 though, the unbroken green curtain can be numbing.
It was during the periods of glazing eyes and a nodding head that I fortified myself with a nutritionist’s nightmare of barbecue potato chips and Mountain Dew.
If caffeine fortified soda didn’t work we pulled off the road and I took a short nap. If we were lucky we’d park at a rest stop but failing that I parked on the side of an on ramp, the spot normally favored by state troopers. There were times when the heat was unrelenting and parking in the sun would only increase the grogginess. Then it was simply a matter of gutting it out till a patch of shade appeared.
And then there was always conversation.
On the road to Joplin we talked about Missouri.
We wondered what’s true and what’s fiction in the Netflix series Ozark. Do expats from Chicago launder money for Mexican drug lords? Do hillbillies grow opium poppies in the woods?
After recommending to Cora that she not ask Ozark based questions of the locals I turned to history.
“Do you know that Harry Truman came from Missouri?” I asked Cora.
“Truman. I know that name.”
“He was the president who followed Roosevelt. How did you pass your citizenship test?”
“I memorized and then forgot.”
“Well, don’t worry about it. Most native born Americans wouldn’t know Harry Truman from Harry Connick. So you don’t know that Truman tried to push a national healthcare program. I wasn’t even born yet. Of all organizations, it was the American Medical Association, fucking doctors, who tamped out Truman’s idea with the Socialism argument and the myth that the government would create ‘death panels’. That nonsense is older than me and keeps getting recycled by the Republicans.”
I told her about the famous little sign that sat on Truman’s desk, “The buck stops here.”
Cora didn’t understand the meaning.
“The ‘buck’ means responsibility. It means that the responsibility for the well being of the country eventually ends with the president.”
“The buck doesn’t stop anymore,” I said. “It keeps getting passed on from administration to administration. We had a guy who said ‘I’m not responsible.’ Remember him?
History; it can be an elusive thing in the Bay Area where I live. Sometimes you have to hunt for it, and when you find it, you often find that history was torn down to make room for progress, and all that remains of the past is a plaque on a high rise wall; On this site in 1868…
One day the high rise, plaque and all, will get torn down to make room for something else and that piece of history, small as it is, will be left to the books.
Not so in America’s core. In the middle of America, the interstate, the state highways, the country routes and gravel roads lead you to and through history.
Oftentimes the story is a familiar one that repeats itself from town to town, different place, different time, same basic narrative.
Some towns began of necessity, as pins on a railroad surveyor’s otherwise empty map. Sometimes they grew out of the hopes of a family on the move from somewhere back east, settlers who decided that the confluence of a cool, clear stream and good earth offered enough promise to put down roots, literal and figurative ones. Oftentimes settlements were born of an avarice for ore, or minerals, oil or precious metals.
We drove into towns and saw buildings with faded ghost signs that, one hundred years after the business failed or the owner died, still advertise his or her dream. Clock towers with a founding date stamp going back a hundred years or more.
Some of those old towns are either gone – or going. The mine played out, the railroad rerouted, or the company town was left orphaned by the company.
Life support was usually pulled when the post office locked its doors for good, leaving a few buildings, the old holdouts who wouldn’t leave – and the wind.
Many of the old towns still exist, though oftentimes repurposed.
Little Galena, Kansas on old Route 66 rose from the discovery of lead in 1877. During the labor strife of the 1930’s Galena was the site of violence between the United Mine Workers Union and the mining companies. In 1935, gunfire erupted in Galena right on famous old Route 66, when the mining companies brought in scabs and then two years later, when union workers walked off the job again.
Years later the collateral damage from all the mining and smelting operations earned the area the dubious designation as a Superfund Site.
Mining doesn’t last forever. Once the mining companies had squeezed out the last of the lead, Galena lost its corporate value.
The town thrived as a stopover during the glory days of Route 66. Now Galena plays host to Route 66 groupies who stop and pose next to an old International Harvester L-170 truck that became the inspiration for the character Tow Mater, in the movie Cars. The truck is parked at a restored KanOtex Service Station.
Cora and I stopped and walked past the old historic brick buildings. In towns like Galena you walk amid history.
As I shot photos of the brick buildings, the KanOtex station and an old Texaco station I stopped and talked to a man who was, like me, bouncing around town taking pictures.
We’d seen each other earlier that day in Joplin, Missouri, taking pictures and pausing to stay out of each other’s frames.
The man was driving west from Chicago. He was doing Route 66 westbound in contrast to our eastbound trip.
We were leaving the Mother Road there in Galena. He still had over a thousand miles to go before leaving Route 66 for Las Vegas. We were travelling for pleasure, he was headed for a new job in the desert City of Sin.
“I figure I might just as well take my time and see the sights along the way,” he told me.
Below: Galena, Kansas
He wasn’t the only Route 66 devotee I’d meet. In Grant’s, New Mexico, I compared notes with a young couple who I met shooting photos of a vintage neon sign.
They told me that the best neon signs they’d found were in Tucumcari, 250 miles to the east. We would eventually pass through Tucumcari, but it was in the middle of the afternoon, when the neon signs lack their luster.
Route 66 in the southwest is a giant tract of a lot of nothing held together by a string of little towns, crumbling ruins, graffitied hulks, and funky signs and sights. Taken as a whole it’s what gives the old girl her allure.
I pulled off Highway 40 onto old Route 66, near Joseph City, Arizona, bound for the Jack Rabbit Trading post. While you might drive past the building itself, it’s impossible to miss the giant jack rabbit and the big yellow and red HERE IT IS billboard.
I parked the car in front of the long white building decorated with paintings of Indian blankets, head dressed Native Americans and cacti. A welcome sign tells visitors that the little store is Still “Hoppin” On. Unfortunately there was no “hoppin” happening that day. Closed. I wondered whether it was off hours or if, like many of the trading posts we’d passed, it was COVID closed.
I crossed the road to take a photo of the billboard, though the word billboard is a misnomer. Unlike most big signs that are one piece, the HERE IT IS sign is constructed of boards nailed to a supporting skeleton.
That HERE IT IS sign is a testament to the old saying, “They don’t make things like they used to,” and it looks the part. The boards are the originals, nailed up 72 years ago. A few coats of paint now and then and some occasional work on the supports and it looks as good as, well, not new, but pretty good for something born in 1949. A few knot holes and some light leaking between the boards lend some character and, fact is, I know some people that age who are leaking – and it doesn’t add character.
I waited while a young woman took a selfie with the sign, using a tripod perched on the hood of her little car. She finished and admired her work. I took my photos and walked back to the parking lot to take pictures of the saddled white rabbit.
The woman’s car zipped past and she got out and lined up her shot of the smiling rabbit.
“Do you want me to take your picture?” I offered.
“No, that’s okay. Thanks.”
Back at the car I coaxed Cora out to pose with the rabbit.
The young woman saw Cora. “Oh, you’re traveling with someone. Okay, can you take my picture?”
I did and she took photos of Cora and I next to the rabbit. None of us was up for climbing onto the red saddle.
We stood next to the woman’s little car and talked. She’d left Chicago and was doing Route 66, east to west. That seems to be the preferred way. Everyone we met was heading west and every Route 66 guide book heads that way too, leaving the eastbound traveler to reverse all the turns.
She was headed out to visit her sister in San Diego. I peeked in her car and it was packed from floor to ceiling and rear hatch to passenger seat. I wouldn’t have been stunned to see the proverbial kitchen sink under the pile of clothes, bags and stuff she had in there.
“You’re travelling alone?” asked Cora. “You’re very brave to do that.”
After a few minutes, she left for the Pacific and we left for New Mexico.
Cora was concerned about a young woman traveling 2000 miles by herself.
“Well, she was smart enough to turn me down on the picture offer, before she knew I was traveling with my wife and dog.”
Below: Jack Rabbit Trading Post
The man headed to Vegas was on the move, the young woman from Chicago was on the move and we were on the move; America was on the move. That became plain just hours into the trip, in California’s Central Valley when we stopped at a packed state operated rest stop. There, in mid-May it seemed like mostly retirees. Kids were still in school, or doing school from home or doing school from somewhere on the move.
In just about every town we passed through, the red NO VACANCY signs were blazing.
June was approaching as we entered the town of Williams, Arizona, the southern jump off on the way to the Grand Canyon. There we found the motorists’ version of Grand Central Station. Gas stations had lines, convenience stores were bustling, t-shirts flew from the racks at souvenir shops, the sidewalks were jammed and hardly a mask was in sight.
COVID was on the run, or so we thought. As it turned out we might just as well have been standing on an aircraft carrier in front of a Mission Accomplished banner.
I found that once we left California we entered a place where small towns stand alone. Whether it was in the southwest, the plains, the vast farmlands of Iowa and Nebraska or the mountains of Montana and Idaho, the towns are disjoined.
It isn’t that way in California where cities, towns, strip malls, auto malls, outlet centers, and pods of fast food joints surrounding a Motel 6, all seem welded together by an interstate into one gigantic community. I would take the endless green of I-49 through Missouri over that spread of concrete commercialism. The one exception in California that we passed was the Mojave Desert – but that’s like a different planet.
America, I found, has an endless supply of small towns, Anderson, Fort Scott, Broken Bow, Shawnee, Holbrook, Grants, St. Regis, and Vega.
As we drove through little Crestline, Kansas I was a little shocked to see an adult novelty store. The idea of a purveyor of butt plugs, scented lubricants and assorted rubber novelties in small town Kansas went against everything that I thought I knew about middle America. Seems I fell for the stereotype. Does this mean that Dorothy concealed a vibrator under her mattress? And is that why she got swept up in that tornado?
In Wyoming, where the speed limit is 55 MPH on an unpaved road, and 70 on the highway, and you can openly carry your gun, you can also cruise to your local pub and avail yourself of the drive-thru liquor window – and this was the case before there was a COVID-19. To be fair, the state does prohibit open containers in vehicles.
If Glenn Frey hadn’t sung about
“a-standing on a corner
In Winslow, Arizona,”
would anybody know the place existed?
It does exist, and RelicRoad Brewing down the street from the song’s commemorative statues is busy but worth the wait. I enjoyed a sinfully spicy Southwest Burger, while the bath that I gave Lexi before we left home went to hell when she sprawled her long body in the sidewalk dust at our table.
It does exist, and I caved into buying a Winslow, Arizona t-shirt. I think the wife is amazed that I came out of a 16 state road trip with only three t-shirts and a cap.
There’s a Cairo in Nebraska where you won’t find pyramids, nor many buildings. There are no steel mills in Pittsburgh, Kansas (probably none left in the more famous Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania). The Halsey in Nebraska isn’t named after the admiral, it’s named after a railroad employee named Halsey Yates. Halsey is another one of those towns, forged out of steel rails. There’s a Rosie’s Diner in Erick, Oklahoma, but there were no commercials for Bounty Paper Towels shot there. Italian is not the language of Milan, New Mexico, and while you probably won’t find as good a seafood risotto in Ravenna, Nebraska as you might in Ravenna, Italy the converse is probably true when it comes to a good chicken fried steak with cream gravy.
Don’t sleep on the goodness of chicken fried steak and cream gravy. Prepared correctly and slid to you on the counter of a diner by the tattooed arm of a fry cook, it’s every bit as good as an overpriced one inch cube of Wagyu with a side of three slices of turnip, placed delicately on your white tablecloth by a snooty waiter at a 5 star joint. And at a fraction of the cost.
The road led us to the classics; the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert, Sedona, Santa Fe, Yellowstone and the Devil’s Tower.
It also carried us to the nostalgic, the unusual and the unexpected.
The Safari Motel, a beautifully retro fitted motel in Tucumcari was adorned with signs that brought back the 1950’s.
There’s a smiling blue whale sitting next to a pond in Catoosa, Oklahoma, 1500 miles from the nearest ocean. The Blue Whale of Catoosa is one of the many icons, monuments and oddities to be found on Route 66.
In 1972, Hugh Davis, the director of the Tulsa Zoo surprised (or shocked) his wife with a 34th anniversary present of an 80 foot long sperm whale sitting at the edge of a pond on their property. Made of pipe and concrete, with a diving platform at the tail and a slide coming from the head, the whale was built for the Davis children. By the late 1970’s, the whale was part of a bigger attraction called Nature’s Acres that featured a trading post and a reptile attraction.
With age came loss of interest and the closure of Nature’s Acres. For a time, the lonely whale fell into disrepair until community members patched the concrete and applied a fresh coat of paint. The community continues the upkeep and the Blue Whale of Catoosa has become one of the main attractions along Route 66.
While we were there, we came upon a man who was living out of his car, trying his luck with a fishing rod in the murky pond. Looked like it was slim pickings.
On our way to Klamath Falls, Oregon, driving through forested Chiloquin, we were passing Melita’s Restaurant, Motel and RV Park, just another of the hundreds of family owned motor courts we’d seen over 8,000 miles.
“What in the fuck is that doing there?”
“What?”, asked Cora.
“That airplane,” as I jerked my thumb back.
We were already well past the Royal Navy plane that was sitting nearly on the grounds of Melita’s Restaurant, Motel and RV Park. Over the course of four weeks I often passed on photo opportunities, but a British plane just off Highway 97, was an oddity that I couldn’t pass up, so I turned around.
The Encyclopedia Britannica describes a Heron, as any of about 60 species of long-legged wading birds.
We got back to Melita’s Restaurant, Motel and RV Park where I made a U-turn, drove about 50 yards and parked adjacent to another species of heron, a De Havilland DH-114 Sea Heron. This Heron, lay flat on it’s belly, had one wing clipped and the remaining wing was missing its engines. Not only did it not have long legs like a proper heron, the landing gear was gone.
While I inspected and photographed the old bird, Cora sat patiently in the van and waited. She didn’t seem at all nonplussed at seeing the hulk of a British warplane, laying on its belly on the side of an Oregon highway. Why would she be after having seen a concrete whale in Oklahoma?
I later found that this plane built in 1959 saw duty as an airliner until 1961, when it was drafted by the British Royal Navy. In 1991 the Heron was sold to Saint Helena Airways Ltd London. In 1993, a Michael Coghlan took possession of the plane. Nine years later the plane found its way to Albany, New York, and then Renton, Washington, followed by a private residence in Albany, Oregon and then finally to the edge of a forest in Chiloquin, Oregon. Apparently the current owner is Melita, but if I had to guess, I’d say there’s a man involved here.
“Hey Melita, look what I bought,” said the husband.
“Oh look, an airplane with one wing, no engines, no wheels, and a bunch of broken windows. What are we going to do with it?”
“I plan to restore it. It’ll attract customers to our place.”
“Restore it? You can’t even fix the leaky toilets.”
“I’ll learn it on YouTube. It’s amazing what you can learn on YouTube. Why, these days you can learn how to be a virologist and an immunologist and an expert on the history of Afghanistan.”
Or maybe someone just dumped it by the side of the road in the middle of the night like people do with old couches, leaving Melita to wake up one morning with an old airplane in her side yard.
The next morning we left Klamath Falls for home and drove beneath a sign that could’ve passed as a plain road sign, an advertisement for “herb,” or instructions to the gardener.