Well if you ever plan to motor West,
Just take my way that’s the highway that’s the best,
You can get your kicks on Route 66.
All our cross-country road trips over the past 40 years blend into one great road trip, and all the highways on those road trips blend into one legendary highway: Route 66; or more accurately, the modern Interstate-40, with sections where you can still see the old Highway 66 running parallel to it. When you drive onto an East-West highway, the far end draws you like a magnet, and you cannot rest until you arrive at the other coast. So it always was for me as we set out from Massachusetts for sunny California, with the song’s litany of places along the way running through my head. (Although “Route 66″ was composed by Bobby Troup back in 1946 and recorded first by Nat King Cole, it was the Rolling Stones‘ 1964 version that I heard first and love the best.)
It winds from Chicago to LA
More than two thousand miles all the way
We would either pick up Route 66 in Missouri or in Oklahoma, getting there either by a northern route through Illinois to St. Louis or a more southerly one, down to North Carolina and through the hills of Tennessee, accompanied by country music and fire-and-brimstone preachers on the radio. Sometimes we would be driving Andrew’s trusty old 1950 International Harvester milk truck whose maximum speed was 55 miles per hour, and at other times my first car, a 1966 Ford Falcon, with its “three-on-the-tree” gear stick on the steering column. In the 1970s, with gasoline prices ranging from 39 to 69 cents per gallon (even after the oil crisis of 1973), three people traveling together could drive across country and back for $40 to $70 each.
Driving across more-or-less nonstop, we would take turns at the wheel, pausing only for fill-ups of gas and coffee (or tea in my case) at truck stops along the way. Three was the ideal number of people for a cross-country road trip, because it allowed the person due to drive next to sleep stretched out in the back seat while the person who had just driven shifted over to the passenger seat and kept the driver awake.
For me, as a new immigrant, these trips did more than anything else to introduce me to America. What pleasure to pull into the truck stops and ask for a “short stack”—two or three massive flapjacks hanging off the plates like American steaks, swimming in melted butter and drowning in syrup. Truck stops in which the waitress would look at me in utter incomprehension when I asked for tea (not coffee), hot (not iced), with milk (not cream), and no sugar. What a relief to learn that the drivers of the trucks and tractor-trailers, those barreling juggernauts that terrified me during my driving shifts, followed a strict courtesy code of their own that made them the safest and most predictable of the vehicles on the highway at night. Once I learned their limitations and their secret signs I found a deep satisfaction in respecting their rules, showing them that I knew their language, and receiving their signals in response to my own.
Well it goes from St. Louie down through Missouri
Oklahoma City looks oh so pretty
The Ozarks between St. Louis and Oklahoma City were indeed pretty country to drive through (at least until our most recent road trip in 2004, when warring billboards lined the route, both marketing pornography and proclaiming God’s opposition to it). I approached Oklahoma City with eager anticipation, since my knowledge of that part of the country was based solely on the lyrics of the song. Instead, as the southbound highway swung round the city and began heading West, a sickening stench began to assault my nostrils. Ahead of us was a large expanse of ground covered with fenced-in pens, each one filled with cattle, standing on their own excrement, waiting for their death. These were the holding-pens of Stockyards City. Oklahoma City looks oh so ***ty.
Thankfully, just a few miles further on, also in Oklahoma, a new spectacle distracted me from the horror of the stockyards. In the middle of nowhere, right along the side of the highway, a row of big old American cars stood plunged head-first into the bare desert ground, looking like something one would expect to find in an avant-garde art installation in New York City. This was Cadillac Ranch, Andrew informed me. I was filled anew with the wonder of the West.
Besides the truck stops along the highway, there were also the occasional state-provided “comfort stations.” On my first road trip I had no idea what this term might refer to. When Andrew enlightened me, I was amazed yet again by the American penchant for euphemism.
Hour upon hour, we hurtled—more accurately, trundled—through Oklahoma and Texas, along hundreds of miles of straightaway. But when we got to New Mexico, everything changed. First the evocative names: just across the state border, the town of Tucumcari, known to me only through Linda Ronstadt’s truck-driving song, Willin’. Then the Sandia hills and into Albuquerque, home of the Big I interchange, where the East-West I-40 intersects the North-South I-25, and of our dear friend Michael, who took us out for the best New Mexican food, covered liberally with red chile sauce, in my case. (New Mexicans identify themselves by whether they prefer Red or Green chile as the British identify themselves by whether they pour the milk or the tea in their cups first.)
You’ll see Amarillo and Gallup, New Mexico
Through Albuquerque and Grants, New Mexico (Uranium Capital of the World), where we were shocked by the open trucks piled high with raw yellowcake on the highway in front of us and shuddered at the thought of all the Navajo Indian miners stricken with lung cancer as a result of their exposure to radon gas in the uranium mines. On into Indian Country, and Gallup, New Mexico, which always reminds me of my first encounter with the American West, through a wonderful course I took in college called Literature of the West from the Civil War to the Present. It was taught by Kevin Starr, who was soon to leave the rarefied air of Harvard and move back out West himself. A brilliant lecturer, Professor Starr would start class by issuing shocking, delightful instructions to put away all notebooks and pens, just sit back and listen. I will always remember one of his opening lines, “I was in a bar in Gallup, New Mexico. . .”
Flagstaff, Arizona, don’t forget Winona
Kingman, Barstow, San Bernadino too
Get hip to this kindly tip
And go take that California trip
From New Mexico we tended to leave long before dawn to avoid the desert heat and, unless we were branching off at Flagstaff, Arizona for the Grand Canyon, drive right through to Los Angeles, Californ-I-A, where we would be welcomed with open arms by Andrew’s cousin Mischa.
I’m in California as I write this, visiting my dear friend Marianne, with my last cross-country road trip fading into the distance of a rear-view mirror. Flying just can’t compare.
Get your kicks
On Route 66.