The mother road

I finally got to drive Route 66. Not all of it, just a short stretch, but enough to feel the magic. Dubbed the ‘Mother Road – the road of flight’ by the fictional Joad family in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, this narrow, two-lane road goes from Chicago to Los Angeles (2448 miles in all) and, for the most part, runs parallel with Interstate 40.

IMG_5415 (800x591) (800x591)IMG_5835 (600x800) (600x800)Route 66 0pened on 11 November 1926 in Springfield, MO. Back in the 1930s, it was the path to freedom for many from Oklahoma who went west, dodging the clutches of the Dust Bowl. It has been immortalised by writers like Jack Kerouac. It has been a source of wonder and inspiration for comedians like Billy Connolly. But in the 1980s, it had outlived its usefulness and on 27 June 1985, it was decommissioned, no longer an official US highway. It hasn’t gone away, though, and while it might not be ploughed by snow ploughs during the winter or patrolled by Highway Patrol year ’round, the Mother Road is still very much alive and kicking – and as the t-shirts and fridge magnets declare, many still get their kicks on Route 66.

IMG_6263 (800x600)Like much of the rest of my world (Ireland and Hungary), many small towns thrived from the traffic the route brought. But then, as infrastructure upped a notch or five and freeways and highways and motorways were built, the lifeblood of these small communities was choked at source. In the USA, it was Eisenhower, who in 1956, inspired by the German autobahn he had seen during World War II, began the move to make US highways more efficient. Route 66 was what might be called collateral damage. Now, instead of booming centres of commerce, Route 66 is dotted with tacky souvenir trading posts, fast-food joints, and petrol stations.  There is the occasional gem, though, like Joseph’s Bar and Grill in Santa Rosa, New Mexico.

IMG_5408 (800x600)Here, in 1956, a WWII veteran by the name of José Campos, opened La Fiesta drive-in, which developed into a full-service restaurant within a couple of years. Handed down to the next generation of Campos in 1985, it blossomed under the banner ‘Joseph’s Bar & Grill’. Now home to a gift shop, the restaurant is what any tourist would expect of an American diner. It has struck the right note between tacky and nostalgic and the food is as comforting as diner cooking should be.

IMG_5403 (800x600)It doesn’t stand on ceremony – come in your curlers! This couple, in their eighties, were making their way north to see their kids and were a tad concerned about the possibility of running into wildfires. But they’d resolved to go as far as they could go. Hats off to the tenacity of older Americans, whose ‘live it while you can’ attitude would put many a more delicate European to shame.

IMG_6269 (600x800)Route 66 may have been decommissioned but it still hasn’t lost its magic. Along this very same road hundreds of thousands of people have travelled to better lives. Today, motorbikes and RVs and clapped-out cars make the trip as their drivers search amidst a nostalgic haze for life as it used to be. There’s something so romantic about ‘doing Route 66’ – something I’ve had on my bucket list since I first read Jack Kerouac. And now that I’ve had a taste, the notion has cemented a place in my top 5 things to do before I die – preferably on a Harley.

IMG_5995 (600x800)It’s a treasure of oddness and eccentricity. It’s the home of the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, TX,  the Continental Divide between Brannigan and Parks, AZ, and the Wigwam motel in Holbrook, AZ.  There’s also the Amboy Shoe Tree in California, the steady demise of which chronicles the demise of the route itself. Off to the side, American Indians trade their wares. The crafts of local artisans battle for space with Chinese imports. Billboards line the highway urging travellers not to miss the biggest and the best, each one promising something it can  never hope to deliver. Yet the plight of towns like Amboy are a grave reminder of the price of progress.

IMG_5983 (800x600)Despite efforts to protect America’s first paved highway, Route 66 now features on the Top 100 Most Endangered Sites to Watch – courtesy of the World Monuments Fund. With just 85% of the road still drivable, perhaps I’d better up the ante a little and promote this trip to top of my list.

Larger-than-life eccentricity

The city of Amarillo, TX, is sitting on 90% of the world’s helium supply. Aha, I hear you say, that might explain the association with Texas and hot air. But if you’ve read my previous blog, you’ll know that Texas has a lot to brag about in my book.

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We stopped by Amarillo to see the Cadillac Ranch and it was worth the drive. I have a thing for odd people – strange people – people who think a little outside the box and march to the beat of their own tom-tom and Texas has its fill.

This Cadillac Ranch art exhibition sits in dirt ground alongside the I40 and historic Route 66. It was installed back in 1974 by Chip Lord, Hudson Marquez, and Doug Michels, hippies hailing from San Francisco, who together formed an art group called Ant Farm. The cars are models that date from 1949 to 1963 and all share the Cadillac name and the tail fin that was unique to that period. All are buried nose-first in the ground – at an angle that supposedly corresponds to the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. I didn’t have my compass so can’t verify.

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The man with the money behind this exhibition is a local millionaire Stanley Marsh III well known in the city for his patronage of artistic endeavors which, I hear tell, include a massive billiards table that can only be seen from the air. He’s also responsible for a series of road signs (the Dynamite Museum) that tell travellers that the ‘Road does not end’ and state ‘I dream of you coming home to me’ and urge people ‘when you come to a crossroads, take it’. I love this man!

When the ten Cadillacs were first installed, it wasn’t long before someone took some spray paint to them. Rather than fight the penchant for graffiti, Marsh decided to embrace it.

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Cans of spray paint can be found on site and visitors can paint what they want in the knowledge that in a matter of hours, their message will be replaced by bolder, brighter colours.

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From the minute you cross the state line into Texas and see the road signs, you know you’re in another world. Forget the timid warnings posted by other states not to litter; Texas Department of Transportation screams ‘DON’T MESS WITH TEXAS’. Gentler warnings against driving while intoxicated in neighbouring states are out-gunned by the Texan statement of fact – you simply can’t afford it. I was left wondering what Texan subtlety would look like 🙂

There’s something about Texas that makes it different… and going back to John Steinbeck and his Travels with Charley:

Texas is a state of mind. Texas in an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in  every sense of the word. And there’s an opening convey of generalities. A Texan outside of Texas is a foreigner.


The mystique of Texas

I have said that Texas is a state of mind, but I think it is more than that. It is a mystique closely approximating a religion. And this is true to the extent that people either passionately love Texas or passionately hate it and, as in other religions, few people dare to inspect it for fear of losing their bearings in mystery or paradox. But I think there will be little quarrel with my feeling that Texas is one thing. For all its enormous range of space, climate, and physical appearance, and for all the internal squabbles, contentions, and strivings, Texas has a tight cohesiveness perhaps stronger than any other section of America. Rich, poor, Panhandle, Gulf, city, country, Texas is the obsession, the proper study and the passionate possession of all Texans.

No, I didn’t say that – John Steinbeck did, in his book Travels with Charley. And he said it better than I ever could have, even if those very same thoughts were echoing through my mind as we drove across the panhandle.

crossIMG_5355 (800x600)Shortly after crossing over the state line from Oklahoma, we saw a cross – a big cross – a 19-storey cross. And I began to wonder. Ten million people pass by this same cross every year; each day, a thousand or so will stop to see what it’s about. Erected in 1995, it’s the work of 100 welders and its message is that all things are possible for those who believe.

Now, somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew that Texas was a religious state. But after this cross, I began to see more and more crosses to the point that I soon became obsessed.

Through the bug-splattered windscreen, roadside telephone poles took on new life. I noticed the Christian signage on the long-distance trucks and the myriad billboards with bible extracts. I paid attention to bumper stickers and nearly crashed the car when I saw a mobile church.

IMG_5385 (800x666)In my head, Texas was synonymous with cowboys. And in the westerns of my childhood, all cowboys and ranch-hands said grace before meals. And churchgoing was a regular thing. So why was I so surprised at this outward show of religion, especially considering that Houston hosts the largest church in the nation, Lakewood Church,  while Lubbock, Texas has the most churches per capita in the nation.

The second most populous state in the USA, Texas is home to over 25 million people, 3.5 million of whom are foreign-born. The 2010 census showed  70% white American and 64% Evangelical protestant. Texas is big… very big. So big, in fact, that if it were a country, it would be the 40th largest country in the world, after Chile and Zambia. It’s the largest petroleum-producing state in the USA and were it an independent nation, it would be the world’s 5th largest petroleum-producing nation. And even more mind-boggling, The King Ranch in Kingsville, Texas,  is bigger than the state of Rhode Island.

This sort of explains why it’s said that Texans ain’t Texans if they ain’t willin’ to boast about the state they call home. Hate it or love it, when it comes to bragging rights, there’s a lot to brag about.