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2019 Grateful 35: Closed borders

I’ve travelled Route 66 enough to be conscious of how towns and villages are at the mercy of those with planning power. A new highway, a new motorway, a change in public policy can be the death of a place. No doubt those who argue in favour of the change cite progress, the public good, and greater benefits as they justify their plans and decisions. Route 66, with its ghost towns, deserted gas stations, and ramshackle restaurants and bars, oozes nostalgia. People still drive the road daily. They still photograph its faded glory. They still support the occasional tourist spot or truck stop that has fought the odds and stayed open to feed their visitors.

The 420 unfinished housing estates dotting Ireland are a different story. These interrupted solutions to Ireland’s pre-crash housing issues haven’t a nuance of nostalgia. They don’t attract tourists or feature regularly in travel magazines. Today, they’re more likely to offer a public safety hazard than a photo opportunity. Writing for the Irish Times a couple of years ago, Simon Carswell described them as

an unofficial memorial to over-development, reckless lending and the failure of government policy to protect its people in a time of excess.

Strangely, neither affected me in quite the same way as the Goričan-Letenye border crossing between Croatia and Hungary. And no, not the main one on the highway, Letenye–Goričan II, but the older one, a few kilometres away, Letenye–Goričan I. From what I read, it’s only a temporary closure – between March and July this year – because of work being done on a bridge over the River Mura.  And yet I find it hard to believe. With the exception of Club 114, everything looks deserted. The post office, the gas station, the motel, the tourist information centre, the currency exchange kiosk, the bank – all skeletons of their former selves.

Letenye–Goričan I closed border

From what I gather from the Letenye town website, the motorway crossing opened in 2008. It doesn’t require a huge stretch of my imagination to see this as the death knell for the old crossing. With most of the traffic using the A3 motorway from Zagreb which morphs into the M7 motorway to Budapest, the need for the original crossing waned. I’d imagine that when it is in operation, it’s used mainly by local traffic from the neighbouring Zala County (HU),  Međimurje County (CR), and Varaždin County (CR) and at times has been limited to residents of these counties only.

Googl eimage of the Letenye–Goričan I closed border crossing

Google’s satellite image shows the now empty bus parking lots. The aerial view says that some thought went into the planning but when it outlived its usefulness, that was that. We had come off the road to eat at the well-reviewed lakeside Zelengaj restaurant but it was closed for a wedding. Club 114 was our nearest option. It looked closed, too, but not for a wedding. The menu was extensive, testament to the variety of palates that once supped at its tables but as our selections were met with the Croatian equivalent of sorry, not available today, it seemed that the selection had shrunk. We both ordered Wienerschnitzel and the two lads who came in after us got the same. It’s been a while since I’ve seen as good a synopsis.

We sat outside, taking advantage of the break in the unseasonably cold weather we’ve been having. It was like eating dinner in a ghost town. All we needed was the tumbleweed. Inside, two long tables were set as if for a wedding. And from the fussing the couple were doing with positioning the cutlery, it seemed as if guests were expected at any moment. It all added to the surrealness. Time seemed to have taken on new meaning.

wedding table set at Club 114We’d gone to Zagreb to drop off some friends as they made their way back to Australia, the long way around. The 24 hours we’d been away felt like a week. Our last supper in Croatia was as strange a one as I’ve had in while. Facing a border we couldn’t cross, we made our way back to the motorway and did as everyone else was doing: we got in line and waited. Hungary is in the Schengen. Croatia isn’t. Hence the delay. We got lucky. Even with just one lane open, it took little more than half an hour to cross. Friends travelling back from Serbia the same day had to make do with a 3-hour hold-up. It’s not high season yet. That’s when the fun really starts.

While I’m a great proponent of personal space, I have mixed feelings about borders. I like the sense of travelling between countries. I like to see the lines I cross. But I don’t like the bureaucracy that comes with it. It saddens me to see how much of rural life survives at the behest of planners and their ilk who have the greater good in mind when they make their decisions. The voice of the many is louder than the voice of the few. From the billboards and posters still in place, someone once had great plans for the area, plans which seem to have largely come to nothing. Although maybe I’m going it an injustice and perhaps Goričan warrants further exploration.

Make no mistake, I like the convenience offered by motorways if I’m on a fast track from A to B. But I also value the back roads, the old highways, the Route 66 equivalents that run across this region. I don’t want to see them die a slow death, starved of sustenance. Just as I will pay more for my washing-up liquid in the village shop because I want to keep the option of being able to shop there, every now and then I’ll take the low road, the back road, and spend my money at places like Club 114 – we might have been half the business they had that day and they won’t get rich from what we left on the table, but if that wedding table was set more in hope than in reality, I like to think that I contributed, just a little, to keeping the dream alive for another day.

This week, I’m grateful for the reminder that there is always a consequence.

Old or outsourced

Santa Fe is home to one of the largest art markets in the world. If you have money, an eclectic taste in clothes and jewelry, and a house to furnish in that Aztecky desert style so peculiar to the region, then it’s a place worth visiting.  I was quite taken with the arts and crafts initially but then, in conversation with some of the vendors, I was a little disheartened to discover that the whole ‘designed in’ vs ‘made in’ blur of distinction had made it to the desert.

IMG_5855 (800x600)I’d set my eye on a blue woven basket, a large part of whose charm lay in the fact that I thought it was made by a Navajo Indian. I have a weird obsession with knowing the origins of things and prefer my originals to be signed and dated. But while it was designed by a Navajo artisan, it was actually made in Punjabi, India. This gave the outsourcing thing a whole new slant and poked another hole in my naivety. I really need to do something about the growing sense of dissatisfaction I have with the price of progress.

IMG_5856 (600x800)That said, though, it’s a lovely city with lots to gawk at and plenty of shops to wander around. With 200 restaurants, 250 art galleries, 50 Indian jewelry shops, 13 major museums, and a world-famous opera, there’s plenty to occupy a couple of days. Not that we had that sort of time, mind you. It has the oldest government seat in the United States, the oldest church in the United States, and the oldest house in the United States. So that makes it old. And, apparently, it was a town 13 years before the Pilgrims hit on Plymouth Rock. And in American terms, that’s really old.

IMG_5838 (800x600)The city sits at the end of the Santa Fe trail, a lifeline between Missouri and New Mexico that opened in 1821. The trail crosses five states and back in its day, military forts opened along the route to protect trail travel and trade. Route 66 also passes through it. And, when I stop to think about it, the city has made the transition to the twenty-first century relatively unscathed in parts. So perhaps this is one part of the world where the price of progress has been held in check, visually at least. Hope? Perhaps!

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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.