The first chill of fall had settled in my bones, so I curled
up on the couch under a feather comforter and opened a good
book. But this book wasnt the latest murder mystery
from J.D. Robb; it wasnt the New York Times bestseller
The Da Vinci Code; it wasnt even a Harlequin
romance. It was a collection of photographs with accompanying
text documenting the current state of Americas oldest
highwayrunning all the way from Chicago, Illinois to
Santa Monica, Californiathe historic Route 66.
Photographers Jane Barnard and Polly Brown spent three years
traveling the legendary road and their resulting opus was
released this year from the University of New Mexico Press,
American Route 66: Home on the Road. As they explain
in their introduction, their purpose was to document
how the heritage of Route 66 is reflected in current conditions
and rhythms of life and to portray the road with a fresh spin
on local folklore and Americana. [They] wanted to find out
what it is to travel Route 66 today and to visually respond
to whatever and whomever [they] might find along the way.
Turning the pages of this book, I had a beer with Bob and
Peggy Kraft who run the Riviera Restaurant in Illinois. Bob
says, Shes the worker, and Im the drinker.
She does a good job working, and I do a good job drinking.
I know that she loves me or she couldnt stand me.
Peggy quips, Thats for sure.
I also met a metal artist living in Essex. Jack Barker sure
is humble though, In 1994, these people came in driving
a big ol Cadillac. The woman asked me, Are you
the artist? It was the first time I had ever heard myself
called that. Art? I thought, Art was
that fella I grew up with.
I chatted with Robert Magnin in St. James, Missouri. He watched
Route 66 being built when he was a little boy, and hes
lived on it all his life. He told me, The trucks at
that time were vastly underpowered. Many had only Model T
or Model A motors. About halfway up Cooper Hill, just east
of the farm, they would be in their lowest gear and moving
at a crawl. My older brother and his friends would lie in
wait for the trucks carrying watermelon. One or two boys would
hop aboard and harvest a couple of melons and
enjoy an evening snack. Such troublemakers!
I ran into Dean Walker in Witches Holler, Kansas. He
remembered, An old guy they called Mr. Spook used to
live in a little shack up here, about twelve feet square.
Hes paint himself up like a skeleton, with aluminum
fluorescent paint. Be as naked as a jaybird. Hed charge
you $5 to watch him dance around inside his shack with a black
light on him, like a skeleton.
I sipped coffee with Ernest Lee Butch Breger
of Arcadia, Oklahoma. He confessed, People come from
all over to see the only round barn, which it aint.
Well, theres three hundred round barns on the east side
of the United States alone, but this is the only one on Route
66. The Shakers brought the idea over. They built the barn
round for one reason, that way the devil couldnt corner
What a cast of colorful characters!
Flipping through the photographs and stories of Bernard and
Brown, I felt I was cruising down Route 66 myself, in a convertible
Mustang, wind in my hair. The palm trees of California, the
deserts of Arizona, the plains of Oklahoma, the lush greenery
of Illinois, all were whipping past my windshield. I listened
to the Mediocre Music Makers, skated at the Enchanted Valley
Interskate, danced at The Willowbrook Ballroom, and rode the
roller coaster at the Santa Monica pier.
On this journey, I was reminded of the absolute centrality
of the car and the myth of the open road in the American psyche.
Adventure, opportunity, freedom, ingenuity, self-reliance.
These ideas so important in the birth and growth of this country
reverberate through every mile of this original, this mother
road, Route 66.