RUNNING THE MOTHER ROADBy BENNY HORNSBY,
If you were to ask a dozen people, you would get a dozen opinions, but for my money, one of the greatest American novels is Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), the defining work about the post-war Beat and counterculture generations.
Based on his travels across the country, the book, a “Roman a clef” novel, is intended to “explain everything to everybody.”
In a brutal, unforgiving, and candid self-portrait, Kerouac once described himself as a “Hopper of freights, Skid Row habitué, railroad Buddhist, New England Modernist, 20th Century Storyteller, crum, dope, divorcee, type, sitter in window of life; idiot far from home; no wood in my stove, no potatoes in my field, no field; hepcat, howler, wailer, waiter in the line of time; lazy, washed out, workless.”
Snaking between all these identities was the long desolate road, both on page and in the reality of his life as he wandered alone, forlorn, searching for meaning. He’s not the only one.
Many, readers of this column even, have also heard the siren call of the open road, wandering what was over the next hill, around the next bend. The feeling could be as minor as the desire for a Sunday drive, or as immense as the need to “chunk it all” and drop off the grid.
Once, for example, I drove on to Highway 84 in Laurel and followed it west until it ended – in Antonino, Colorado. Satisfied, I turned around and came back home.
The Navy loved to send me back and forth across the country. When I was stationed on the east coast, they would send me to the west, and vice versa; the road trips always provided excitement and adventure.
On the New Jersey Turnpike, for example, outside of Newark, I burned a piston in a VW beetle and was picked up by a mafia wise guy in a long, black Cadillac. I figured I was dead, but he was nice and helpful.
Once, coming into Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in Amish country, I lost the exhaust manifold in my 56 Coupe de Ville and was towed a mile or so to a motel by a guy driving a horse and buggy. I felt like the gods had sent me Mother Theresa.
On another trip, I blew my radiator in Fort Stockton, Texas, after the long haul from San Antonio, and a nice Hispanic fellow opened his shop on Sunday morning and welded it back together.
Then there was the time I got the ignition key stuck in my trunk in the Arizona desert and took the car almost apart before giving up and calling a locksmith. I guess I would have had better luck if I had driven better cars.
There are many famous if not legendary highways in the United States, and I’ve seen most of them: Route 1, running from Maine to Key West, the longest North-South highway in the country; and Highway 101, from Los Angeles to Washington state, linking the old Spanish missions, pueblos, and presidios, etc. Monterey is my favorite stop on that one as I’m a big fan of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row novels. We also have two well-known and historically significant highways in Mississippi: 11 and 61.
When I was a boy, long before Interstate 59 bypassed towns like Lumberton, Purvis, and Poplarville, I used to look north up Highway 11 and speculate about the mysteries it held.
Even then, I knew it was an iconic highway, running 1,645 miles from Lake Pontchartrain, anchored by the wonderful neon sign of an Indian brave sending smoke signals at the White Kitchen Truck Stop, to Rouses Point, New York, on the Canadian border.
My father told of how he worked on its construction in the early 1930s, helping lay the roadbed with a chain-driven Mack dump truck. I later learned that it was significant in the anti-union labor movement, as industry seeking to pay lower wages in the “right to work” states through which it passed slowly followed it southward.
I’m old enough to remember the Burma Shave signs posted alongside Highway 11 coming into Hattiesburg, about where the Sullivan-Kilrain community is today.
Generally they consisted of six signs about 50 yards apart with a “catchy” message like “The wolf / is shaved / so neat and trim / Red Riding Hood / is chasing him / Burma Shave;” or “The poorest guy / in the / human race / can have a / million dollar face / Burma Shave.” Some were often cautionary: “A man, a miss / a car, a curve / he kissed the miss / and missed / the curve / Burma Shave.”
Ironically, at the same time states like Mississippi were welcoming the non-union, minimum wage jobs headed south with programs like Balance Agriculture with Industry (BAWI) tax giveaways, in the southwest part of the state, tens of thousands of unemployed and dispossessed farm workers from the cotton belt, primarily of color, were headed north up Highway 61, the “Blues Highway,” to the industrial powerhouses of Chicago and Detroit in search of better paying union jobs.
Be that as it may, while many roads have called, none have answered like Route 66, the Mother Road” as John Steinbeck dubbed it in his 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath.
The very name conjures up images of “Okies” fleeing the dustbowl, African Americans fleeing the segregated south, the dispossessed and the disenfranchised, “the wind in their hair,” all headed west to the promise land of California.
Route 66 extended some 2,400 miles through three time zones and eight states: Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.
It has been called “America’s Longest Monument,” “America’s Main Street,” “America’s Longest Traffic Jam,” and the “2400 Mile Declaration of Independence.”
The Road’s origin grew out of the 1916 Federal Aid Road Act which, in turn, by 1926 had led to the creation of the National Highway System.
Visionaries like Cyrus Avery, of Tulsa, known as the “Father of Route 66,” proposed a transcontinental highway which, considering the difficulties involved, was almost the equivalent of putting a man on the moon in the 1960s.
Slowly but surely, such a route was cobbled together, using existing parts of roads such as the Pontiac Trail between Chicago and St. Louis, the Ozark Trail from St. Louis to Tulsa, the Beale Wagon Road from Oklahoma City into New Mexico, etc.
Even Jefferson Davis’s old Camel Road (the Army experimented with real camels in the 1850s) through Arizona was utilized. It wasn’t until 1938 that the entire length of 2,451 miles was paved with asphalt.
For many, the Road became a metaphor for a modern-day retelling of the book of Exodus: at most a two-week trek instead of 40 years in the wilderness; a work camp instead of an oasis; a T-model Ford truck instead of a donkey; but biblical-like with hot days, cold nights, dust storms, hungry children, hostile natives, and uncertain futures.
As post war economic conditions improved and accessibility to automobiles brought mobility to the masses, tourists kept the lights on and traffic moving. Then with the interstates and air travel, came a devolvement into kitsch and irrelevance: 30 feet tall “muffler men,” the world’s largest ball of string, concrete dinosaurs, empty streets, and vacant motel rooms.
Pop culture, however, kept the Road in the public consciousness via song, movies, and literature.
It always exemplified freedom, adventure, and mobility.
In 1946, Bobby Troup wrote “Get Your Kicks on Route 66,” which was first recorded by the Nat King Cole Trio and then covered by everyone from the Rolling Stones to Depeche Mode.
In television, the 1960s series, “Route 66,” featured Buz and Tod, and later, Linc, trying to find himself after Vietnam, all eternally running the road from one episode to another, ran for four years.
In theaters, movies such as “Easy Rider,” “Paris Texas,” “The Bagdad Café,” “Thelma and Louise,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” and Disney’s “Cars” all paid homage to the Road.
More recently, bands like The Eagles brought attention to the Road with their hit song, “Take it Easy” (“Standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona”); and Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, featuring the travails of the Joad family, with the aptly named daughter, Rose of Sharon, as they migrate west, remains a best seller.
Although I’ve run Route 66 through all eight states, from its beginning at the intersection of Lakeshore Drive and Jackson Boulevard in Chicago to its end on the pier in Santa Monica, California, my favorite destinations are in Oklahoma and New Mexico, mostly because I went to college in those states.
Oklahoma has the longest stretch of the original 66 that’s still drivable. It also has two excellent Road museums in Clinton and Elk City; “Pops” in Arcadia with its collection of 12,000 soda pop bottles and 650 different kinds of actual soda; the world’s largest concrete totem pole in Chelsea; the famous concrete blue whale in Catoosa, and the Will Roger’s Museum in Claremore (“I never met a man I didn’t like”).
While the road still goes through Albuquerque (It went north through Santa Fe, the state capitol, until 1927 when it was rerouted), my favorite stop in New Mexico has always been Tucumcari, the town with “2,000 motel rooms” (“Tonight in Tucumcari”).
While I think that claim was a little exaggerated, I do recommend the famous Blue Swallow motel which was alive and well the last time I passed through.
The beautiful neon sign itself is worth a stop, and each cabin has an attached one-car garage in true 1930s motor camp style. My wife didn’t care too much for the extra small bath tub, but she liked the green chili pancakes served at the restaurant next door.
In New Mexico, the big question is which do you like best, red chilies or green chilies? I’m a red man, myself. Also, the next time you watch re-runs of Sergio Leone’s movie, “For a Few Dollars More,” notice that the train station is located at Tucumcari.
While in Tucumcari, you might as well drop south to Fort Sumner and visit the grave of Henry McCarty aka William H. Bonney aka Billy the Kid. At least they think it’s his grave.
The cemetery flooded in 1905; the bodies had to be reburied; the wooden tombstones had rotted, and they lost track of Billy. No DNA tests in those days.
Today, there’s a nice stone for Billy and two of his “pals,” which had to be placed inside an iron-fenced enclosure. People kept stealing Billy’s tombstone, which is now chained to the ground. Once it was found in Texas, and the last time in California.
No one knows for sure who paid for this tombstone which was erected around 1932.
One rumor said it was the cowboy actor, Johnny Mack Brown, the former University of Alabama football halfback, who had played Billy in a 1930 movie.
Route 66 died the “death of a thousand off-ramps,” killed by the construction of Interstate 40, which itself was fueled by President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s ambitious program to connect all of America by interstate highway.
Ike was impressed by Germany’s autobahn system constructed during Hitler’s regime to move troops and material swiftly around the country. Ironically, Illinois, the first state to designate Route 66 a highway in 1926, was the first to start decommissioning the route in 1977.
For me, The Eagles again come to mind when you think of Route 66 because they provide an allegorical end for the Road.
Although you would have to ask Don Henley, Glenn Frey, and Don Felder if they had the “Mother Road” in mind when they composed the anthem of angst, “Hotel California;” they captured the essence of that “dark desert highway,” with its estimated 3,000 abandoned motels, when they wrote: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave!”
Light a candle for me.
Hattiesburg’s Benny Hornsby, a native of Lumberton, is a retired Navy captain. Send him a note at: email@example.com. Read his columns online at: bennyhornsby.com