Route 66 in the News

Easy Lessons From a Hard Road

2009-09-30 10:29:31

Route 66 introduced Arizona to America.

Running 2,448 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles, U.S. Highway 66 was born Nov. 11, 1926. It rolled across Illinois, Missouri, Kansas (only 12 miles), Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, and it lived almost 60 years before being pronounced dead June 27, 1985.

It served as an escape route to Okies and Arkies during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. It created a boom of motorized tourism during the 1950s as vacationers headed to Los Angeles. Along the way, it built an economy based on gas stations, diners, hamburger joints, soft ice cream stands, motels and roadside attractions.

Meanwhile, Arizona was grabbing the attention of those tourists passing through on their way to Hollywood and the Pacific Ocean. They stopped to gawk at the Painted Desert, Petrified Forest, San Francisco Peaks, Grand Canyon and points of historic interest throughout Indian Country. They shot miles of Kodachrome. They sent postcards everywhere, and they loaded their cars with souvenirs. Arizona had become a tourist destination.

But if Route 66 introduced Arizona to America, it was Arizona that introduced Route 66 to me.

When I was growing up in the small, farm town of Lexington, Ill., beside Route 66, I didn't know the highway was famous or that it was called America's Main Street. Like everyone else in my hometown, I called it the "hard road."

That name had nothing to do with the Joad family in John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath, which popularized the name The Mother Road. We called it the hard road because, well, it was indeed a hard road. In Midwestern farm towns, where many streets and surrounding roads were gravel, oiled gravel or blacktop, it was natural to call a concrete highway a hard road.

It wasn't until I saw a slide-show travelogue at a local church when I was about 6 years old that the hard road changed for me -- almost magically -- into Route 66. The guest speaker showed slides and artifacts from Arizona. His color slides introduced us to slick rock desert, snow-covered mountain peaks and hoodoo spires. It was the exact same landscape I'd seen in Saturday matinees of Western movies.

Most impressive to my young mind were the slides of real cowboys and real Indians. They looked different in those slides than they did in those movies. That may have been the beginning of the lessons that Route 66 had for me.

How could I absorb it all? Our hard road, the same road that townsfolk sat next to on hot summer nights to watch the traffic, was the Route 66 that passed through the heart of the Wild West. Somewhere down that road, I imagined, were cowboys and Indians living the kind of life that was meant for me.

From then on, I kept an eye on the license plates of cars pulling off of the highway for gas and food. The people from Arizona got special attention from me, but they didn't seem all that much different from the people I saw every day. It seems the Mother Road did have early lessons for me. I soon learned others.

All of the kids in town were forbidden by our mothers to cross the hard road, just as we were forbidden to swim in the Mackinaw River west of town, on the other side of Route 66.

When I was about 10, I convinced a couple of my friends that we couldn't be punished twice for crossing the hard road on our bikes and going swimming in the river. That night I learned something about the betrayal of river dirt on socks and underwear. I also learned that the constitutional protections against double jeopardy didn't apply to boys whose parents weren't raising them by the strict rules of democracy.

I didn't get my bike back for weeks.

Route 66 was still teaching me when I was 14. The State of Illinois passed a short-lived law that allowed 14 and 15 year olds to drive motor scooters with 5 horsepower or less without a driver license. I wanted one of those Cushman motor scooters worse than anything in the world. My dad made that wish come true with a few conditions, one of which was that I would not drive the scooter on the hard road.

I obeyed that rule for one full summer and half of the next. That is, until I met a girl from a small town about 20 miles away -- down Route 66. One day the tug of that road was too much to resist. Dad was out of town at work. He couldn't see me cruising down America's Main Street. But his friends could.

That night I learned another lesson about having property seized without due process of law. Dad sold the Cushman.

The most important things Route 66 taught me were those I learned while riding with my brothers in the backseat of the family car. I learned that the hard road connected my town to the world. It took us to cities and other hard roads, past bright neon signs, beside belching smokestacks and down main streets where people waved back to us from their front porches.

It took us to visit grandparents and cousins and to vacations in Wisconsin and Missouri. We met people in shady, roadside parks where Mom served my brothers and me lemonade, sandwiches and pie, and Dad always raised the hood on the car to let the motor cool.

I learned that with Route 66 it was easy to leave my hometown, and that was exciting. Later, I learned that the same hard road that left town would also take me back again.

I've lived in four of the eight original Route 66 states: Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma and, now, Arizona. I've learned that Route 66 was as much an era in America as it was a national highway.

~Philip Wright, VerdeNews.com

 

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