The Road Trip as a Form of Quest
Sunday, April 29, 2018, Chicago to Bloomington.
This is the beginning of the diary of the transcontinental road trip that my wife and I took in the spring of 2018. The trip consisted of driving the whole of Route 66, then following the Pacific Coast Highway north as far as the Columbia Gorge before heading back east through Yellowstone and the Badlands of South Dakota.
What is the point of a road trip? And why Route 66?
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Route 66 was one of the original transcontinental US highways, running from Chicago to LA. It was decommissioned in 1985 after it was made redundant by, and in some cases, buried under, various Interstates. Nothing about this makes it special. Lots of older highways suffered similar fates. And there was nothing particularly remarkable about Route 66 as a highway. It was not the longest transcontinental highway. In fact, it was not strictly transcontinental at all, since it started in Chicago, not on the Atlantic. It was not one of the major ends-with-zero routes (though its backers tried hard to have it designated Route 60). Really, there isn’t anything special about the route itself. But it has acquired romantic associations. And travel is mostly about romance.
The romance of place is a capricious thing. I have always wanted to go to Valparaíso for no other reason than the name seems to me the most romantic city name on the planet, just from the sound of the word itself. Wherein lies the romance of Route 66? It seems to arise from a series of coincidences. Centrally, for me, it was named “The Mother Road” by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, his great novel of the Dust Bowl and the associated migrations from Oklahoma to California in the 1930s. The places featured in a beloved novel always have romantic associations for me.
But Route 66 also got a song, “Get Your Kicks on Route 66” by Bobby Troup. Then it got a TV show, Route 66 (almost none of which took place on Route 66). But perhaps most significantly, it got an entrepreneur. Angel Delgadillo was the town barber in the small Arizona town of Seligman on Route 66. But when Interstate 40 was built, it bypassed Seligman and the town began to die. Delgadillo founded the Arizona Historic Route 66 Association to promote the old highway as a tourist route, essentially rescuing the town from the coyotes and the tumbleweeds.
The idea caught on in other bypassed towns and soon there were similar associations in every state along the road, preserving old bits of road and the businesses that lined them, and lobbying governments all along the route for historical designation. Today there are countless guidebooks and maps and pretty much all the old route is signed with historic route markers. It is a particularly big draw with European and Asian visitors.
That answers the question of why this particular route, but the larger question is, what is the allure of driving an old road at all? The Interstates will get you where you are going a lot faster and with less trouble. The old highways were often patched together out of existing local routes and they are not always the fastest route from A to B. Because they are built out of old local routes, they go through every town and village along the way, greatly slowing your progress. But to me, that is the point. The old roads go through the country, through the towns, through the fields, through the mountains. The Interstates don’t do this. Like an airplane, they take you from city to city with as little interaction with the intervening territory as possible. They go over, not through, the territory they traverse. Interstates are less a means of fast road travel than of slow airplane travel.
For me, travel is not really about the destination, or even the points of interest along the way. It is about the road itself. It is about the road itself precisely because the road goes through, not over or around. Much of what Route 66 goes through is ordinary. Some of it is goofy. Some of it is kitschy. Some of it is blatantly commercial. Some of it is gorgeous. Some of it is ugly. All of which makes it human: a human artifact and a human place. As the Erich von Däniken of a future age will assure our distant descendants, the interstates were built by space aliens. Route 66 was built by human beings. As G. K. Chesterton said so well, the pleasure of a road lies not in its efficiency, but in its rambling waywardness:
Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.
Route 66 is indeed a merry road and a mazy road. But there is still another romantic aspect to a road trip. A journey is a kind of quest. In literature, there is always some object that the hero is questing for: the San Graal, a dragon’s hoard, a fabled city. But these are McGuffins. The real story is in the adventure and how the hero must change in order to become worthy of the treasure.
Robert McKee, in his seminal book, Story, says that a good story must push its characters to the limits of human experience. A road can do that, as it did for the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath. We don’t want to be pushed to the limit of human experience on our vacations. But we do like to have a taste of that experience. We may not want to serve Two Years Before the Mast, but a sailing tour around the harbor can put the flavor of Richard Henry Dana Jr’s novel into our mouths.
A lengthy road trip on paved roads in a modern vehicle is probably not going to push anyone to the limits of human experience but it is still something of an ordeal. It is not something you take on simply for relaxation. If you want to relax, there are beaches for that. No, a journey is a quest, and there is a satisfaction in completing it, a romantic satisfaction, to be sure, but a very human satisfaction.
One of the appealing things about Route 66 as a questing route is that it really is a mazy road. It presents significant way-finding difficulties. Since it is no longer an official highway, it is now a collection of city streets and country lanes, some of which have been reconfigured or abandoned. Finding all the turns, and even choosing which of the several historic alignments to follow, presents a genuine questing challenge.
To be a valid quest, a journey must have a beginning and an end. You may stray from the route along the way (as we will). Getting lost and finding your way back is part of questing. But you must start at the beginning and you must finish at the end. In the case of Route 66, the beginning is in downtown Chicago.
Downtown Chicago is not a place I would normally want to drive. I am a country mouse, and even though, like most country mice these days, I have had to live much of my life in cities, I have never warmed to them. I don’t like driving in them, particularly in ones I don’t know, where everyone is in a hurry and I always turn out to be in the wrong lane. We have timed the whole trip carefully to ensure that our transit of each of its anchor cities, Chicago and Los Angeles, will take place on a Sunday when traffic is at its lightest. Day one starts, therefore, by getting to the original starting point of Route 66, at the corner of East Adams and Michigan Ave in downtown Chicago. We don’t start the day in Chicago, though, having stayed the night in Merrillville, south of the city.
We started in Merrillville so as to avoid having to end the previous long day of driving by navigating into downtown Chicago at night and then finding and paying for a downtown Chicago hotel. We left our Merrillville hotel about 6 AM and decided to go to Lou Mitchell’s Diner for breakfast. The diner, a few blocks from the start of Route 66, is the traditional spot to fuel up the body for the road.
Getting there, however, was the cause of some anxiety for me. I am not a fan of driving downtown, even in my own town, and I have a positive phobia of downtown parking. Even at 7 AM on a Sunday morning, I was afraid of searching fruitlessly through downtown, getting lost in one way streets, being honked at by hurrying local drivers, and accidentally ending up on freeway on-ramps going the wrong way. But in fact, it was easy enough. Though the freeways were busier than I expected, downtown was almost deserted, and I slid right into a spot a block away from the restaurant. I could actually have parked right in front if I had gone a block further, but visions of parking nightmares had me dash into the first spot I saw.
We had no problem getting a table at Lou Mitchell’s (another nagging anxiety). I so envy the intrepid traveler who can barge ahead with blithe confidence and roll with the punches when they come! We, by contrast, are all vigilance and planning to ensure that our adventures contain as little actual adventure as possible.
I ordered salmon eggs Benedict and was reminded of the extent of American portions. My meal consisted of four poached eggs and enough fried potatoes on the side to cause shortages in Boise. I ate the eggs and left most of the potatoes. It was very good, but I formed my first resolution to watch what I eat on this trip.
Driving Route 66 requires some exacting route guidance. If you really want to stick to the old route, you need to follow one of the several available guides. My wife did not want to spend the trip with her nose in a guide book so I bought a Garmin Navigator, which allows you to do detailed route planning by setting waypoints that keep you on the precise route you want to follow. It did a good job of guiding us along the original Route 66 through Chicago, which was pretty easy going on an early Sunday morning. The Route 66 signage in Chicago is very good too, but like all such things, there are occasional gaps. Without the Garmin I am certain we would have missed a turn or two.
My wife managed to snap a picture of the Start of Route 66 sign as we passed by. No mean feat, because it is right on a busy intersection and you can’t exactly pull over and stick your camera out the window while you compose the shot. So she just snapped through the windshield as we turned, and got it.
The downside of the early Sunday morning start was that a lot of things were not open when we arrived, including the Route 66 museum in Joplin. We stopped anyway and prowled about a bit in downtown Joplin.
There is nothing particularly special about the neighborhoods and towns you pass through on Route 66. They have their local color and history and oddities and quirky local businesses and architectural peculiarities, like any other place. But that is what makes it interesting, because it is the interest in the route itself that makes people take an interest in all these pieces of ordinary domestic history that otherwise would be torn down, paved over, and forgotten. And this is as it should be – you can’t freeze time, especially when time’s artifacts are as ordinary, even ugly, and often poorly built as most of this stuff is. But preserving some of it is definitely worthwhile and having an essentially arbitrary criteria for what to save and celebrate is actually the best way to do it because it retains the ordinariness of the ordinary while also creating a safe space for ordinary eccentricity to grow.
Ordinary eccentricity is the phrase that has come to sum up the Route 66 experience for me. There is much that is eccentric along the route, but it is, for the most part, the eccentricity of ordinary people, not the great follies of mad millionaires, but the small striving eccentricity of small-town businessmen and local lovers and dreamers, both those who built it and those who now preserve and memorialize it. It is in this ordinary eccentricity that the charm of Route 66 lies.
Saving things just because they happen to have been built beside Route 66, or saving bits of old roadbed just because they happened to be part of some old alignment of Route 66 is actually the best conservation plan there could be for this kind of stuff and it creates what is essentially a 3000 mile open air museum operated by a diverse public/private informal partnership.
That is how you should think of Route 66 – as the world’s largest, longest and arguably best open air museum of ordinary life – Beamish on a continental scale. (Beamish is an open air museum in Northern England which recreates the life of a 19th century village with accompanying mine, farm, and railway station in a large park that you can walk around or explore by tram. There are many other such places, but Beamish is the one I know best, and the one that immediately pops to mind as an apt comparison.)
In Wilmington, Illinois, we meet the couple who are refurbishing the Launching Pad diner, home of the Gemini Giant. The Gemini Giant is one of the few surviving of the several “giants” that used to be used to advertise businesses along Route 66 (and other routes). They are part of the charm and the ordinary eccentricity of Route 66 and this is the first on the route and perhaps the best known.
The new owners of the Launching Pad are anxious to tell their life stories and the story of their business. We get the whole story of how they bought the place as a virtual ruin and are working to turn it into a diner again.
We asked to use the washroom and the owner was quite delighted to be asked. He had just finished renovating them, he explained, and he was very keen to know how we liked them. They were excellent. This project is clearly a labor of love for them, and they seem determined to do everything right.
The owners of Route 66 businesses love to tell the story of their business from its origins, to the present, to their succession plans. How many times must they tell those same stories in a day, week, month or year I can’t imagine, and yet they always do it with the same gusto and delight. I can’t imagine wanting to tell anyone the story of my business that way, which is as good a sign as any that we made the right decision to close it down at the end of the previous year. If you don’t want to talk about your business as tirelessly as you talk about your grandchildren, you should probably be employed or retired.
We had similar experiences talking to the volunteers at Ambler’s Texaco in Dwight and the Route 66 Historical Museum in Pontiac. Ambler’s Texaco, one of the many restored service stations along the old road, was closed when we got there, but there was a volunteer there anyway, chatting up any roadies that passed by, giving us the history of the place and pointing out all the interesting bits on the outside or that could be spied through the windows.
Why was he there when the station was officially closed (and actually locked)? Presumably for the sheer love of talking about it. Chalk this up as a piece of ordinary eccentricity. We had a similar experience with the guide at the museum. It was not their business, but they had the same pleasure in describing the artifacts for the nine-thousandth time. This is a good thing – this affection for ordinary things that makes you happy to tell their stories 9000 times without ever tiring of it.
The murals in Pontiac, one of the promised highlights of the journey, are mostly a letdown. I’m enamored of the idea of murals but the actual murals one sees in so many small towns are not exactly renaissance masterpieces. But there is one streetscape behind the Route 66 Museum that is realistic enough to make you do a double take. (The effect is mostly based on the creation of a 3D effect in the painting rather than on any level of detail. It is a trompe-l’œil , a corner-of the-eye phenomenon. Your peripheral vision reads it wrong and so you get a shock when your central vision realizes it has been tricked.)
Bob Waldmire’s bus sits behind the museum in Pontiac. It was not open, which is a pity. Bob Waldmire was the artist of Route 66, mostly producing highly detailed poster art and maps. He roamed the old road in a school bus on which he had built an impressive and fearsomely top-heavy-looking wooden superstructure. There is an enormous amount of detail/clutter all over the bus, inside and out. The Museum also has his VW microbus inside, which is an absolute monument to clutter and the love of small things and miscellaneous trinkets. The difference between mere clutter and a mind obsessed with detail is not always obvious and Bob Waldmire seems to demonstrate this in both his life and work. Life and work are certainly of one piece. Mention Bob Waldmire on Route 66 and everyone has a story.
Finding lunch proved to be a bit of a challenge. As the lady at the museum explained, Pontiac is one of the few towns that still observes the sabbath. (Good for them!) We eventually found a “family-style” restaurant in a mall on the edge of town. Billy Connelly (in his book on Route 66) had a very low opinion of the food on Route 66. So far his opinion is borne out. Excess is its only virtue.
The Sprague’s Super Service in Normal, Illinois is another example of the themes already mentioned – restored gas stations and the owners’ delight in talking about their business. In this case, however, the owner sold the building to the city and rented back the space for a gift shop, because her kids did not want to take over the business. How many travelers has she told this story to?
The Super Service is worth visiting just for the map of the continental US made of old license plates, each state being cut from one of that state’s license plates. Every store along the old road seems to sell old license plates in various states of gleam or rust. I’ve never seen the attraction until I saw them used like this.
On the first day of our quest we found both its symbol and its slogan. Not a bad beginning.
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Hi Mark, I just found your article via discord and may I say I really enjoyed reading it. Coming from Canada, we don't have much interstate highways as you do down south, so I definitely get that feeling of wanting to experience a journey. Definitely makes the trip better. As you say in the article It seems like the people you talk about are nice and passionate about their businesses and the history of these landmarks. While I'm a fan of eggs benedict not to sure about the combination of eggs benedict and salmon, I think i'm gonna stick with Eggs benedict on the circle bread.