Route 66 :: June '97 -- October '97

Subject: The Pearl
Date: Mon, 01 Sep 1997 07:44:26 -0700

8:00 4H Park; Pontiac, Illinois - 01 SEP 97

Retracing ROUTE 66 began in Chicago's Grant Park on a muggy, not particularly cool morning, overcast and threatening rain. John and I stood beneath a banner stretched on a Jackson Street light standard waiting for the camera's timer to release the shutter. Snick!

Jackson is now a one-way street, one way eastward, so the purist's tires can not retrace every mile of the old highway from east to west in a contiguous line. Instead, all the guides recommend taking Adams Street, one block north of Jackson (and one-way west) until it crosses Ogden Street running on a south-west diagonal out of Chicago. Unless you're walking west, ROUTE 66 begins in Cicero at the intersection of Cicero, Adams and Ogden.

But 66 was a living highway meaning its alignments evolved over the years. When first commissioned in 1926 construction consisted largely of improving the surface of existing roadways and linking them together to form a contiguous line from Chicago to Los Angeles. These roadways typically bisected towns, running straight down Main Street. Eventually, traffic volume or other considerations dictated construction of by-passes around town centers. Some realignments altered course more significantly, rerouting the roadway through and around a whole new set of towns. The original road bed might still be in use today, or perhaps a patchwork of bits may exist. Here in Pontiac, following the original alignment would send you through the living room of a house. Rediscovering Old ROUTE 66 is something of a decision, "Which 66 do you care to retrace?" The decisions begin with the origin of the highway since Jackson Street and 66 originally ended at Michigan Avenue. Later, the 66 road bed would be extended two blocks eastward through Grant Park to the water front where on the morning of August 30th, John and I strike poses under a "HISTORIC ROUTE 66 STARTS HERE" banner.

John's one of two people who responded to the advert I'd posted in a downtown Chicago youth hostel. I got together with each of them over a couple pints at a nearby pub and both mentioned they came to discover America and all they were finding were McDonald's and Wal-Mart. It could've been either man now traveling with me, and if there'd been room in the truck for a third it would've been both. Choosing John was something of an intuitive coin-flip.

The decisions about which ROUTE 66 alignments to retrace are not so important. The roadway itself, even the living museum pieces that are its landmarks, are secondary to...I'm not sure what. I'm not sure what. When he set out for his life on the road, Kerouac described his expectations:

Somewhere along the line I knew there'd be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.
I'm not one to expect the pearl to fall in my lap, but there's something very American in that expectation, or at least there was so long as there was a ROUTE 66 (or, before that, a wagon trail). What I'm looking for, I think, is not the pearl itself but the belief that the pearl exists and is to be had. For a while there, it seemed America had grasped it fully, completely, whatever it is or was.

~~~ Responses Sought ~~~
But then they danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!"
  graphical element Jack Kerouac
On the Road