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

Subject: Buiwdings t'ow stories.
Date: Sat, 13 Sep 1997 22:03:56 -0700

00:15 Council Road RV; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma :: 13 SEP 97

Off the southern side of the highway several stone buildings lay huddled among some low trees in an expanse of tall grass. Glassless windows stare back like the blank eyes of the dead. "Abandoned Motow," John says.

I've been pondering how to phonetically write the cockney 'l' sound. The difficult part is, there's no 'l' sound in a cockney 'l'. I'll try this: completely pronounce the first syllable of the word, 'towel,' shortening the 'o' a bit and lingering a little into the 'e' sound of 'el.' Just make sure to stop before making a a full second syllable. Now put a nice, fat 'Mo' in front and you get 'Motow' or better known as Motel.

I grin, "Actually, back then they were called Motor Courts." "Deed yew wan'ta gao back foh a louk?" (Apparently, the East Londoners have no problem with an 'l' at the beginning of a word.) We've missed a turn and I'm already looking for a place to jibe 50 feet of RV. "Absolutely. Just as soon as we can come about."

09:10 Council Road RV Park; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma :: 13 SEP 97

Still in sight of the buildings, we come upon a speedway with a big parking lot. The gates are closed but far enough off the road to leave plenty of space for a turn in the wide driveway leading to them. Back at the Motew, a single strand of barb-wire blocks the u-turn drive but shoulder's paved and wide, and the mowed grass off the shoulder falls off gradually so I pull Rolling Thunder off the highway.

Let me tell you about touring in a big RV while John and I gather our cameras. Following guides and maps is always a problem for the traveller. Besides the inevitable errors, omissions and vague instructions, there's always user error. To find our way down old Route 66 we're depending on two guide books; a slick, touristy but amazingly accurate fold-out map; a AAA road atlas and AAA fold-out maps for every state we're crossing through. On any given day, we may use every one of these traveller's aids.

The state of Illinois placed 'Historic ROUTE 66' signs obsessively, with markers at every turn and but for a few stolen signs it was fairly easy to follow them. However, Nick Adams at the Ariston Cafe in Litchfield pointed to the Historic ROUTE 66 sign on the four-lane highway *behind* his restaurant and said, "66 *never* used the four-lane. It's always run past the front of the restaurant." He'd asked the highway guys about this and they replied, "Yes, but it's too confusing to tourists to turn them off the four-lane for every stretch of old Route 66." Even if that stretch is easily accessed, well surfaced and only a couple or three miles in length, as is the section that passes through Litchfield.

About 13 miles of old Route 66 pass through Kansas, and its 'Historic ROUTE' markers were accurate, plentiful and helpful for every mile. In Missouri and Oklahoma we found the same signs as Kansas and Illinois, except they are usually posted after an intersection, sometimes as far along as a mile or so. John and I joke they're placed as reminders: "By the way, we thought we'd let you know you're still going the right way." If you go much more than 20 miles and don't see one of these signs, it's time to wonder where you might have gone wrong.

And you'll go wrong plenty, even following the guides. One guide, Tom Snyder's well-known Route 66 guide, has great looking strip maps for the entire length of Route 66 from Chicago to LA. The level of detail just doesn't show enough roads and streets for providing all the information required for full navigation. The Tom adds some textual directions, but these are embedded in his commentary and very difficult to find when you need them.

22:10 Council Road RV Park; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma :: 13 SEP 97

Another guide offers detailed text directions set out in visually clear, easy to follow point form, each point showing the cumulative mileage. Though the text is visually clear, the words are often vague, omissive or outright misleading. The mileage listings are of little use to us driving in our Canadian truck with kilometers on the odometer, and no trip meter. I wish I could zero my odometer, as the book keeps telling me to do-it would greatly improve the resale value of the truck. Still, this would be alright if strip maps like those found in Tom's book were presented in addition to the text. You could cue up the description with the map and clear up most of the confusion. We could just keep both books open, Tom's for the maps, the other for the text, but the two books often vary in their choice of which Route 66 alignment to follow.

If any of the large fold-out state maps we've been using possessed adequate detail, we could sit down the night or morning before a leg and work out the route. But we're following decommissioned highway and many of the older alignments don't appear on the maps.

These failings wouldn't pose so much of a problem if I weren't driving 50' of rig down the highway. It doesn't U-turn so well. On the other hand, it's partly because we messed up a couple miles back that John and I are now ducking under the single strand of barb-wire with all our camera gear. I might not have bothered looking for one of those infrequent places to come about just to take a few pics of yet another abandoned motor court.

Five stone buildings on a line perpendicular to the highway. Thigh-high grass hides burrs, nettles and foundations. Other than the small u-turn drive tangent to the first building in the row, no pavement or walkway has survived the abandonment. A peek in through empty window frames shows a jumble of broken furniture, doors laid up against the wall, televisions and transistor radios. The junk is piled high on rotted floor boards, but amongst the debris, stacks of unused roofing shingles and a sign,

For Sale by Owner

John observes the asbestos wall covering bared by the time-stripped wall paper in floral patterns. Perhaps that's why the place never sold?

After finding a few angles that catch the afternoon sun soaking into the warm brown fieldstone cabins, I lean up against a door frame and try, for a moment, to become a participant rather than an observer. I've already noticed the frame of a large swing-set 50 yards directly behind me in a small grove of tall trees, and can imagine perhaps a slide and teeter-totter. A trailer made from an amputated pickup bed overflows with children's bicycles and tricycles. Inside the cabin I move out the wreckage, repaper the walls, plaster the ceiling. In the front room fire place, logs crackle hotly in the cool late-autumn dusk while the radio crackles with an evening drama or the news. Father crackles the newspaper in the big arm chair opposite the fire while, in the middle-room kitchen, pan fries crackle in the iron skillet while mother sets the dinette table. Dinner is ready and she walks to the front door, running a hand warmly over father's shoulder on the way by, and calls in the children who arrive rosy cheeked and breathless. Later, after grace, pork chops, beans and pan fries, after the children are put down in cots set up in the front room, mother and father retire to the bedroom in the rear, behind the kitchen. They cuddle snugly and watch the harvest moon set through the shears spread across an expanse of square window panes.

In a decade or a few years, there would be television, and in a few more years or so, there would be an interstate, far from the motor court. The children, all grown up, follow the interstate home for a visit. They recognize the name of a town on an exit sign and wonder if the motor court is still there. But it is only early afternoon and another full day of driving ahead, so they push on for a few more hours before pulling into a Motel 6.

John's back at the truck, pulling burrs from his socks. I'm usually lingering in these places longer than he. After a last look, I shag through the tall grass, duck under the wire. We drive back a piece to our earlier miscue, find the three miles of old-old Route 66 we'd missed. It's bumpy and pot-holed, curvy and steep-banked. You can almost imagine a family of five tooling along in a black sedan, generous with leather and curvy fender lines, on smooth new concrete. Their ROUTE 66 and our Old Historic ROUTE 66 join a newer stretch of highway, they turn west and we follow them for a piece into the lowering sun. I watch them pull into a motor court of five field stone buildings, the neon sign flashing VACANCY.

"Nice owd buiwdings," John comments as we pass the abandoned motor court again. I grin, "Yep."

~~~ Responses Sought ~~~
After a while the tenant who could not leave the place came out and squatted in the shade beside the tractor.

"Why, you're Joe Davis's boy!"

"Sure," the driver said.

"Well, what you doing this kind of work for-against your own people?"

"Three dollars a day. I got damn sick of creeping for my dinner-and not getting it. I got a wife and kids. We got to eat. Three dollars a day, and it comes every day."

"That's right," the tenant said. "But for your three dollars a day fifteen or twenty families can't eat at all. Nearly a hundred people have to go out and wander on the roads for your three dollars a day. Is that right?"

And the driver said, "Can't think of that. Got to think of my own kids. Three dollars a day, and it comes every day. Times are changing, mister, don't you know? Can't make a living on the land unless you've got two, five, ten thousand acres and a tractor. Crop land isn't for little guys like us any more. You don't kick up a howl because you can't make Fords, or be- cause you're not the telephone company. Well, crops are like that now. Nothing to do about it. You try to get three dollars a day someplace. That's the only way."

The tenant pondered. "Funny thing how it is. If a man owns a little property, that property is him, it's a part of him, and it's like him. If he owns property only so he can walk on it and handle it and be sad when it isn't doing well, and feel fine when the rain falls on it, that property is him, and some ways he's bigger because he owns it. Even if he isn't successful he's big with his property. That is so."

And the tenant pondered some more. "But let a man get property he doesn't see, or can't take time to get his fingers in, or can't be there to walk on it-why, then the property is the man. He can't do what he wants, he can't think what he wants. The property is the man, stronger than he is. And he is small, not big. Only his possessions are big-and he's the servant of his property. That is so, too.

The driver munched the branded pie and threw the crust away. "Times are changed, don't you know? Thinking about stuff like that don't feed the kids. Get your three dollars a day, feed your kids. You got no call to worry about anybody's kids but your own. You get a reputation for talking like that, and you'll never get three dollars a day. Big shots won't give you three dollars a day if you worry about anything but your three dollars a day.

"Nearly a hundred people on the road for your three dollars. Where will we go?"

  graphical element John Steinbeck
The Grapes of Wrath