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

Subject: Losin' the sperit.
Date: Mon, 15 Sep 1997 17:58:28 -0700

23:05 Winky's RV Park; Clinton, Oklahoma :: 14 SEP 97

Clinton, Oklahoma boasts the first state subsidized Route 66 Museum, that is, the first Route 66 Museum not run from the personal and somewhat meagre bank account of some Route 66 fanatic. The parking lot was blocked off with banners for an event or something, and a barbecue picnic seemed to be set up in a shady grove beside the museum. We parked across the street and walked in. Turns out a large contingent of Chevrolet Corvettes, driving Chicago-LA on Route 66, was due in within the next hour or so. John and I congratulated ourselves on the continuing good fortune and headed into the museum.

It's a slickly assembled presentation. $3 gets you an audio tour, narrated by Michael Wallis, author of ROUTE 66: The Mother Road widely considered the best look at the highway ever published in America. The displays themselves are divided between the decades of the route's existence beginning with the 1920's through to the present day. Plenty of effort and creativity went into setting the context for each of these periods. The 50s displays are set in a diner mock-up; the 60s room features a psychedelic microbus, black-light and dayglo.

17:46 Shamrock, Texas :: 15 SEP 97

The audio tour is good, but perhaps too much a distraction from the displays. As is often a problem with multi-media attempts there's too much media to assimilate and the tendency is to choose one and subdue the rest. Wallis offers a contextual summing up of each room's period, deepening your understanding of the elements on display without addressing them directly. It's a worthy listen, however, and my recommendation is to find a quiet place and listen to it straight through before entering the display rooms.

We're through Oklahoma now, just the other side of the border in Shamrock, Texas. Since entering Oklahoma there's been increasing road kill, I mean the kind where a town dies after the by-pass goes around it. Shamrock's teetering on the edge of that abyss. One closed cafe/gas bar advertised in white paint on its windows:

Plenty of other businesses are abandoned or just plain flattened out of existence.

The Sugar Shack stands out with its coating of fresh white paint, and the men shoveling and raking a rather thick mixture of concrete just dropped by a big mixer truck. "Looks a little thicker than you bargained for," I say to one of the women taking a break from fire-brigading pitchers of water to the immobile cement. "Oh, yes!" she agrees, "he just brings by whatever's left over," meaning the tails from some other site. "Aaaah, then you can't mind too much, then, eh?" She smiles, conspiratorially, "not when it's free."

The Sugar Shack, a new occupant of the old Whiting Bros. gas station. The woman from the pitcher-brigade says she's renting the building for $100 a month, which seems a bargain so long as donuts and cappuccino can scare up enough business to cover costs and earn a slim profit. She added that Whiting Bros. is one of the four oldest buildings in Shamrock, all along old Route 66. Across the street is another little art deco wonder I've also photographed-abandoned-and up the street a piece we passed the U-Drop In diner, an art deco masterpiece where I expect we'll dine tonight.

I've half a mind to rent that old gas station across the street and make a little gallery of it.

Home of The U-Drop In; Shamrock, Texas

Tower Gas Station and The U-Drop In
Shamrock, Texas

Tower Gas Station; Shamrock, Texas The U-Drop In; Shamrock, Texas

There are sections of this old highway that appear far removed from where so many of us have moved on to. The guides tend toward patronising epithets:

Once again time seems to be suspended. What year is it? Who is the President? Look up ahead, is that Rod Serling by that turn-off to a deserted gas station and motel?

  graphical element Bob Moore & Patrick Grauwels
ROUTE 66: A Guidebook to the Mother Road


But time is not suspended here, evident in the peeling paint and creeping rust, crumbling mortar and broken glass. People live here. They have children who go to school, learning history and literature; who come home to a square meal and a little prime-time. Where local folk find utility in a building, it is tended to. Nostalgia is fine for fanatics and all those just passing through. The people along the road take on what's considered useful and let the rest roll along the bypass. They know all too well who the President is, and can give any urban politico more than an even run for their money. They don't vote for Presidents running on a one word platform: change. They've seen enough change.

It's interesting to me that the very people who evangelize for slowing down, for stopping a while to appreciate the road-side local life, the very people admonishing the interstate road-runners for losing connection with the country seem to be rolling through the stop signs. If the Route 66 Museum in Clinton has a fault it is this: while bemoaning every lost town and business, every "CLOSED" sign erected in a losing battle to the interstates, while sighing despairingly for the end of both an era and a way of life the curator completely ignores the economic upheaval caused by the construction of Route 66 and other transcontinental highways. Route 66 by-passed towns causing their abandonment; businesses closed because travelers now had a fast, easy-to-follow route and pushed on to the next town. The introduction of the automobile gravely disrupted the social fabric bringing about the end of an era.

This failing duplicates the Cowboy Hall of Fame's: good history is replaced by boosterism, by the nostalgia from which we learn nothing. It's not necessary to always be learning-and a museum needs to be entertaining too-but an honest depiction is necessary so that learning is an option.

The problem with nostalgia is we forget all the bad stuff we wanted to leave behind in the first place, all the stuff that made us move on. But maybe we've moved too far and too quickly. Country folk have forever been telling us city folk that. Time hasn't passed them by, it doesn't stand still for some citified person driving their '57 Corvette down a 75 year-old stretch of highway. It's been tinkering along here in Shamrock, Texas just fine. Some folk are just too busy checking their watches to notice.

I'm wondering whether Route 66 isn't a part of that monster Steinbeck's been going on about in all those long passages I've been tacking onto these dispatches. No, I guess not-not Route 66 itself-but maybe this idea that a highway matters so much, that changing our mode of travel can make us a better or worse society. Something's missing in that analysis.

~~~ Responses Sought ~~~
Casy ran his fingers through his hair nervously. "I got to tell you I ain't no preacher no more. If me jus' bein' glad to be here an' bein thankful for people that's kind and generous, if that's enough-why, I'll say that kinda grace. But I ain't a preacher no more."

"Say her," said Granma. "An' get in a word about us goin' to California." The preacher bowed his head and the others bowed their heads. Ma folder her hands over her stomach and bowed her head. Granma bowed so low that her nose was nearly in her plate of biscuit gravy. Tom, leaning against the wall, a plate in his hand, bowed stiffly, and Grampa bowed his head sidewise, so that he could keep one mean and merry eye on the preacher. And on the preacher's face there was a look not of prayer, but of thought; and his tone not supplication, but conjecture.

"I been thinkin'," he said. "I been in the hills, thinkin' almost you might say like Jesus went into the wilderness to think His way out of a mess of troubles."

"Pu-raise Gawd!" Granma said, and the preacher glanced over at her in surprise.

"Seems like Jesus got all messed up with troubles, and He couldn't figure nothin' out, an' He got to feelin' what the hell good is it all, an' what's the use fightin' an' figurin'. Got tired, got good an' tired, an' His sperit all wore out. Jus' about come to the conclusion, the hell with it. An' so He went off into the wilderness."

"A-men," Granma bleated. So many years she had timed her responses to the pauses. And it was so many years since she had listened to or wondered at the words used.

"I ain't sayin' I'm like Jesus," the preacher went on. "But I got tired like Him, an' I got mixed up like Him, an' I went into the wilderness like Him, without no campin' stuff. Nighttime I'd lay on my back an' look up at the stars; morning I'd set an' watch the sun come up; midday I'd look out from a hill at the rollin' dry country; evenin' I'd foller the sun down. Sometimes I'd pray like I always done. On'y I couldn' figure what I was prayin' to or for. There was the hills, an' there was me, an' we wasn't separate no more. We was one thing. An' that one thing was holy."

"Hallelujah," said Granma, and she rocked a little, back and forth, trying to catch hold of an ecstacy.

"An' I got to thinkin', on'y it wasn't thinkin', it was deeper down than thinkin'. I got thinkin' how we was holy when we was one thing, an' mankin' was holy when it was one thing. An' it on'y got unholy when one mis'able little fella got the bit in his teeth an' run off his own way, kickin' an draggin' an fightin'. Fella like that bust the holiness. But when they're all workin' together, not one fella for another fella, but one fella kinda harnessed to the whole shebang-that's right, that's holy. An' then I got thinkin' I don't even know what I mean by holy." He paused, but the bowed heads stayed down, for they had been trained like dogs to rise at the "amen" signal. "I can't say no grace like I use' ta say. I'm glad of the holiness of breakfast. I'm glad there's love here. That's all." The heads stayed down. The preacher looked around. "I've got your break- fast cold," he said; and then he remembered. "Amen," he said, and all the heads rose up.

  graphical element John Steinbeck
The Grapes of Wrath