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

Subject: I still don't get it...
Date: Tue, 23 Sep 1997 20:58:43 -0700

21:35 KOA Kampground; Bernalillo (Albuquerque), New Mexico :: 21 SEP 97

Museum history time-lines and lengthy chapters from Pulitzer prize-winning novels.

I liked the history wall for its scope, for the brevity in its descriptions of historical events. It's a good, succinct manner of displaying the sweep of history. Patterns emerge, links between events: the prairies declared unfit for agriculture; Indians forced to leave their coveted land and move to the prairies in the Indian Territory; technology for plowing tough prairie soil developed; The Indian Territory land rush. The Indian Wars.

In order to keep the full sweep of a century within the periphery of our vision, the events themselves must be made not much larger than a sound-bite, an historical token to be manipulated, rearranged, compared, contrasted with other tokens. The tokens avoid explicitly personal, social or political statements; they draw few moral conclusions: it is up to the reader to supply these.

Steinbeck's approach seeks the opposite, seeks to dig into the encapsulated event, to draw out its significance and meaning on personal, social and political scales. A novel underlies each and every history wall token whether it be a "The Grapes of Wrath," an "Uncle Tom's Cabin," "The Jungle," a "Last of the Mohicans." Most such novels manage to tie together many tokens, show their relationships, expose the resulting human drama and analyse the socio/political significance. The token is impersonal, the novel personal. The token supplies the objective; the novel the subjective.

I began by quoting "The Grapes of Wrath" at the end of journal entries, as is my habit, until the quotes matched the entries themselves for length and so I began posting entire chapters of the book as entries. Attempting to re-encapsulate an exposition seemed irresponsible.

"66 is the main migrant road."

"66 is the mother road...."

"66 is the mother road, the road of flight."

Steinbeck wrote all, and all evoke different images, invite different meanings. Neither singularly nor in combination do these quotes expose Steinbeck's whole vision of 66 and what it meant. The problem with quoting Steinbeck's book arises from how he develops his message. There are few "A-ha" statements, few lines which can be quoted without first having to explain the full context in which the statement is made, and it is much more succinct to use Steinbeck's development. So I quoted him at length.

"66 is the mother road" has been co-opted out of context in a blitz of rah-rah boosterism. So has "The Main Street of America," a catchy phrase often accompanied by the explanation, "called that because it passed through the center of so many towns." What you are hearing is over 70 years of promotional hype. All the new highways declared in the late 1920s, and there were dozens of them, passed through the center of numerous towns. There's little doubt some of these highways traversed more Main Streets than 66. In fact, the phrase "The Main Street of America," along with the accompanying explanation, was adopted by the original Route 66 Association for promotional purposes in 1926. Yet guides and books alike repeat the phrase as if it were the observation of a journalist or a popularized anonymous saying rather than the slick advertising slogan it is. It's a bit like a private citizen's group, The McDonald's Fast-Food Association, rallying popular support around the hamburger chain because, hey, "You deserve a break today!" Or the Ford Driver's Association pumping up its members by reminding them their cars were built where "Quality is JOB 1!"

07:45 KOA; Bernalillo (Albuquerque), New Mexico :: 23 SEP 97

I'm looking at a US road map, circa 1946. This is 20 years after Route 66 became the first officially declared US highway and less than 10 years after the paving of 66 was completed in full from Chicago to LA. Less than 10 years after the dust-bowl migration of some 250,000 mid-westerners to California on route 66 alone. It is just after WWII and the post-war automobile boom just barely underway. And in a year, Kerouac will get on the road for the first time. The '50s heyday of the highway are just a few years off. And on the map I see a United states covered with the thick red lines of highways.

Hwy 80: Savannah, Georgia to San Diego, California; via Montgomery, Alabama; Jackson, Mississippi; Shreveport, Louisiana; Dallas/Fort Worth, El Paso, Texas; Tucson, Phoenix, Arizona.

Hwy 70: Raleigh, North Carolina to Los Angeles; via Knoxville, Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee; Little Rock, Arkansas; Wichita Falls, Texas; Roswell, New Mexico; Phoenix, Arizona.

Hwy 60: Norfolk, Virginia to Los Angeles; via Richmond, Virginia; Charleston, West Virginia; Louisville, Kentucky; Springfield, Missouri; Enid, Oklahoma; Roswell, New Mexico; Phoenix, Arizona.

Hwy 50 from Washington, DC to San Francisco, California. Hwy 40 from Atlantic City, New Jersey to San Francisco. 30 spans between Atlantic City and Astoria, Oregon and 20 from Boston, Massachussetts to Newport, Oregon. These are all coast-to-coasters.

Between Detroit and Seattle, Hwy 10 crosses Lake Michigan by ferry.

Hwy 6, the Lincoln Highway, the route of Kerouac's first journey, it seems on the map to be the longest highway in North America: from Provincetown, Massachussetts, the tip of Cape Cod, to Los Angeles, California; via Providence, Rhode Island; Hartford, Connecticut; Cleveland, Ohio; just south of Chicago, Illinois; Des Moines, Iowa; Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska; Denver, Colorado; a smidge south of Salt Lake City, Utah. It is a grand, meandering parade across America, like an ox-bowed river, the only waterway to cross the continental divide. If I do another cross-continental trip, it will include this highway.

Originally, the promoters of 66 wanted the number 60 for their highway. So did another group of promoters and a bitter battle ensued. The promoters of 66 gave in when they saw the potential for damaging the national highways movement through their bickering and chose the available number 66 instead. Eventually, 60 and 66 became a braided pair of highways across the country, their paths crossing a few times westward after Springfield, Missouri.

So, why weren't the Okies in flight on Hwy 60, or on 70? Both ran through Arkansas and Oklahoma? Without a '30s era map, I can't know if these alternative routes were thoroughly surfaced. I would guess they were no worse or better than 66 over the long haul. I wonder if the lyrical number itself isn't somehow largely responsible for the highway's eventual fame...I wonder what magic had already been established in favour of Route 66, and how. Were the phrases "The Mother Road" and "The Main Street of America" as popular in the early decades while 66 was still vibrant and alive as they have been made now in nostalgia?

More digging to go.

~~~ Responses Sought ~~~
...ignorance joins with bad faith to produce a coded discourse that flatters the anxieties of those who will do anything to push away suggestions they find uncomfortable.
  graphical element Stanley Fish
There's No Such Thing as Free Speech:
And It's a Good Thing Too