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

Subject: The dustless air.
Date: Sun, 05 Oct 1997 09:11:32 -0700

22:04 Malibu Beach RV Park; Malibu, California :: 04 OCT 97

Dust. The air tastes like dust. After exploring old 66 westward to Victorville, we have come home in the truck to Newberry Springs just east of Barstow, California. The film, Bagdad Cafe, was shot here. Perhaps you have seen it. That the air tastes like dust seems appropriate. But Hollywood made Newberry Springs-rechristened Bagdad for the film-seem a remote, desolate, dry, hot, wind-blown place. Tonight, at least, it is only dry and hot. Earlier, during the day, it must have been wind-blown, or the air would not taste as it does, like dust. We pass over the interstate at 55 mph, windows and vents open to admit the young night air, cooling. The headlights on the interstate spread through the dust as if radiating out in a light fog or haze.

The day before this. John said, "that's it; that's all there is to see of Route 66 until Goffs." Goffs was miles away, 20 or 30 miles away. I gestured across the vast alluvial fan we were climbing with its clumpy sage, the dry washes, the eroding peaks. "What about all this?" I asked. "But that's not about 66, is it?" "Why not?" I insisted. But John was adamant, "66 is the diners, the abandoned and dilapidated gas stations, the old signs, original concrete slabs with black centre lines." "The people," I add. "Yes, and the people."

This strikes me wrong. No, as not enough. I can't articulate it at the time. It's everything. 66 is everything.

We are in the Mojave Desert. To escape the heat, the Joad's crossed this bleakness in the night. They are a fictional family, an invention of John Steinbeck, but thousands of Oakies lived the tale before Steinbeck wrote a single line. Hundreds of thousands. They crossed this desert land in the day and in the night. This fearsome, dangerous gap between the "sun-rotted mountains" ending Arizona and the "good mountains" descending into the agricultural promised land of California west of Barstow and Victorville.

Kerouac, too, came this way. And said nothing of it. Nothing to see? Perhaps there are no kicks here...

We cross these unforgiving expanses without a thought. The obstacle is conquered. Here mankind drew three thin lines: rail, cable, pavement. Before these, only the ruts left by wagon wheels. Before that, the rare brave, idiot footfall.

The wagons came this way because there was water. The old trail connects the watering holes, mere dots on the map, creating an aimless track from Needles to San Bernardino. Later rail, then copper, then pavement would follow the old trail. But in the time when hooves plod the old trail the Mojave was respected, even feared. Before that, it was not often crossed.

That is still here. Stop the car. Step outside. Walk into the desert. Breathe the air; taste the dust. Erase the lines. Forget steel rails, asphalt, gasoline, pneumatic tires. Forget cell phones, CBs and passers-by.

There is no water here. None.

What is left? An inkling. A growing respect. Awe. Fear.

I have not conquered this desert. I have a free pass: a reliable car on a well-traveled highway and a pocketful of credit cards. Here, Route 66 is everything. Climb back in your car. Drive the thin grey line of asphalt, the thin grey line on the map. Remember how it got here, what was here before it, what was necessary to cross and live. It was not always so easy as this. Roll down your windows and feel the heat. See the rotting rock becoming sand becoming dust becoming the air you taste.

Now, you are in your rattle-trap jalopy piled with all your family and all your family's belongings. Hope the engine rumbles steady, that your hoses hold their fluids, that your tires are strong. Hope that your water lasts as you watch the desert pass by, mile upon mile of waterless desert. You will remember every mountain, every crest and curve in the road. Each one might bring the dustless air, the hint of water near, news that the Mojave is at an end.

~~~ Responses Sought ~~~
Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness in the desert air.
Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood;
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood.
  graphical element Thomas Gray
Elegy Written in a Country Courtyard (1751)