Hampton and I pausing for a few pics on our 2,500 mile cross country adventure.
Saturday, October 30, 2021 my furry co-pilot, Hampton and I loaded our tiny but remarkably roomy black Hyundai Venue with everything we couldn’t cram into 2 U-Pack cubes to depart the leafy suburbs of Savannah, Georgia, and move west. It was literally, “California here we come right back where we started from.” Hampton is a superb traveler. His first roadie ever was same trip in reverse from west coast to east back in September of 2017.
Long story short, we arrived safely at our west coast digs on Wednesday, November 3. Those who simply wish to see pics from our trip, feel free to stop here. Those who appreciate a longer tale about our cross country adventure with some lowdown on Route 66, read on…
Over 5 days, we drove 2,530.9 miles, across 10 states: Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. We crossed The Ozarks, The Mississippi River, and Great Plains. As Arlo Guthrie put it, we “rolled along past houses, farms and fields,” and the vast grandeur of the American landscape.
We roared along aided by modern gizmos, Waze, and Siri on our iPhone. Air-conditioned gypsies, we zipped over modern highways in a 2020 car. As we zoomed along Interstate 40 and Route 66, I thought about the daunting challenges confronting early settlers, migrating West through blistering heat and bitter cold in wagons over steep mountains on dusty, muddy trails.
This was my third cross-country road trip with just me and a dog, invariably awed by my four-legged company and the American landscape. At dawn leaving Flagstaff, golden sun rays illuminated flaming copper mesas. 3D mountains receded infinitely into diminishing shades of lavender distance. I felt blessed to navigate smoothly paved roads which required incredible feats of engineering to originally construct and ongoing labor to maintain.
Curiously enough, from Arkansas to California, for about 1,000 miles U.S. Interstate 40, follows the route of Beale's Wagon Road, built between 1857–59, using camels as pack animals. Edward “Ned” Beale who lead the construction of the road, was among other things a California rancher, a friend of Wild Bill Hickock, Kit Carson, and Ulysses S. Grant.
For the last four years, I was a history guide who shared historical tales while driving a 40-foot trolley while circling squares in Savannah, Georgia. When I left Venice in 2017, I didn’t know a thing about Georgia's history. The gig fell into my lap because the Uber driver who picked me up at Savannah Airport not only looked like Colonel Sanders but worked for a tour company. We rapped about this and that and the rest is history.
Looking back, it all makes sense. As an artist for 40 years in Venice, every day I walked my dog along the historic canals, where tourists often asked me to snap their pics on various bridges. We’d get to talkin’ an hour later I’d know a bit about Milwaukee or Albania, they’d know the 100 year history of Venice, California, Abbott Kinney (the man, not the street), McMansions, The Heathens, local art, Jim Morrison, The Doors, and The Canaligators.
Like James Baldwin said, “People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.” After 500 mile days hauling ass on I-40 I’d sprawl out in my hotel room one eye on the World Series, one on my i-phone, As wicked curveballs nipped the outside corner, I scanned my device to learn the history behind the roads Hampton and I rambled along together.
America’s modern highway system essentially rose out of a popular movement that occurred between the 1870s and 1920s. The Good Roads Movement was inspired by Farmers and bicyclists. So strangely, the impetus behind improving road conditions in the U.S. began before the first cars were developed. Naturally, once automobiles became a major mode of transportation the impetus to improve roads sped quickly along.
As I often told folks on my history tours, cars radically changed America. Savannah is the first planned city in America, primarily because the city was designed around 24 squares (or small parks), built from 1734 to 1856. 22 of 24 squares remain today. 2 were lost to build a highway in 1935. That same year locals also voted over whether to have roads cut through the heart of the squares to facilitate traffic flow. Luckily, folks overwhelmingly rejected that idea. Venice, California wasn’t so lucky. They never voted on the matter, but by 1929, most of the historic canals were paved over.
In 1876, Nicholas Otto developed the internal combustion engine. Eli Whitney appeared before U.S. Congress in 1801 to demonstrate the idea of interchangeable parts, using ten guns built from identical components. The military found this invention handy. Henry Ford used Whitney’s idea to mass-produce cars, introducing the first Model T in 1908. By 1916, Ford built ‘em cheaply enough John Q. Public could afford one. By 1916, 472,000 motorists tooled around town in Model Ts. That same year, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Federal Road Aid Act, the first federal funding of road construction in U.S. history. Get your motors runnin’
Building better roads became all the rage and even Buffalo Springfield got into the act. No, Stephen Stills and Neil Young weren’t “breakin’ rocks in the hot sun” to transform muddy backroads into modern superhighways. But their band name came from a merger of two companies: Buffalo Steam Roller and Kelly-Springfield merged to become the largest compaction company in the U.S.A. Compactors smash rock, gravel, soil, and asphalt into smooth roads. Next time Obscure Rock and Roll Facts come up in trivial pursuit, you’ll be armed and dangerous to dazzle your friends.
As Nietzsche put it, “Without music, life would be a mistake.” Dude was right. What’s a roadie without killer jams along the way? My musical tastes sprawl all over the map. I play custom playlists, but also let Amazon or Apple select random mixes. Near Santa Rosa, New Mexico we drove past a long-deserted gas station eerily shrouded in mist as the last note of A Day In The Life, evolved into 2001 A Space Odyssey’s theme, Thus Spake Zarathustra, which morphed into Stranger in a Strange Land from Leon Russell’s debut LP. As the day warmed, the landscape brightened, The Allman Brothers Blue Skies, featuring arguably the happiest guitar solo ever followed by Mozart’s Magic Flute. Later, Sometimes I’m Happy by The Benny Goodman orchestra morphed into Pink Floyd’s Time.
Meanwhile, barreling at speeds of 90 miles an hour with 18 wheelers hot on your ass or rumbling in the lane next to you failing to notice your teensy rig in rearview mirrors as they suddenly change lanes leaves little chance to “fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way,” but ample time to “keep my eyes on the road and my hands upon the wheel,” as my life flashes before my eyes and I wish I’d been a better man who prayed more and had been to confession since 7th grade. Most truck drivers are real pros, but some…
One particularly tricky challenge for me on this trip was to remember my primary goal was not only to reach California alive but relatively quickly. I’m not typically a drive as the crow flies type. As a lifelong scenic route addict, I didn’t always fight the irresistible urge of a tempting detour and I lapsed.
Luckily my wingman loves pit stops to cruise new hoods, sniff strange new roadside shrubs while I squint into blinding sun to read historic markers, dig the mind-bending beauty of unfamiliar terrain, and question my sanity for dressing like an extra in a B surf movie outtake. I wore jeans, t-shirts, and flip flops for 2,500 miles in temperatures as low as 27 degrees. Hell, it was Halloween, I s’pose I was dressed as an extra in Moon Doggie meets Huell Howser hunting California Gold on Route 66. Yeah, that’s who I was. I did get a few strange side glances from folks at Bible Belt gas stations.
Straight arrow Sgt Joe Friday often reminded us on the TV show Dragnet, “Just the facts ma’am.” But cold hard facts rarely tell the entire tale. Some things in this vida loca can’t be accurately measured in a traditional sense. Like art, matters of the heart, and complex human emotions, Route 66 lives on as a myth, an idea, a dream. It symbolizes our eternal quest for life, liberty and the elusive pursuit of happiness. An essay I discovered on a cyber surfing safari in my Tucumcari hotel room published by the National Park Service sums all these facts and feelings up succinctly and beautifully.
“Route 66 embodies a complex, rich history that goes well beyond any chronicle of the road itself. An artery of transportation, an agent of social transformation, and a remnant of America’s past, it stretches 2,400 miles across two-thirds of the continent. The highway winds from the shores of Lake Michigan … to the Mojave Desert, and finally to the “land of milk and honey” – the metropolis of Los Angeles and the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Flanked by historic buildings and diverse cultural resources, Route 66 slices across the continent, revealing the process of historical change that transformed the lives of people, their
communities, and the nation. This fabled highway’s multiple alignments connect not only the East and the West, but also the past and the present. … There is a spirit, a feeling that resides along this highway. The spirit of Route 66 lives in the people and their stories, the views and buildings, and travelers' perceptions of the highway. Today’s travelers can still experience a remarkable journey traveling through time on Route 66.”
Cyrus Avery is considered The Father of Route 66. Avery was a persistent, pragmatic Oklahoma farmer and businessman, who understood that a paved highway crossing the plains connecting small towns across America meant jobs and money. WIthout Avery’s grit and determination in the 1920s Route 66 might never have been built. In 1997, The National Historic Route 66 Federation established a Cyrus Avery Award, which is presented to individuals for outstanding creativity depicting Route 66, and to groups for noteworthy preservation projects. (A damn good thing today.)
Route 66 is also called The WIll Rogers Highway, in honor of the witty, philosophical cowpoke. Born in Oklahoma, Rogers was half Cherokee. As he put it, “My ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower, but they met the boat.” He was a free thinker and independent political humorist. As he once drawled, “I’m not a member of an organized political party, I’m a democrat” Rogers starred alongside Boris Karloff, Myrna Loy, Ray Milland, Hattie McDaniel, Mickey Rooney, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in alotta movies. Rogers even served as ceremonial Mayor of Beverly Hills. All his life, Rogers spoke for the common man, who made light of lofty academic credentials, noting, "Everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects."
Speaking of ignorance, until last week, I didn’t realize it was author John Steinbeck who first called Route 66 “The Mother Road.” Steinbeck's 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Grapes of Wrath. ells the tale of the Joad family, poor tenant farmers who were driven from their home by the Dust Bowl, drought, bank foreclosures, and economic hardships in Depression Era Oklahoma. Along with thousands of “Okies”, they set off on Route 66 to seek a better life in California. In Chapter 12 Steinbeck wrote:
“Highway 66 is the main migrant road. 66 - the long concrete path across the country, waving gently up and down on the map, from Mississippi to Bakersfield - over the red lands and the grey lands, twisting up into the mountains, crossing the Divide and down into the bright and terrible desert, and across the desert to the mountains again, and into the rich California valleys. 66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert's slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there. From all of these, the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks, and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.”
During World War II tourist travel declined. Route 66 became a vital military artery to transport troops and supplies from one base to another. This lead to increased business at shops and motels. Also, thousands traveled along Route 66 seeking work at Western defense plants. Gas rationing and travel restrictions vanished after the war. American automobile ownership doubled between WWII and 1955. During the post-war economic boom, folks had ample leisure time and stray cashish to visit Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Disneyland, and to catch rays on Southern California beaches.
With the Post War boom times, the grim image of Dust Bowl refugees faded as the upbeat lyrics and hipster beat of Bobby Troupe’s “Route 66” hit the airwaves. Millions watched two handsome adventurous young men get their kicks on Route 66 in the 1960s TV series. Suddenly everyone wanted to cruise the open road on wild adventures in sleek red convertible Corvettes. And why not? Meanwhile, President Dwight Eisenhower and powers that be had other ideas. Ike had seen first hand the advantages of Germans during WWII due to their bustling modern Autobahn.
Sooo… in 1956. Ike passed the Interstate Highway Act. Over the next three decades, 5 new interstates replaced good old Route 66. Traffic was officially rerouted from old roads to new ones. The 1965 Highway Beautification Act often denied merchants on the old road access to freeway signage leading to the closure of many long-time US 66 businesses as travelers could no longer easily find them. Name brand gas stations, chain motels, and restaurants sprung up and bit by bit kicked Mom and Pop shops to the curb. In 1984, the last section of America’s Mainstreet was replaced by I-40 and Route 66 was officially decommissioned as a highway in 1985.
On the last day of our cross country ramble there we were “Standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona” for photo ops at the statue made famous by the classic road song written by Jackson Browne, made a hit by The Eagles. I snapped a few picks of a feisty ole gal and her gray Schnauzer. She was kind enough to return the favor for Hampton and I. Leaving Winslow we crossed a serene span of highway past The Hualapai Indian Reservation, Prescott Forest, and Diablo Canyon, where 500 feet deep ¾ mile wide, 50.000-year-old meteor crater lures tourists from Earth and other planets.
I highly recommend a stop in Williams Az, Gateway to The Grand Canyon and the last city along Route 66 to be bypassed by I-40. Some cool vintage inns and cafes line the old Main Street. It was a clear blue cloud stippled 33 degrees (or what I call perfect flip flop weather) when I forgot to pack a pair of socks and couldn’t find my gawldamn Converse hightops anyway. On the way out of town, a sign read Los Angeles and Kingman next left.
Kingman is the little town where Roy Rogers' raspy sidekick Cookie, Andy Devine grew up. He played alongside John Wayne in Stagecoach and other films. Devine also played a serial liar, or teller of tall tales in a Twilight Zone episode “Hocus Pocus and Frisbee.” On Andy Devine Boulevard we drove through a fantastic coffee joint, The Human Bean, before merging back onto I-40 across Western Arizona for the homestretch into California.
As we rambled across The Mojave Desert, into Barstow. I reminisced about family trips to Las Vegas as a kid, 60 years ago. I remember a gas station man actually washing huge creepy bugs splattered on the windshield, and actually pumping our gasoline which cost 18 cents a gallon back in the day. Pops would say. “We’re halfway to Sin CIty kids,” as he wheeled our Ford Ranch Wagon into the Burgie Quickie parking lot. Even at the tender age of 7, I knew If there was a godforsaken middle of nowhere, Barstow was it.
Yet, as a 66-year-old kid gazing at rusty railroad tracks vanishing in the hot dusty distance I saw Barstow in a whole new light. It was U.S. history now. People in this humble, bustling Mojave desert town of 25,000 took incredible pride in their heritage. As we strolled sizzling streets, Hampton found every shady nook and cranny in town and I discovered The Route 66 Mother Road Museum and 20 some vibrant murals depicting Barstow’s past. The wonderfully detailed works were painted by Main Street Murals a local non-profit organization. Beside one impressive mural, a plaque read:
“Main Street Murals is a non-profit 501 c(3) organization set up in the city of Barstow to create a walking gallery of historic murals along Route 66's Last Existing Main Street. Over the years our community outreach has expanded and we now offer a range of educational activities and community events from the Desert Discovery Center, located in the heart of Barstow. We are dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the historical, ecological and cultural heritage of the Mojave Desert, through the development of creative art, education, and recreation opportunities that enrich the community and attract tourism. Illustrating Barstow’s Past to Enhance its Future.”
Barstow is 125 miles from Los Angeles, a massive swarming city of 4 million people Norman Mailer once called “a constellation of plastic.” I have my own love-hate relationship with L.A. There it sprawled, a megalopolitan beast, bathed in hazy sunshine. After 4 years away I was almost home.