Highway 40 is an engineering marvel, a four-lane thoroughfare running from California to the east coast, with rest stops all along the way. When I needed to drive to North Carolina this summer, I contemplated all the various routes I might take; Highway 40 was the obvious choice. It cuts a line as flat and straight as humanly possible through the high plains of New Mexico and Texas, the rolling hills of the Ozarks and on into the Blue Ridge Mountains of Tennessee.
Meanwhile, along the western portion from California to Oklahoma, you can still see old Route 66 snaking alongside the highway, like a silent, forgotten companion. Probably most motorists don't even know it's there, or don't notice. But once, that little road was the main route for Americans heading west, including the Okies escaping the dust bowl.
Bobby Troupe immortalized it in a catchy song:
Won't you get hip to this timely tip
When you make that California trip
Get your kicks on Route 66
Lots of people recorded that song after Nat Cole did in 1946. But his is still the definitive version.
If you grew up in the '50s and '60s like me, you remember the TV series "Route 66", which captured the adventures of a couple of cool guys rambling through the West in a Corvette. The show was interesting, but the best part was the haunting theme music by Nelson Riddle, which captured the loneliness and mystery of the region, along with the adventure of hitting the road.
All this gave Route 66 a kind of romantic mystique that seems absurd now when you look at the actual highway. Forlorn and resigned, its two lanes follow the contour of the land—up, down and around, wending its desultory way to California.
As I traveled east this summer I remembered a trip 50 years earlier when my father set out across the country with his three kids to a new job and a new life. He'd had to leave his terminally-ill wife in a convalescent home in Georgia. He would never see her again. He knew it, and somewhere inside, we—the kids he was now shepherding alone—knew it too.
To an eight-year-old's eyes, the road seemed infinitely bigger and more important then. And the future it promised was infinite too. There were motels right along the roadside, where you could pull off and spend a restorative night in a simple room. Some of the motels even had swimming pools.
Speeding back the opposite direction on the new, improved highway after all those years was exhilarating and sad. The memories were nowhere to be found, and like so much we try to recapture, the soul was gone.
I think back on my dad and the lonely burden he carried across the vast American interior into an uncertain future. And I'm grateful.