Route 66 may no longer officially exist as a traversable highway, but it certainly still exists as both historical artifact and tourist attraction. Deserted auto body shops and the skeletons of old billboards still stand as ghostly, beautiful testament to a time when Route 66 was a major motorist thoroughfare. Meanwhile, motels from Barstow to Oklahoma City advertise Route 66 on their signage; and yesterday, stopping through Williams, AZ, my eyes were unexpectedly bombarded by a main street that looked like a Route 66 carnival, with flashing neon signs, old-timey saloons and diners, and Route 66 souvenir shops still open past 10pm.
Juxtaposed with the Route 66 history is the Native American history — the Navajo, the Apache, the Hopi, all now represented to the traveler as “Indian City.” Seemingly every billboard in the Southwest advertises a massive trading post that sells dream catchers, kachina dolls, moccasins, feathers, pottery, and Indian blankets.
This all seems to be part of the experience of driving through the U.S. I get to see the weird potpourri of American history, all jumbled together along with truck stops, Radio Shacks, and McDonald’s drive-thrus. There’s something very matter-of-fact about the whole presentation. When I stopped at a dusty Indian trading post to pick up a postcard, my liberal Berkeley history lessons came rushing in, and I felt strange about being there at all, browsing the feathers and moccasins; but then again, I was there to spend money, and the girl behind the counter wasn’t concerned with whether I spent money self-consciously or ignorantly. She was pleasant and straightforward; and then I was on my way, postcard in hand.
June 21, 2:30pm
Albuquerque is the first major city that I stop in since leaving Berkeley. I woke up exhausted this morning after a fitful night of sleep, and every mile between Holbrook and Albuquerque is like wading through peanut butter. By the time I reach Albuquerque in the early afternoon, the only things I want are: a place to sleep in the car, and an establishment that recognizably sells coffee. I don’t give a shit about Culture or the city. I want a Starbucks. But unbelievably, for maybe the first time I can think of, there isn’t a Starbucks in sight even though I am looking for one. There are only signs that say things like “Steaks in a basket” and “NEW! lime habanero shake!”
And that’s the funny thing about a long solo road trip that I always forget, and this will be in direct contradiction to my feelings about chain establishments in general: How truly soothing a recognizable chain store can be, after lots and lots of time talking to myself on the road. The sight of things that I would never find comforting in daily life — for example, a KFC — can practically bring tears of joy after a long drive. It’s not that I particularly want fried chicken. It’s that it’s familiar and predictable. And on a solo road trip such as this, I could very well spend the rest of my life going back and forth between a longing for novelty and a longing for familiarity.
The other thing I forget about road trips is that I often don’t have any desire to explore the cities that I stop in. Ostensibly, this would be ironic because the whole point of a road trip is supposed to be to see places I’ve never been to. But here’s the thing: I have a limited amount of time. Even on a road trip, I always have to get to a certain destination by a certain date — in this case, Detroit by Friday and ultimately New York City by Sunday. If I had three days to leisurely explore Albuquerque, that would be one thing; but I am conscious of time and remaining daylight hours almost always, from the moment I wake up til the time I determine where I’m going to sleep. So I have no desire to explore Albuquerque in 20 minutes. I just want to take a quick nap and find a Starbucks. Which all leads me to an arresting thought: If I’m not driving across the country so that I can see the country, what am I doing it for? Is it just so that I can say that I did it?
June 21, 9:30pm
Well, it’s complicated, because I do also get to see the country — all the parts of the country in between the big metropolitan centers. I get to spend a lot of time watching the horizon and noticing all of the different brands and sizes of big rigs that rumble along the interstates. As I cross the New Mexico-Texas border, the early evening sun on the flat, flat desert is breathtaking. The land is a pale yellow, the sky a perfect robin’s egg blue, the clouds rimmed with purple underbellies. I feel exhausted and calm.
Upon deciding that I’m going to stop early tonight and splurge on a motel in Amarillo, I begin imagining drinking a pint in a thoroughly Texan saloon, a saloon with sawdust floors and mouldering barstools, such as a bar one might find in the Wild West of the 1860s. Amarillo, however, seems to be the wrong place to find this sort of saloon. For one thing, it is a big city. The first thing I encounter as I exit the freeway is a Barnes & Noble. For another, it’s 2011 and sawdust floors are no longer necessary except in theme parks.
But I do find what I’m looking for after all, thanks to J’s navigating me via phone and Google maps. (From the comfort of our home in Berkeley, he was able to tell me the rates of all of the motels near me, and then gave me options of a few places down the street from my Motel 6. It occurs to me that I could travel the country via Google maps for far cheaper than the way I’m doing it now.) The Spotted Pony is dark and divey and smells like cigarettes. There’s a Bud Light sign on the wall outlined in neon lights shaped like the outline of Texas. The bartender is a beautiful redhead like Amy Adams’ character in The Fighter. I take a seat and start talking with the older gentleman nursing a whiskey by himself at the bar. Ahh, Texas.