Saturday, July 25, 2009

"Take the Highway That's the Best"

Since moving to St. Louis in June, I’ve been exploring old Route 66. The website provides information about the several alignments through the city. We live not too far from the old Manchester Road alignment (now signed MO 100), and from old Bypass 66 (I-270 and U.S. 67). The best-known St. Louis alignment, Chippewa Road and Watson Road (MO 366) is interesting and features a local landmark, Ted Drewes Frozen Custard. Unfortunately a well-known motel, the Coral Court on Watson Road, has been razed and the land used for condos. The Coral Court offered 4-hour rates to truckers but people used the opportunity for clandestine rendezvous. I also discovered the route of the 1910s National Old Trails Road, an early transcontinental route which, from Santa Fe west, became US 66. In St. Louis, this route went Lindell to St Charles Rock Road.

Forty years ago this summer, my parents and I took a trip to the Grand Canyon. I was twelve. I wish I could remember many details of the fabled highway. Not all the route was yet superseded by interstates in 1969. I’ve vague memories of futuristic tourist signs, historical markers in the middle of nowhere; small, sit-down restaurants, towns with smal business districts, full-service gas stations, lonely little motels with cheap furniture that imitated that of home. When “in need” we stopped at small roadside parks. We spent some time visiting the Will Rogers Museum before pressing on.

I took books along on such travels. They came home unread, but I had a good resolve. “All tourists cherish an illusion,” writes Aldous Huxley, “they imagine that they will find time, in the course of their travels to do a lot of reading…They start for a fortnight’s tour in Frace, taking with them The Critique of Pure Reason, Appearance and Reality, the complete works of Dante and the Golden Bough. They come home to make the discovery that they have read something less than half a chapter of the Golden Bough and the first fifty-two lines of the Inferno.” As a boy I cherished similar illusions; actually I still do.

On that Grand Canyon trip, we traveled in a Holday Rambler camper attached to Dad’s tan ‘69 pickup, which was painted “Paul Stroble and Son” on the side. Unfortunately one of my clearest memories of the trip was a family meltdown in New Mexico. We stayed at the Kampground of America (KOA) at Tucumcari. “See Tucumcari Tonight!” declared the Route 66 billboards. Our nerves had become frayed; Dad’s bitchiness and unwillingness to stop “making time” made Mom cry, and for once in my childhood I scolded Dad for his attitude.

My memory is a little vague on whether we stayed the next night in Flagstaff or the night after that. I'm afraid we must've traveled the 450 miles that next day. Dad needed more "work" than just one scolding from his family. I know that we saw the Painted Desert in the late afternoon, and traveled too late to find a place to stop. We pulled up to the fence of the geodesic dome of “Meteor City” and considered spending the night. But we feared the isolation with no campers nearby. Finally we reached Flagstaff very late. The KOA was full, so we had to sleep in the parking lot. I bawled, so tired and frustrated.

The next day we proceeded north to the Grand Canyon, then to Page on into Utah and southern Wyoming. The rest of the trip bequeathed brighter memories.

Years later I retraced that route, hoping to reclaim more Western memories: the “Whiting Brothers” billboards, the “Fat Man” signs west of Tucumcari, the almost cubist, orange, blue and red motel strip of Gallup’s Business 66, the sad series of western towns like Lupton, Goodwater, and Winslow. I gained rather than reclaimed memories; the Canyon was our draw forty years ago and Dad wanted to “make time,” that oxymoron.

My life, though, took me to Flagstaff for a few years (1987-1991), and I got to see our daughter born in the very town where my parents and I had spent a short, weary night. The KOA is still there, near the junction of old 66 and US 89.

Given the inconveniences and weariness associated with travel, I wonder why we love it so. But the reality and metaphor of the open road are rich and rooted deeply in the American experience. The lonely trompe d’oeil apex of a road seems to beacon: “Afoot and lighthearted I take to the open road,” wrote Whitman, “Healthy, free, the world before me, The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.” The modern automobile road has allowed the pioneer legacy of travel and wanderlust to endure and thrive. The curse of Cain--to be forced to wander, east of Eden--has become for us one of our dearest pleasures.

The metaphor of the open road is also related to that of the “spiritual journey”: God guides me through my life as I wander, sometimes with a clear view of my destination, sometimes with no clue as to the way ahead. “This earth is not my home, I’m just a’passing through,” goes an old hymn. Recall that well-known fable of Jesus and the traveler on the beach; the traveler perceived two sets of footprints during good times and only one when life became difficult, and the traveler could not understand why. Well … we all know the denouement. Jesus takes the initiative as we travel and carries us when we’re weary.

The image of “journeying” is apt because of its incompleteness. Who would claim to have arrived at the fullness of God’s blessings in this life? Who’d want to be around a person who made such a claim? By describing our lives as an unfinished journey, we have impetus to keep growing in God but also permission to accept our imperfections (Phil. 3:12-14).

The open road is, for me, balanced by another myth: that of the traveler who wanders in order to return home. Sections of old Route 66 have been designated as a National Landmark, recognizing that a road is not just a means but also a beloved place. Perhaps we can connect that image to the New Testament theology of eternal life, especially in John’s Gospel wherein God’s life is not just a future Heaven but a present fullness of life and power.

We can trust God to accompany us, to carry us when necessary, to stop when we need to stop, and to keep us on the right way.

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