Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Route 66: Pure Travel Magic

As a kid I grew up watching the Route 66 TV show on our crappy black and white television. Each week I planted myself on our light orange carpet, transfixed at the very notion of traveling on one highway spanning the distance between two oceans. The people you could meet! The things you would see! I don’t exaggerate when I say that the very idea of Route 66 left me breathless with an imagination in overdrive, thinking hard about what it would be like to actually travel that road.

On our recent trip to Vegas we did.

I’ll be completely honest: The simple idea of Route 66 still makes a lump form in my throat. There’s an indefinable ‘something’ about a mostly two-lane highway that covers the 2,400 plus miles between Chicago and Los Angeles. It’s a grand notion. I like grand notions. I like that thousands of completely unique businesses sprang up out of nowhere to serve travelers. I like that the highway was called the “Mother Road” during a golden period between 1926 and 1985.

What happened in 1985? That was the year the US government declared Route 66 “redundant” in favor of the soulless but much faster, broader, flatter and straighter superhighways. The Route 66 businesses went bankrupt overnight and today huge stretches of this highway lie unused and are slowly sliding into ruin. It is this picture, more than any other, that causes the aforementioned lump to form in my throat.

You can still travel chunks of this highway. A particularly long stretch is about two hours out of Las Vegas. Start off at the Route 66 museum in Kingman. You’ll get a powerful sense for the passion people feel for Route 66 and its unique place in American history. From there you can ride the highway once dubbed “America’s Main Street” into Arizona or California.

Route 66 still retains its magic. I mean that. Literal magic. It spells out “f-r-e-e-d-o-m” to me, particularly when I hit it with a full tank of gas and my favorite person sitting beside me. You expect to hear the Coasters or Fats Domino or maybe Platters. You simply cannot stop smiling. (Okay. I couldn’t stop smiling.)

Route 66 is to photographers what an “all you can eat buffet” is to a hungry cowboy. There’s something fabulous to photograph around each corner: the vastness of the desert, towns desperately trying to claw their way out of obscurity, restaurants with real character and the kind of food that you didn’t think anyone serves anymore.

What’s behind the charm? As we find ourselves getting older, we look back at what used to be with a fuzzy nostalgic sort of longing. Where are the businesses that smiled at you when you arrived because they were glad to see you…and not because a greeting is mandated in some corporate handbook? Where are real french fries cut from real potatoes and not “reshaped potato paste?” Where is that lighter than air feeling you get when you travel for the joy of the journey and not hunched over the wheel cursing tailgaters and fixating on getting where you’re going as quickly as possible?

Route 66 still has an abundance of magic to share. Here’s a place where people do look back at the past and reassure you that it’s not entirely gone. There are still little pockets of magic left. There’s still a way to ‘get your kicks on Route 66.’

If you go to Vegas and you don’t take a day trip out to Kingman and points beyond, then you will never have any idea what an utterly fabulous travel experience awaits you just two hours off the stinky Strip. And that, friend, would be a tragedy. Go. Take pictures. Talk to the people. Eat the food. Relax into the experience. This is the real stuff. It can’t be synthesized. It can’t be copied. Don’t even try to explain it.

Route 66 is not redundant. Real magic never is.