Book review, published in The Sunday Herald, 2002
It is a road that is many roads, and it is a story that ties together all the stories of a century in one long, grey asphalt ribbon. But more than anything it is a song.
Bobby Troup wrote it, in 1946. At one time, he’d played piano in the Tommy Dorsey band. More recently, he’d been a captain in the Marines. After the fighting, thousands of returning GIs, who had first experienced the gold light of the West Coast when they were sent to training camps there, decided to forsake the lives they had known in the east and midwest and motor west along the road again, back to that traditionally promised land. As they thronged its length, new types of commerce and new types of architecture sprang up along the road to service them. This road, its miles without checkpoints, was the freedom they had been told they were fighting for. Among them, Troup mapped the journey in melody:
You go through St. Louis/
And Oklahoma City looks a-mighty purdy!/
You’ll see Amarillo, Gallup, New Mexico/
Flagstaff, Arizona, don’t forget Winona/
Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino…!
Into the land of opportunity. One week after he arrived in Los Angeles, Troup’s song was a hit for Nat King Cole, an unofficial New World anthem.
Of course, you can travel both ways, but the road, like the song, only really has one direction, westward-ho, following the pioneer trail to the edge of the world. In fact it began as a wagon-trail, leading settlers across the wilderness of the 1800s, away from the Old Countries.
Winding from Chicago to LA, more than 2,000 miles all the way. In Troup’s original, half-forgoten lyric, he celebrates how the road crosses, “Seven states, count ’em, seven”. In fact, it’s eight: as well as Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, it just nicks the south-western corner of Kansas, in a tiny, 14-mile stretch.
Declared official in 1926, Route 66, the road, was seventy-five years old last year. Except, it wasn’t. Long superseded by the straighter, cleaner Interstate system, it hasn’t existed since 1985, when, after years of dissolution, the US Government finally cancelled its designation. Save for stretches of crumbling macadam, the road is gone. But the melody lingers on. People refuse to let Route 66 disappear. Like anything that has gone, it has its cult, people who keep the flame alive by selling t-shirts and keyrings and bottle-openers emblazoned with that old highway shield, or by opening cluttered, folksy little outlaw museums along what once was its length. So now it’s a road held together only by memory and desire, a road that’s an idea.
The Final Cut: Route 66 is a collection of photographs taken along this ghost road by Gerd Kittel, a German photographer, who frames the traces of the highway that was, and the people who maintain them, with the eye of an outsider who both understands the seduction of the myth, and the melancholy oddness of its stubborn persistence.
Jack Kerouac put the glaze on the legend, but it was John Steinbeck who first lifted the road into myth. In The Grapes of Wrath, documenting how Route 66 became the escape route from the dustbowl of the Central Plains for the families who formed the desperate, rag-tag automobile army headed west, he dubbed it The Mother Road:
“66—the long concrete path across the country, waving gently up and down on the map, from the Mississippi River to Bakersfield— over the red lands and the gray 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 led out of the Depression in more ways than one. In the late 1930s, men were put back to work completing the paving of the road, which in many places was still little more than a dirt track. Though it was as long as America, in some places the road was less then eight-feet wide. They finally finished laying the macadam in 1938, just in time for the army trucks ferrying men from training camps to troop ships, heading back into the old countries again.
There’s an irony, perhaps, in the fact that Kittel comes from Germany, as it was from there the idea that killed the road came, too. It was a long goodbye, commenced at the dawn of the 1950s. As a General in Germany, Dwight D Eisenhower had been seduced by the different song of Hitler’s Autobahn; as a president, he modeled the new Interstate system after it. Where Route 66 meandered without differentiation through the hearts of big cities and one-horse towns alike, the Autobahn, bypassing communities in wider, straighter, more hygenic stretches, offered the ability to drive in speed and safety – as well as strategic advantages in the rapid movement of troops.
So, piece by piece, the road was replaced. 66 gave way to I-55, I-44, I-40, I-15, I-10, and the small towns that had sprung up along the Mother Road were deserted, almost overnight. Their motels, coffee shops and gas stations with Texaco signs faded like Pop Art artefacts left out in the sun. The story of the road turned into Psycho; the Bates motel is deserted because no one uses the old road anymore. All you find there is emptiness and decay and a kind of lingering lonely madness.
In 1996, Richard Hell, a punk pioneer plugged into his country’s Pop cultural currents, wrote a book, Go Now. It tells the story of driving what is left of Route 66 in a red 57 DeSoto, in the company of a photographer, who, just like Kittel, is documenting the remains. There’s a passage that fits these pictures perfectly:
“The small-town museums are so good, like third-rate ‘Believe It or Not’ exhibits in old-time, seedy Times Square. They had a mannequin with very bad hair dressed like a sailor with his thumb out to memorialize hitchhikers. That sort of thing… That’s what the towns along the original road have been reduced to, because of course they prospered from the traffic in the old days, but now are near dead because of the interstates. The old two-lanes are still the only way to go, but it must have been something when it was all there was.”