“Summer road trip” are three words that belong together like bacon, lettuce, and tomato. While some roads are just a long haul between here and there, others are so drenched in history and literary ghosts that a ride along them is more pilgrimage than crossing.
Route 66, known as “The Mother Road,” or “America’s Highway,” is my voyage quest thanks to a family history that involves my father migrating along the route from New York in 1944 in a 1939 Chevrolet, and of course there’s John Steinbeck’s exhilarating description of the perils of the route in The Grapes of Wrath.
66 is the mother road, the road of flight…
And 66 goes on over the terrible desert, where the distance shimmers and the black center mountains hang unbearable in the distance…
It’s the main cross-country highway that begins in Chicago and led migrants from Oklahoma to California, but it travels in two directions and I first met it heading east from Los Angeles to Arizona in a lumbering brown Pontiac Bonneville station wagon loaded to sagging with four girls, two adults, Oreos, liverwurst, grapes, bubble gum, and a Sing Along handbook.
We arose before dawn as the prospect of overheating, laden as we were, was real. Our tires devoured miles of hot highway below while fat bugs splattered onto the windshield. As the stars dimmed and I witnessed my first sunrise creeping into the sky turning strawberry, I saw Mojave yucas and Joshua trees – silent, dark sentinels guarding the vast emptiness with what looked like arms upturned in salute.
We were not alone on the road. Other children in other cars hung their heads out windows too and we waved to each other. You didn’t dare run your air conditioner crossing the desert in 1968; you might overheat so it was four, fifty-five. Four windows down, fifty five miles per hour.
Some cars had brown flax Desert Water Bags draped over the hood ornament. Air blowing across the fabric cooled the water. Just in case the radiator blew.
The sight of cars prepared for human or auto lifesaving measures heightened my sense of the danger of crossing the desert. Desert Water Bags are a thing of the past, sold on e-bay to vintage item collectors. Now there are cell phones and call boxes, rest stops with drinking fountains and orange-vested Caltrans workers. The swath through the desert is more quickly traveled along Highways 15 or 40 now. The ghosts of Dust Bowl migrants lingers only in novels and photographs.
“Summer reading” are two words that belong together like “me and you” and in Chapter 12 of The Grapes of Wrath you’ll find the best description of the precariousness of traveling the old Route 66.
In the day ancient leaky radiators sent up columns of steam, loose connecting rods hammered and pounded. And the men driving the trucks and the overloaded cars listened apprehensively. How far between towns? It is a terror between towns…
Listen to the motor. Listen to the wheels. Listen with your ears and with your hands on the steering wheel; listen with the palm of your hand on the gear-shift lever; listen with your feet on the floor boards. Listen to the pounding old jalopy with all your senses, for a change of tone.
These days you have to travel into Arizona which boasts the longest continuous stretch of Route 66 still paved and usable, reaching about 155 miles between Topock and Seligman, to see evidence of the road’s old treachery.
Reading Steinbeck as a passenger during my last Mojave Desert crossing made me wish for a new kind of Desert water Bag, one to capture the spirit and thoughts of those who had gone before. I felt like I was meeting the ghosts in the open land and I wanted to drink in their spirit, ripe with bravery. If somehow The Grapes of Wrath skipped your own reading history, it’s one of the books selected by the National Endowment of the Arts “The Big Read” program which aims to inspire “people across the country to pick up a good book…listen to radio programs, watch video profiles, and read brief essays about classic authors.”
Summer Road Trip. Summer Reading. Me. You.
Where will our journeys take us this summer?
With high adventure,