“Leave for the country let the day begin
I carry my share of original sin . . .
And I wanna be
like Mercury, with the wind blowing through my hair”
A jackknifed tractor trailer delayed our egress from St. Louis by turning I-44 into the parking situation at Woodstock. After an hour or so of creeping along in this controlled-access limbo, we found ourselves in what surely was the purest distillation of the mythical “Middle America” this coastal elite could have imagined, land of the fast food letter board advertising fifty-piece chicken nuggets and home of the ability to purchase high-proof liquor at any gas station.
Weighing heavy on my mind was the trajectory of our slog, roughly echoing the direction of - but keeping us tauntingly at arm’s length from - the most legendary American road of them all: the erstwhile U.S. Highway 66, more popularly known in the colloquial lexicon, of course, simply as “Route 66.”
Of all the numbered routes crisscrossing the continent that were cleverly devised during the 1920s, exactly how and why it was 66 that would uniquely rise to become such a cultural icon and object of the curiosity of a country’s populace is a question that is dissected still today by historians, hobbyists, and wide-eyed twentysomethings venturing overland into the west for the first time alike. It wasn’t the longest of the original 1926 U.S. Highways, nor the most important from a commercial standpoint, nor even especially scenic in the light of comparison with some of its brethren. And yet it was this piecemeal collection of thoroughfares that, after molding into a cohesive entity by way of getting pincushioned with signposts bearing one consistent number, swelled into the zeitgeist of multiple generations.
Steinbeck helped to elevate “Highway 66” into our national consciousness, breathing a character’s life into the inanimate asphalt as he coined the “Mother Road” moniker. That only partially explains, though, the hit blues song (the composer of which purportedly settled on 66 as his subject primarily because his wife liked the way the rhyme worked with “get your kicks”), the fifty-state gas station chain, or the ‘60s television show. The program actually had little to do with its titular namesake, but such was the gravitas of Route 66 that the very phrase itself brazenly presumed to capture and bottle the essence of this country’s ethos, that intrinsically American compulsion to pick up and go.
Then there is the fact of Route 66’s demise. It is far from the only long-distance two-lane route to be mostly or even wholly superseded by the concrete leviathans, but it is one of the only ones that was deemed to have been rendered so comprehensively superfluous that the government opted to decommission the entire thing, stripping it of its federally-appointed, unifying number. Ironically, this fate seems to have galvanized historical, sociological, and above all, nostalgic fascination with the road with such a fervor that other renowned byways have not managed to replicate.
When Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act into law in 1956 and with it, the Interstate Highway System, the first construction contract handed out under its power was for Missouri’s Route 66 corridor, the same miles that Bea and I were rumbling along now. What better place than there to dip our toes into the deep well of the 66 legacy? As if I needed a valid reason for an extended foray away from the Interstate, anyway.
We bid adieu to I-44 at Joplin, only to immediately come face to face with the harsh reality of the fringes of a small rural city, an incessant cortege of every chain eatery, hotel, big box store you could think of, progress made fitful by the humongous intersections every half-mile whose array of stoplights were responsible for orchestrating the sixteen lanes of traffic that funneled into each one. In eleven months, an F5 tornado would utterly devastate this strip towards which I was exhibiting such distaste, taking with it more souls than any other twister outbreak in over sixty years. On we crawled, past the Pizza Hut where, with sirens wailing and a waking nightmare bearing down at unfathomable speed, the manager would usher customers and employees into a walk-in freezer, then fasten a bungee cord to his arm and attempt to pull the door shut. It was a battle that would ultimately cost him his life, but he will have defied the unforgiving ferocity of nature just long enough to keep his wards from its clutches.
Emerging from Joplin at the western edge of town, we swatted away another agglomeration of vacuous hyper-consumerism and before we knew it we were crossing the state line into Kansas. Route 66’s idiosyncratic, eleven-mile tiptoe through a slender, unassuming corner of the Sunflower State lent my obsessive-compulsive need to catalogue experiences into neat checklists an excuse to mark off another new conquest. We skipped alongside almost imperceptibly wavy farmland that could have been just about anywhere in the Midwest. Soon we hit our first real indication of 66’s outsize proportions in the form of a general store, innocuous-looking enough from the outside, with a jumble of detritus in its front yard that suspiciously hid the faintest tincture of organization in its messiness: a rusted wagon with Old Glory affixed, colorfully-occupied flower pots haphazardly strewn about, a few plastic lawn flamingos for good measure.
Inside the store, dim and cool, the necessities could be procured, but they were dwarfed by the sheer volume of anything and everything conceivable with that magic number plastered on it. It was all rather hypnotizing, the t-shirts and hoodies and ballcaps and postcards and bumper stickers and fridge magnets and coffee mugs and keychains and lighters and ballpoint pens and calendars and stuffed animals and yo-yos and umbrellas and . . .
With armloads of swag and no recollection of how any of it came to be in our possession, we plotted a hasty retreat. As we exited, a bemused young German couple ducked into the store, their eyes beginning to glaze over as ours had.
We returned to the Mother Road, nimbly darting across the swift current of the artery whose purpose was to shuttle traffic through the area as expeditiously as possible, that which had been silly enough to stray from I-44 for whatever reason to begin with. One of the many delights of Route 66 is that its extinct alignments often conceal even older, long ago bypassed segments; after a short distance we veered onto one such chunk, which I suppose could be termed a “Grandmother Road.” One-way and unlined, it curved towards what, frankly, ought to have been one of the less remarkable bridges I’ve encountered. A simple concrete arch spanning the most docile of creeks, this was the “Rainbow Bridge” - naturally, painted stark white, at least where incoherent graffiti wasn’t scarring it. Somehow its superficially mundane countenance was dramatically overcome merely by its participation in this road, a relic of car culture’s embryonic stage, supplanted by modern Old Route 66, supplanted by the fast super-two-laner, supplanted by the Interstate. It was the minuscule but rewarding prize at the center of a Russian nesting doll of vehicular progress cresting on the wave of our American obsession with efficiency. Bea’s 21st-century Bubble trundled across in no different a manner than would have a southwesterly-bound traveler eighty years prior.
The faded yellow passing zone dashes of Old 66 hooked up with the newer conduit and together they constituted the main drag through Baxter Springs, Kansas. It was a town that had never fully managed to wrestle free from the intractable reality of an existence that is contingent upon people starting somewhere else and going somewhere else. As early as the 1830s, a trading post had been established in the vicinity for the indigenous Osage, the forcibly migrated Cherokee, and European-American settlers beginning their avaricious westward creep. Following the Civil War, cattlemen driving their herds from Texas to the railyards of Kansas City and the promise of profitable eastern markets found the Springs an ideal stopping-over point, giving rise to, for the time being, the state’s first “cow town,” up until the Iron Horse reached its tendrils further south to more conveniently service the ranchers. The advent of Route 66 again propped up the transient economy, but that too receded. What was left was a mostly forgotten town in that buffer zone, shifting ever eastward, between the fertile and arid halves of the contiguous states. To me, it presented as an almost cartoonishly perfect facsimile of such a town, right down to the pockmarked Trailways bus morosely moping in the street athwart a building that had probably housed a department store or the like in more prosperous days, hinted at by a faux-marble facade and C-shaped, peeling metal apparatus hanging above, though whatever insignia it had once borne was dissolved into illegibility. A bulbous analog clock face protruding from the bottom of the sign was more or less in agreement with my own watch. Time hadn’t yet come to a complete stop in Baxter Springs, even if retail largely had.
I harbored hope that the Route 66 revival was filtering a little bit of cash into local wallets, and there were indeed a number of establishments that appeared to cater to such a possibility. Upon further investigation, virtually none were open for business, a rather alarming indication, I thought, for a late Saturday afternoon during what ought to have been the summer high season. A visitor’s center within a refurbished Phillips 66 filling station (now sans pumps) lay dormant. Even more uncanny valley was the 1950s-style soda fountain, whose big glass doors, albeit locked to a darkened interior, permitted enough natural light to pass to enable us to gander at a setup so meticulously arranged that it may well have been frozen for all eternity at the very instant that Ike sicced the FAHA on communities like Baxter Springs.
Fortunately for us, at least the diner was accepting customers, a wonderful greasy spoon cafe in a corner red brick edifice (formerly a bank that Jesse James is said to have robbed) where we ordered hot dishes from a veritable novella reproduced on slightly yellowed newsprint. As we polished off our meals, a din rose from the street and we perked our heads up to see through the windows a fleet of choppers casually making its way down Old 66. We hurried outside to catch the end of the impromptu parade, and I noticed that the German couple from earlier had caught up to us and were on the sidewalk, wearing the dopiest of grins, the man capturing everything on a hand-held video recorder. One by one, the bikers circled back and parked their hogs in an orderly row, perpendicular to the curb in front of the restaurant, beneath the Stars and Stripes hanging flaccid in the stagnant heat.
I insisted on a post-dinner stroll to aid with digestion. Under the shingled awning of an antiques shop, what to my wondering eyes should appear but a dilapidated vending machine, austerely announcing COLD DRINKS. It looked as though it could claim membership in the first batch of such ever to roll off an assembly line, labels illustrating the brand selection shriveled and curling, output tray turned to rust. A low hum emanating from within indicated that despite its visage, this machine was allegedly functioning. Now, I’ll have you know that number one with a bullet on my holy list of this mortal realm’s small joys is a chilled can of Dr. Pepper on an incalescent day, so you can picture my euphoria as I clinked the required coinage into the slot (a meager four bits!) and pounded the appropriate plastic-sheathed button, then waited a few Mississippis with bated breath for the satisfying thud of a twelve-ounce pop dispensing into the corroded basket. I palmed the container, instantly shedding beads of moisture, and the symphony continued with the timeless hiss-CRACK of the tab being depressed and carbonation escaping its imprisonment. Twenty-four flavors - twenty-three as per the brand’s slogan, plus that tinny trace of aluminum that always adds a certain je ne sais quoi to any canned beverage - streamed down my gullet, manna from the gods. My disproportionately maniacal exuberance surely would have had Bea second- and third-guessing the life choices that had led her to this point had my overall hideous comportment not already long done so.
Onwards, holding hands with the Mother Road, Kansas disappearing into our rear view mirrors as rapidly as it had arrived. Into Oklahoma, where on that early evening it was hardly the wind sweeping down the plain, but languid puffs of stifling air. Commerce, one of those places with such an ironic name that it has to be in on the joke, being laughed with, not at, had its downtown hidden from today’s designated Route 66 path, so we went looking for it. What we found was nearly bereft of a pulse. Sidewalks were in the shade of corrugated steel roofing affixed by struts to the faces of comatose structures, which, together with the extra-wide street to provide room for diagonal pull-in parking, lent an apt Wild West feeling to this veritable ghost town. Presiding over the foot of the deserted business district was a lonely soft serve ice cream stand.
Looping back towards 66, we passed a nondescript, off-kilter, one-story shack that was molting its coat of white paint en masse. This was the childhood home of one Mickey Charles Mantle, one of the most preternaturally talented men ever to swing a baseball bat in anger. His career records, sterling as they are, leave open the unanswerable question of how they might yet have been constrained by a litany of injuries and the deleterious effects of alcoholism. Lauded endlessly and deservedly for his gifts on the diamond while succumbing to addictions to the bottle and to women off of it made “The Commerce Comet,” in some ways, an unlikely metaphor for the country as a whole and, in microcosm, his own hometown, as they whistled past the graveyards of industrial collapse and social rupture along fault lines of wealth and race.
Next came Miami, its name a somber reminder of the state’s origins as essentially a free-range purgatory for Native Americans. It was especially poignant to us, having paralleled the Great Miami River for some distance, way back in Ohio. The compulsory march of the Miami people from there to here, a journey that took us about ten hours in elapsed drive time, was protracted enough when it happened that various place names in Indiana, Missouri, and Kansas are all owed to the Miamis’ passage. (The more famous Florida city and its river are derived from an altogether different Indian people and language.)
The town itself offered a third variety of Route 66 hamlet, after the dozy, worn at the edges but still trucking nostalgia of Baxter Springs and the largely defunct and forsaken Commerce. Miami was a county seat, plugging away with all of the responsibilities and amenities that entailed: a hospital, a community college, a half-dozen(!) casinos, a multi-screen cinema, and a sizable municipal park fronting the Neosho River, in addition to the standard glob of shopping centers and lodging out by the Turnpike. It was of ample size that the north-south thoroughfare on which we were being carried divided into a one-way pair. Route 66, however, split the difference, forging straight ahead as Main Street. It was there that a totally unexpected treasure lurked.
Miami had at one point classified as a boom town, reaping the benefits of a lead and zinc extraction crush during the early decades of the 20th century. This injection of prosperity, now come and gone, did leave behind one tangible marker in the form of an ostentatious performing arts venue, the Coleman Theater, so called after the mining magnate who bankrolled it in the 1920s. Its exquisite Mission Revival exterior would put it at home in, say, some tony Los Angeles neighborhood, but here, in northeastern Oklahoma, it was downright preposterous. Always a sucker for beautiful architecture in surprising places, I had us pull over to take a closer look. We approached the small glass box office booth to inquire about the possibility of peeking our heads inside.
“Are you here for the Playboys?” the woman on the other side quizzed.
“Sorry?” we stammered, flummoxed, to which the woman pointed at a nearby poster, advertising Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, whose tour was stopping in Miami that very night.
“Oh, no,” I returned, “the building is just marvelous.”
Examining us skeptically for a beat, the woman generously relented. “You missed the last tour, but go ahead and look around, just don’t go into the theater. And be out in fifteen minutes, doors open for the show then.”
Aesthetically, the interior represented a wild departure, decorated in the vein of French kings. Gold everywhere, multi-tiered chandeliers, finely carved wooden columns flaring out into detailed frescoes. Sculptures of the tastefully nude female form hoisted candelabras skyward from the newell posts at the bottoms of a double staircase leading up to the balcony level. We crept up and, disobeying the request of our patroness, creaked open the door to the performing hall, which was no less impressive than the rest of the theater.
“There are big city orchestras that don’t play somewhere this nice,” I whispered. Below us on the stage, a couple of the Playboys were tuning their instruments. A sound technician looked like he was about to take a keen interest in our presence, so we quickly ducked out. Already a steady trickle of concert-goers was making its way into the theater, all, it seemed, of sufficient age to have birthed my parents. Stumbling back outside, squinting against our reacquaintance with the sun’s glare we could see a line of geriatrics was extending halfway down the block.
Vaguely dredging up something I’d read at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville some years ago, I rhetorically mused to no one in particular, “Didn’t Bob Wills die a long time ago?” It certainly didn’t matter to these folks; the entire AARP-eligible population of the surrounding fifty-mile radius must have been queuing up in front of the Coleman Theater to get a dose of the King of Western Swing’s ongoing legacy. Also present were our new friends from Deutschland, snapping photos of the theater’s ornate design.
“You go inside?” they asked us, having seen our exit. We disclosed that we’d barely gotten in and out with our lives and it was likely too late for them, unless they wanted to purchase a ticket and spend an evening rocking and rolling with the olds.
“Honestly, it might be a fun time. It’s probably the most America you’ll get on your trip, which I’m sure is saying something,” I contributed. It was an intriguing idea, but they were due in Tulsa that night and didn’t like driving The Route after dark, for that defeated the purpose of their adventure. Conversing a bit more - Bea was thrilled to practice her latent but serviceable German, having lived in Düsseldorf for several years as a kid - we learned that they’d started in Chicago and were planning to ride the entirety of the Mother Road to its terminus in Santa Monica, a two-week expedition, their excitement palpable. We then related our itinerary, in which something was evidently lost in translation, because it incurred them to ask, “You are getting married?” We practically raced each other to awkwardly rebut that notion with strained, high-pitched titters.
It was time to go our separate ways; even the lingering daylight that is afforded to those undertaking a long-distance sojourn adjacent to the estival solstice was beginning to taper. As it turned out, they’d parked their rented convertible (now that’s how to cruise Route 66 in style) directly in front of Bubble, so we trailed them for the final few blocks of Main Street. At the red light we bid safe travels out the window. They turned right, into the setting sun. We turned left, slipping back into Missouri thanks to the arbitrary disposition of imperialist boundary drawing: the border between what would be considered North and South in the western territories had been set at half a degree of latitude (approximately thirty-five miles) higher than the slavery/free division that had been determined as part of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which itself was an extension of an imaginary line that had been plopped down dating back to 17th-century colonial charters.
Our drive was predominantly in silence as we briefly submitted to an expressway to squeeze what we could out of the sun’s waning generosity. Perhaps the fatigue of what had developed into quite a distended day was starting to take its toll, though I surmised that Bea’s reticence might have also had a little bit to do with the Germans’ presumption of the quality of our relationship, exhuming intentionally suppressed thoughts and emotions and memories as if by the raging current of the Mississippi gushing over levees and sandbags.
We drifted south and east, the landscape transforming in front of our eyes. Hillocks, sheathed in velvety green, thrust up from the earth as open space shrank. The highway created its own contours in places, blasting through unwilling topography. We ditched the fast road once again. The new road wriggled and writhed, like the scrunched-up paper covering for a straw that’s been exposed to droplets of water in an attempt to entertain an impatient five-year-old at a restaurant. One-room churches and one-room schoolhouses, sometimes one and the same, would materialize and then get left behind in the gloaming. I could feel something seductive beneath the soil here. Without warning, a blue and white sign emerged out of the dusk, imploring us to BUCKLE UP FOR SAFETY but also, more importantly, inviting us in to Arkansas.