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The first chill of fall had settled in my bones, so I curled up on the couch under a feather comforter and opened a good book. But this book wasn’t the latest murder mystery from J.D. Robb; it wasn’t the New York Times bestseller The Da Vinci Code; it wasn’t even a Harlequin romance. It was a collection of photographs with accompanying text documenting the current state of America’s oldest highway—running all the way from Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, California—the historic Route 66.

Photographers Jane Barnard and Polly Brown spent three years traveling the legendary road and their resulting opus was released this year from the University of New Mexico Press, American Route 66: Home on the Road. As they explain in their introduction, their purpose “was to document how the heritage of Route 66 is reflected in current conditions and rhythms of life and to portray the road with a fresh spin on local folklore and Americana. [They] wanted to find out what it is to travel Route 66 today and to visually respond to whatever and whomever [they] might find along the way.”

Turning the pages of this book, I had a beer with Bob and Peggy Kraft who run the Riviera Restaurant in Illinois. Bob says, “She’s the worker, and I’m the drinker. She does a good job working, and I do a good job drinking. I know that she loves me or she couldn’t stand me.” Peggy quips, “That’s for sure.”

I also met a metal artist living in Essex. Jack Barker sure is humble though, “In 1994, these people came in driving a big ol’ Cadillac. The woman asked me, ‘Are you the artist”? It was the first time I had ever heard myself called that. ‘Art’? I thought, ‘Art’ was that fella I grew up with.”

I chatted with Robert Magnin in St. James, Missouri. He watched Route 66 being built when he was a little boy, and he’s lived on it all his life. He told me, “The trucks at that time were vastly underpowered. Many had only Model T or Model A motors. About halfway up Cooper Hill, just east of the farm, they would be in their lowest gear and moving at a crawl. My older brother and his friends would lie in wait for the trucks carrying watermelon. One or two boys would hop aboard and ‘harvest’ a couple of melons and enjoy an evening snack.” Such troublemakers!

I ran into Dean Walker in Witches’ Holler, Kansas. He remembered, “An old guy they called Mr. Spook used to live in a little shack up here, about twelve feet square. He’s paint himself up like a skeleton, with aluminum fluorescent paint. Be as naked as a jaybird. He’d charge you $5 to watch him dance around inside his shack with a black light on him, like a skeleton.”

I sipped coffee with Ernest Lee “Butch” Breger of Arcadia, Oklahoma. He confessed, “People come from all over to see the only round barn, which it ain’t. Well, there’s three hundred round barns on the east side of the United States alone, but this is the only one on Route 66. The Shakers brought the idea over. They built the barn round for one reason, that way the devil couldn’t corner you.”

What a cast of colorful characters!

Flipping through the photographs and stories of Bernard and Brown, I felt I was cruising down Route 66 myself, in a convertible Mustang, wind in my hair. The palm trees of California, the deserts of Arizona, the plains of Oklahoma, the lush greenery of Illinois, all were whipping past my windshield. I listened to the Mediocre Music Makers, skated at the Enchanted Valley Interskate, danced at The Willowbrook Ballroom, and rode the roller coaster at the Santa Monica pier.

On this journey, I was reminded of the absolute centrality of the car and the myth of the open road in the American psyche. Adventure, opportunity, freedom, ingenuity, self-reliance. These ideas so important in the birth and growth of this country reverberate through every mile of this original, this mother road, Route 66.

November 2003

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