fernweh: (fern-weh, noun, orig. German) a crave for travel; homesick for a place you’ve never been
by TRAVIS RANSOM
Road trips are part of the American experience. With a nation that spans from sea to shining sea, it can be difficult to take it all in. When we travel nowadays, we frequently stick to the interstate and simply follow the instructions from our GPS device. But there was a time before the handheld internet. There was a pre-interstate America, when many roads across the country were two-lane blacktop. There weren’t large generic box stores and national chain restaurants doting the landscape like we have now. It seems America was more locally-defined back then, before the big roads and big businesses connected us all and smoothed out all the unique features. That was the America I went looking for last year when I took my old beat-up car from high school down Route 66.
Route 66, “The Mother Road,” spans over 2,400 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles. It passes through little towns as it winds its way westward to the sea. Driving the whole thing is like the automotive equivalent of hiking the Appalachian Trail. The trip was a bucket list item for me personally, and the additional challenge of driving it with an unreliable car made things more interesting.
Route 66 has a lot of kitschy roadside stops like the world’s largest eye ball, largest gas pump, tallest pop bottle, biggest round barn, wooden chair, and on and on. It makes for frequent roadside stops to walk around and visit with the locals and other travelers. Mom and Pop stores still operate in the little towns along the route, and tourism through Route 66 provides the lifeblood of their economy just as the interstate now does to the generic American landscape I wanted to avoid. Route 66 maintains its authenticity despite the kitschy retail façade and quirky roadside America. The little towns along the way are all unique, and the people were super friendly. It’s heartening to know that not everyone in America is stuck on decisive politics. There are amazing people in this wonderful land.
Somewhere east of Tulsa, I stopped in the middle of nowhere and watched the sunset over the amber waves of grain. It was nothing short of majestic. A great thing about driving west all day is being treated to an amazing sunset over that ribbon of highway each night. Oklahoma City has a large and sprawling “Land Run” monument which depicts the adventurous families that set out in covered wagons with all their worldly belongings to tame the west and stake their claim. Farther west, just beyond Amarillo, Texas, is Cadillac Ranch. This public art installation is an iconic part of the Route 66 experience. As you motor west, the land opens up and you can see for vast distances. I imagine how daunting this must have been for our early settlers. Between Grants and Mesita, New Mexico, is the notorious dead man’s curve. When most people think about Route 66, this is the type of terrain I think most imagine. The red mesas, rock formations and big sky make this area a beautiful place to drive. The high desert is magnificent. As we reached the Continental Divide, the highest point along the route, it started to rain. The smell of fresh rain in the desert is unlike any other.
Farther west, Route 66 is a two-lane road that parallels Interstate 40. It sometimes serves as the access road for the interstate. Other times it meanders away from the main road through little towns which were bypassed by interstate years ago. As evening fell, I was driving through the almost ghost town of Essex, California, (population 10) on my way to the Amboy Crater. There was not another car for as far as I could see on the old road. A few miles to my north was Interstate 40 with a steady stream of headlights from motorists visible across the vast expanse of desert. It was an eerie feeling, like stepping back in time. I camped near Barstow, California, under the stars, and the next morning drove to the end of the trail where Route 66 terminates at the Santa Monica Pier which by itself is worthy of a day just people watching.
You don’t have to spend a lot of money to have a good time. It doesn’t take a fancy car to enjoy a nostalgic look back at pre- interstate America. You don’t have to plan every stop or hotel stay. The sites may be static, but the environment and people are dynamic. Visiting with the Mom and Pop businesses along the way was just as fascinating as watching Route 66 unfold through the windshield. Be flexible, and remember the journey is sometimes more important than the destination. Happy motoring! This phrase is painted on countless buildings along Route 66. I think it’s great advice.