19 June 2006

Viewing Cars and Getting Kicks Along Route 66

I’d like to blame my kids, but I’m responsible: I’m a sucker for summer marketing gimmicks. Does McDonald’s have a new Happy Meal toy? Is there a special at Target featuring a summer movie? OK, OK, I’ll buy it!

The hype for Pixar/Disney’s Cars reached a crescendo in the weeks leading up to its opening June 6. By the time we got to see the movie, we already had the Cars movie soundtrack (for my road trip CD), two speaking Cars toys (Mater and Lightning McQueen) and a McDonald’s Happy Meal plastic Lighting—whose name Jonah shortened to “Queem.”

Monday, June 12, was our last day on The Rez. We wanted to finish with a service project. Kellie identified a Navajo woman for whom we could prepare a food basket. We took John & Kellie’s daughter, Brooke, with us, and journeyed into Gallup, New Mexico to buy some food and catch a viewing of Cars.

By now you probably know that Cars is about a me-first racecar who gets sidetracked from I-40 into the Route 66 town of Radiator Springs. The yokels of the town—and a hot-looking Porsche—change the racecar and teach him the new meaning of friendship and racing.

The kids and I identified with the Route 66 experience (much of our trip had taken place along the I-40/Route 66 corridor). This was the main point of interest, as the boys lost interest in the romantic and racing plot lines. If I had one critique of the movie, it would be that it missed the “kid” demographic in pursuit of adult story lines.

The cool thing about our experience was that we watched it at Gallup’s Red Rock 6 Cinemas, which is about 50 yards away from historic Route 66, among canyons and rock outcroppings similar to those created for the movie. In fact the next day, as we drove to Albuquerque to pick Jenny up from the airport, Owen noted how the landscape was similar to the movie we had seen together.

Route 66 (for those who haven’t traveled through the American Southwest) doesn’t really exist anymore. It’s a marketing ploy, not a real road. But it conjures up images of the times when cars had big fenders, lots of chrome, and no air conditioning. Since it was replaced by Interstate 40, it exists only in two ways: the main streets of countless western towns like Gallup, Amarillo, and Tucumkari, today identified as “Business Route 40,” and in remote stretches, where I-40 goes straight while the old Route 66 takes a sauntering loop through deserts, as it does in western Arizona and eastern California.

Gallup’s Route 66 is a fascinating drive through time and place. The most identifiable piece of history is the El Rancho Motel, a place that claims to be the resting place of the stars of Hollywood westerns from the 30s and 40s. The street is lined with diners, fast food restaurants, and Native American jewelry outlets. It also features a number of other unique elements of American iconography.

One significant feature of the American road in the glory days of the automobile was the motel. It was a low-slung, one-story building right next to the road. There was a “vacancy” sign in the window of the office (or on the marquis, if it had one), and there was a parking place in front of every painted, numbered door. The more memorable motels featured rooms shaped like teepees or Airstream trailers.

Among the once-thriving towns of Route 66. these motels are still there, but they are seldom still in business. The motels that are still open advertise “weekly rentals” or “rooms from $16.99/single.” In places like Gallup and Albuquerque, I saw some of these motels still open. However, shuttered old-fashioned motels gave Tucumkari, New Mexico, the looks of a ghost town. There must have been eight motels there along Business Route 40 whose “vacancy” signs had been replace by faded “Property For Sale” signs. I noticed that the old roadside motels had almost completely disappeared from Flagstaff, Arizona, including the Evergreen Inn, where Jenny, my sister, Julie, and I had stayed on our first cross-country drive in 1993.
People just don’t take four days to cross the country anymore, spending nights in places like Oklahoma City, Grants, New Mexico, and Barstow, California. I-40 and 75 mile-per-hour speed limits make it possible to drive from Nashville to Los Angeles in two, 12-hour days.

(OK, OK, I took four days to get from Tennessee to Arizona, but that was crazy, remember?)

The other mark of Route 66 is the hype—the abundant American desire to sell—and buy—nostalgia, even of the country’s recent past. Signs along the interstate proclaim “Historic Route 66” at almost every other exit. Erick, Oklahoma, announces “Home of the National Route 66 Museum.” The road sign is plastered across post cards and businesses in every town between Oklahoma City and San Bernardino, California. The traveler can even gamble away money at the Route 66 Casino about 30 miles west of Albuquerque.

I even spotted a sign in Santa Fe, New Mexico (about 50 miles north of where Route 66 ran through Albuquerque), which proclaimed, “Part of pre-1937 Route 66.” Now if the nonexistent Route 66 is historic, would that make Santa Fe’s street prehistoric?

Route 66 may be gone, but the ethic of the open road, the romance of the road trip is alive and well in the Southwest and throughout the 50 States. In fact, if the autographs of Spanish friars, conquistadors, and American pioneers on El Morro National Monument’s Inscription Rock are any indication, this romance predates the 50 States by many hundreds of years. It is what led me west with three kids in tow. It’s what sparks the imagination of those of you reading this blog. It is what enables the American spirit to get its kicks—whether that be on Interstate 40 or Route 66.


Norman McNulty said...

Your description of Route 66 gives me fond memories of the drives I've had between TN and CA. It's a fun drive, although sometimes the desert gets a little boring to me. Nothing beats the scenery in TN. Glad you've had a good trip.

Anonymous said...

I'm impressed with your site, very nice graphics!