Built in 1926 with federal dollars, Rt. 66 connected Chicago to Los Angeles and ushered in the automobile age. John Steinbeck dubbed it the “Mother Road”. Okies used it to escape the dust bowl of middle America during the Great Depression. After WWII as the nation prospered, it became the means to adventure, freedom and exploring vast new places.
Rt. 66 turned Albuquerque literally on its axis, from being a sleepy post on the north-south trading route of the Spanish from Taos to Chihuahua, to a thriving stop on the east-west migration of the Americans. Now renamed Central Avenue as it passes through Albuquerque, the old route is still lined with businesses and signs that had sprung up to cater to the new travelers. Motels were a new innovation post war, competing for the traveler’s attention with neon and blinking lights, and offering luxuries such as real glass drinking glasses carefully sealed in waxed paper, individually wrapped bars of soap, and sanitized toilets.
We begin our drive at 7 a.m. before the morning rush would make it hard to brake suddenly to ogle the Pueblo Deco KiMo Theatre or the neon-pink 66 Diner. We stop for coffee at Milton’s and walk into the 1950’s, with the chrome barstools and leatherette seats. The only nod to the current century seems to be the flat-screen TV, which is broadcasting the eminent shutdown of the mighty U.S. government by midnight. It’s a moment to reflect on what recovery from the Great Depression has in common with the Great Recession: massive federally funded public works programs, banks as baddies, foreign wars, a besieged president.
As if channeling my thoughts, we step back outside to see a pickup truck that Steinbeck’s Tom Joad might have driven parked next to our SUV. The Joads would have driven straight through the empty heartland of New Mexico into Arizona and onto their California dream. Our journey is not so easy. I-40 replaced Rt. 66 40 years ago, lying right over it for long stretches and turning it into a parallel sidekick elsewhere.
Leaving Albuquerque, we ignore signs to get onto I-40 and continue on the old route. My friend is gleeful. I am doubtful and even more so when the asphalt soon gives way to gravel and then to rutted mud. We are literally driving along the shoulder of I-40; only a barbed wire fence separates us from traffic whizzing by at the legal 75 mph. We can see a huge rest stop in the distance and decide to turn around there. Finally a road sign that is as hopeful and enticing now as it must have been when it first went up rewards us. Get More Kicks on Rt. 66, a buxom blond with an improbable red flower in her hair tells us.
And just as suddenly, it is over. The mud road is completely washed out. The blinking neon of the rest stop is a mirage, not to be reached. We wave farewell to the eternally smiling blond and head back the way we came, forced onto I-40 to continue heading west. Yes, it is a relief to be driving fast on a smooth road built for speed. But just for a moment I’m nostalgic for those days before Google maps and GPS, when undertaking a road trip was truly an adventure, with every turn holding the promise of a new discovery. Not knowing what lies ahead but venturing forth nevertheless: isn’t that the essence of travel?
This article was first published on Yahoo! Associated Content