My Mother Road

by Bruce Patterson, November 17, 2010

“The Mother Road, the road of flight.”

— John Stein­beck

* * *

I was born in the same West Town Chicago slums my parents were born in and grandparents landed in. Had I been able to stand up on a chair and peek out the win­dow of Cook Co. Hospital’s nursery, I’d’ve overlooked US Route 66, the mother of all federal highways built exclusively for trucks and automobiles. Once I was old enough to pedal my tricycle, I could have ridden it to the mother road’s start on the shore of Lake Michigan: the very first step on the Yellow Brick Road.

“Bats out of Hell,” my dad christened us as we packed into our Kaiser four door and drove 2,400 miles through 8 states to reach our new home in the City of Angels. My dad’s mother’s kin lived in a downstate farming burg called Middletown, and on our way we visited my ancient great-grandma who lived in a shanty just a few miles off the two-lane macadam. I remember standing on the backseat and peering out the side win­dow as we crossed a long bridge suspended high above a lake of water flickering between steel girders and my dad announcing how, by reaching the opposite bank of the Big Muddy, we’d be entering the American West of story and song.

I remember the rolling green hills of the Ozarks with farmsteads cut out of the piney woods, and touring through spooky limestone caverns, and towns along the way with mysterious names like Joplin and Tulsa, Amarillo, Tucumcari, Gallup, Winslow, Valentine, Nee­dles and Barstow. I remember sunrise cafe flapjacks and shit-on-the-shingle, home fries, buttermilk biscuits, bull­dog gravy and eggs over easy; midday cafe hot beef sandwiches, “Chinese and American,” chili size, chili dogs, cheeseburgers, Indian Trading Posts, Reptile Farms, cattle spreads, adobe ruins, tumbleweeds, pink cliffs, outlaw hideouts, big game Jackalopes, “Harold’s Club or Bust” billboards, painted deserts, cactus gardens, slow-motion sunsets and topping a rise under a black starry night and spotting a pair of oncoming headlights appearing out of the vanishing point like a newborn fire­fly.

Our new house in LA was even closer to Route 66 than our old Chicago flat had been. My elementary and junior high schools were set right on it: Figueroa Blvd, or “Fig,” as everybody called it. When a bunch of us neighborhood kids jumped on our bikes and went off exploring, one of our favorite rides was up the concrete Arroyo Seco Canal to the route’s famous Suicide Bridge, the most beautiful of all of the bridges along the entire 2,400 mile stretch. Just west of Suicide Bridge on Colo­rado Blvd. in Eagle Rock stood Henry’s Drive In, the one true original inventor of the Double-Decker ham­burger. On Fig a few blocks downstream from my house stood Sternburger’s Diner, the creator of the cheese­burger. Further on, where Fig entered downtown, there was Philippe’s Cafeteria, inventor of the French Dip.

About 25 miles west of our new home, past Cantor’s Jewish Delicatessen, the celebrated creator of the glori­ous Reuben sandwich—“That’s Russian dressing, sir, and not 1,000 Island”—my mother road dead-ended with Santa Monica Blvd at Pacific Palisades Park. After we were settled in our new home, my dad drove us out there so we could stand on the cliffs and overlook the Pacific Ocean. “That way,” my dad pronounced, pointing his finger out to sea, “lay China.”

I’d forgotten about us going out there until, a few years later, I went to the Highland Theater on Fig to see the movie It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. The mag­nificent treasure all of the movie’s crazed cretins were so desperately craving was buried exactly where US Route 66 ended, and I wondered: was it a coincidence or an insider joke? Was it a reference to Ga-Ga Land glittering at the end of the auto-rainbow even before there was a Ga-Ga Land?

Over the next decade we drove 66 a couple more times to visit family and friends in Chicago, and I felt that most of the fun was in the traveling. During the summer of ’68, back from Nam and leaving from North Carolina, my surviving holemate and I hitchhiked 66 from St. Louis to LA. A couple of years later, on our way to and from New York City, my lover and I hitch­hiked the same stretch. There was no better way to see the real America than to stuff some bills in your pocket and stick out your thumb, and some of the experiences we had, and people we met, I’ll never forget. Here’s one: an Oklahoma State Trooper popped me and my holemate for hitchhiking on the “Will Rodger’s Turnpike” east of Tulsa. Had Will Rodgers, or Ernie Pyle, for that matter, still been alive, I’m sure the irony would have tickled them pink.

When they broke dirt on US Route 66 in 1926, my dad was 5 years old, my mom was 2 and Wyatt Earp had a year to live. Back then the US had nearly 3,000,000 miles of roads, but only about 40,000 miles of them had all-weather surfaces fit for use by trucks and cars. For over a century Americans had been diligently adding to the world’s most extensive rail system, and people and freight traveled by train. As Kafka described the building of The Great Wall of China in his short story by that name, Route 66 was built piecemeal starting in dozens of places all at once. When, in 1937 and thanks to “federal stimulus dollars,” the last bit of 66 was paved with asphalt instead of macadam, and the very last of a hun­dred ceremonial grand opening ribbons cut with a giant pair of scissors, and champagne glasses hoisted, the highway’s boosters advertised it as “The Main Street of America.”

Like with the railroads flanking it, the new highway brought prosperity to the towns it passed through and caused new ones to spring up. Yet, unlike the railroads, Route 66 was never finished, or anywhere near finished. Eight-foot-wide lanes proved to be too narrow for some drivers to stay within, and so the lanes were widened to 10 feet and then 11; “exit ramps” were added to cut down on the number of front-end to rear-end crashes, high and low spots smoothed over to reduce the number of single car “accidents” and head-on collisions. Over the years and decades two lanes became four, armored center dividers were added, ramps added, widened, straightened and lengthened. Then, thanks to the National Security Interstate Highway Act of 1956, four lanes became eight and, where the new Super Highways pierced the hearts of the spreading Auto Utopias, eight lanes became a dozen. “Freeway interchanges” evolved into monumental works of public art: Highways to Heaven, Cathedrals to internal combustion, temples to the commuter gods, and sacred totems of our National wealth, power, will, destiny, mobility and The Good Life.

By the way, has anybody ever wondered what would happen if you rigged a $50,000 Toyota he-man pickup truck equipped with 400 horsepower to 400 horses and had them do a tug of war? If you told the horses to hold still, would the Toyota make any forward progress? If you told the horse to run, would any of them feel the drag?

Anyway, the tag “The Main Street of America” never did catch on. It had too many words, for one thing. In a culture where time is money, “Main Street, USA” would have had a better chance. Also, by boldly proclaiming themselves thus, the poor hayseed land speculators along the new route forgot to count on their neighbors feeling envious and resentful. If there was going to be an Ameri­can Main Street, they protested, why not from Boston to Miami? Why not Minneapolis to Memphis, San Diego to Spokane? Since porkbarrel spending is the grease that turns the wheels of the corporate dynasty, and the means by which public money is converted into private capital, why not lace the entire Continental United States with Super Highways connecting anyplace to everyplace? Why not make all Interstates America’s Main Street? People so love their cars.

Unlike the Great Wall of China, US Route 66 was dis­assembled and demolished piecemeal starting in doz­ens of places all at once. “The Mother Road” Steinbeck named in the 1930’s was not the one I became acquainted with in the 1950’s, nor the one I traveled in the ‘60s and 70s. During my lifetime 300,000 miles of railroad tracks have been ripped out to make way for “freeways,” and US Route 66, it’s last remnant rendered totally obsolete in 1984, has been erased from the map and memory.

Nowadays, if you wish to drive from Lake Michigan to Pacific Palisades without a single stoplight standing in your way, you must use five different Interstates, and your destination is never mentioned because it’s irrele­vant to the flow of traffic. Coast to coast and north to south, the Interstates now have more off ramps than old 66 had miles, and every one leads to the same roadside attractions and corporate brand names, the same menus and motel rooms, gas stations and mini-marts. Now everything is well lit, spiffy clean, colorful and orderly, and to see the real American one need only take the nearest off ramp.

When we shadowed the setting sun while moving west in our Kaiser four door, we felt we were on an epic journey. We were leaving behind the old, dirty and cor­rupt for a new beginning in the land of wide open opportunities and wide open spaces. We were a part of a grand migration, and we were following in the footsteps, hoof prints and wagon tracks of countless others. The Santa Fe Trail linked dozens of ancient local trails into one continuous ribbon connecting the landscape from east to west, and Route 66 did likewise except on a much grander scale. And that was another reason why it couldn’t be called anybody’s Main Street. The mother road pointed west, always west, and it was built to open up the west to settlers like us. After as far as we’d come, to return back east for anything other than a visit was a sign of defeat in, or disillusion with, The Promised Land. And therein lay the romance and adventure and tragedy.

Interesting fact: Chicago, which is nearly as flat as the lake fronting it, is 580 feet above sea level. Our new house in LA was almost exactly that high.

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