Revisiting America's route

On a trip to our nation's past, you can see its promise

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In an episode of the Internet series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Jerry Seinfeld took a guest to a 1950s-style diner in New Jersey. As they are looking at the décor that could have come from any roadside diner in 1959, Jerry asks his guest, “Why are we always looking back?”

Good question.

A few years ago I took a road trip on the old Route 66 to see if there was anything left of my childhood America – starting in Amarillo, Texas, with the Big Texan Steakhouse.

Opened in 1960, the restaurant sports a neon Texan who seems 50 feet tall, along with a 20-foot steer to greet you in the parking lot. Inside, the restaurant looks like one you might see on Gunsmoke. But the main reason people stop is to see if anyone will try to win the free steak dinner – free if you can finish the entire meal of a roll, baked potato, salad and 72-ounce steak!

Most people can’t, and I didn’t even try. But the friendly service and a waiter who tried to convince me that the giant jalapeño pepper on my plate was just a Texas pickle reminded me of traveling with my family where we would stop at places just like this and meet nice people along the way.

In Gallup, N.M., there is a hotel right out of a Western movie. The El Rancho was home to movie stars from 1940 until about 1960, when they would come to make westerns or just vacation. Autographed photos of John Wayne, Kate Hepburn, Errol Flynn and many others adorn the walls of the second-floor indoor balcony that overlooks the lobby. It’s easy to picture the stars of that era in the hotel bar after a day of shooting in the desert.

It is impossible to picture the Kardashians.

The El Rancho still is open for business, and you can get the John Wayne suite if you want.

IN HOLBROOK, ARIZ., and San Bernardino, Calif., I stayed at the Wigwam Motel. Each was a little different than the other, but the layout was pretty much the same. In the ’40s and ’50s there was a chain of these that ran from Kentucky to California. They are concrete teepees with all the amenities. Each teepee is a separate unit – one or two bedrooms, a bath and 

small kitchen. It’s quite a sight to see them surrounding the swimming pool. While lying in my wagon wheel bed, I imagined the families who made the journey west and stayed in this very room at the end of a long day of the “license plate” game and cowboy songs in a big V-8 car. Few of these treasures remain.

As you drive U.S. 40 and exit to the road that was the old Route 66, you can find giant statues of dinosaurs (now covered with gang graffiti) and outdoor walls painted with James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Corvettes and even the Rev. Martin Luther King. And lots of neon. Everywhere you look are depictions of Elvis, muscle cars, the U.S. flag, wagon trains – everything you associate with America and the way west.

The people seem to come from a different time, too. There are plenty of Indian trading posts run by – well, Indians. I met a young girl working at one and asked her where she lived. She smiled and said, “the rez.” Not sure I heard her correctly, she explained she lives on a reservation and works at the trading post selling moccasins, jewelry, postcards and coon-skin caps to tourists. She didn’t seem particularly worried about the political correctness of the whole thing. I asked her about the term “Native American,” and she looked at me like I had three heads! In her view she was an Indian and proud of it.

Just a little way down the road is the town of Joseph City, founded by Mormon pioneers. It is a quiet, almost closed community populated by the descendants of the original residents. It is unlikely things have changed much over the years. You get a feel for what it must have been like for the people who wandered west in search of religious freedom and just wanting to be left alone.

AT HOP SING’S Restaurant, many of the wait staff dress like Hop Sing from the old Bonanza TV show. Cowboys and tourists and railroad employees enjoy a big Western breakfast before starting their day. I could just imagine the horror of some Eastern do-gooder seeing this and being outraged over waiters dressed as Chinese immigrants. But the people of Williams, Ariz., don’t seem too worried about any of it. No offense is intended and none is taken.

On the Mother Road there are many tributes to space. Some diners look like a Jetsons cartoon. There are tributes to John F. Kennedy, the space president.

As I stood on a corner in Winslow, Ariz., I answered Seinfeld’s question: Why are we always looking back? Because back then, anything was possible. The West was big, and had room for any dream you could dream. There was no obstacle that couldn’t be overcome, not even space! Civil rights would come, communism would be defeated, medical advances would cure our sicknesses and the world would be one where everybody had a shot at being happy. Who doesn’t want to look back at that?

A case could be made that the span from 1945 to 1969 was America’s heyday. The time between winning World War II with the atomic bomb and landing a man on the moon was filled with unlimited promise. But somewhere along the way we took for granted that it would always be so – and we lost much of that promise. We forgot that we have to work hard. We have to pull together. We have to care more about what we can do for our country and less about what our country can do for us.

The motto “out of many, one” has become “out of one, many.” We have lost our identity. The people with their hands out when they are capable of taking care of themselves, the politicians making backroom deals that make them and their cronies rich, the children without fathers or mothers or families that provide and care for them, the drugs and immorality and the dereliction of the duty that we as citizens must accept, has become a sandbag around the neck of an America that is adrift.

FOR THE FIRST time, I am ashamed of what my country has become. Yes, we had our problems back then, but they could be fixed. Now, I’m not so sure.

So, if you want to look back and maybe show your kids what America used to be, you can still find bits and pieces on a highway that rambles from Chicago to the Pacific Ocean. It’s kind of run-down, and way past its glory years, but you can still find it and some of the people who made it what it was.

Better hurry.

(The writer lived in the CSRA for 22 years. In 2009 she hopped a flight to Texas, rented a car and took this road trip to California to get a different view of the country she loves. In 2011 she signed up as a contractor to support the military in Afghanistan. Two of her short stories about that experience will appear in the book Short Rations, which will be published later this summer. In January she moved to Sandy, Utah, and continues to search for America’s heroes and the American dream.)

Comments (10) Add comment
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Young Fred
17467
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Young Fred 06/30/13 - 02:57 am
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If you can get past the (it

If you can get past the (it seems) built in inclination to get to your destination as fast as possible I would suggest giving this a try.

Interstates, while certainly the most “efficient” are also boring and monotonous! If you have the patience to enjoy a trip, just as much as the destination then give this a try.

We have right here in the good ole' CSRA the perfect opportunity for anyone taking a north/south trip, Highway 1 (beware of speed traps). It may not be the fastest, but I can promise it will be much more interesting. From Maine to Key West, Florida.

The first of August I'll be taking the fast, monotones route to Fort Lauderdale, Fl, spend one night, then take highway 1 to Baltimore MD, then taking a detour to the Adirondacks.

Half my trip will be on the road, and even though I have the promise of some sweet, sweet, mountain trails, I'd be willing to bet the trip will be just as good as the destination.

Riverman1
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Riverman1 06/30/13 - 06:35 am
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On the Road

The book that I mention in my profile is "On the Road" by Jack Kerouac. There’s much to be found on the road people such as Pat and Young Fred know. The road provides a real life movie of constant change outside the car and inside, mile after mile.

The car doesn’t matter, the weather doesn’t matter. It’s the newness, the variation and the bonding. What happens on the road stays on the road. The car cradles and the radio sings better no matter the type music. Arguably the greatest American novel of the 20th century came from wild repeat coast to coast drives.

From On the Road: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!”

southern2
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southern2 06/30/13 - 09:42 am
5
1
Daily trauma and deceit

Daily trauma and deceit transmitted into our homes by flat screens and PC's takes us to this modern America that Pat describes, one of shame and hopelessness. We have been taken to a scene of destruction that our Founders could have never imagined, where our Justices overrule God, where basic principles have been inverted and forsaken.

Pat is also right that the heartbeat, though weakened and strained, can still be felt on the back roads and byways connecting small town USA where the blood still pumps Red, White, and Blue. We all need to "put a little gravel in our travel" (e.g. Rodney Atkins), not to just relive our past but to revive us for the journey ahead.

soapy_725
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soapy_725 06/30/13 - 08:28 am
0
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Great thoughts (-: The Blue Ridge Pkwy and the little towns (-:
Unpublished

The Nachez Trace. The Oregon Trail. The route of Lewis & Clark. The CA coast hwy.

deestafford
27763
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deestafford 06/30/13 - 09:56 am
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What a great story!

It's too bad the people in DC don't take a trip like this and experience this great country. Rather than do that, they treat it as "fly over country" over which one must fly in order to get from liberal/leftist coast to another.

I was born in 1943 and my hey day as a youth was also the hey day of America when we were the King of the World. A king everyone respected, not necessarily liked, but respected. Then... still "A shining city on the hill''.

Sweet son
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Sweet son 06/30/13 - 01:52 pm
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So sad that we have to look into the past for good times and

things because the future doesn't look bright. Obama and the Democrats are taking our nation down a path of no return. So, I too enjoy remembering the gentler days of the past. And the worst thing is that we will leave our kids and grandkids in this mess that can't be repaired.

chascushman
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chascushman 06/30/13 - 02:39 pm
3
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"FOR THE FIRST time, I am
Unpublished

"FOR THE FIRST time, I am ashamed of what my country has become."
How can that be? After all only about 5 yrs ago our 1st Lady said that for 1st time she was proud of her country. But I agree I too am ashamed of what our country has become.

CobaltGeorge
159379
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CobaltGeorge 06/30/13 - 07:12 pm
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3
Sweet son

My feeling and words exactly. To have lived it has been beyond words....but to leave my Grand's without feeling it, is a tear in my eye.

Young Fred
17467
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Young Fred 06/30/13 - 08:19 pm
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southern2 I don't know what

southern2 I don't know what you do for a living, but, you've got writing in your veins for sure!!!

Riverman1, I'm ashamed to say that I've never heard of this book you mention. When not looking for obscure history, I normally seek out stories that narrate a trip combined with personal growth and insights. "On the Road" just made it to the top of my list.

carcraft
25952
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carcraft 06/30/13 - 10:18 pm
2
1
I am ashamed of what many of

I am ashamed of what many of the people have become!

Young Fred
17467
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Young Fred 06/30/13 - 11:40 pm
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"I am ashamed of what many of

"I am ashamed of what many of the people have become!"

When you look at the world around you. When person after person you meet, swallows whole, without question the pap fed to them from Good Morning America or The View, it's very easy to be ashamed. When you meet a 5th grade teacher that accepts without question anything passed down from "on high", its easy to be ashamed. When you meet a twenty-something year old who gets their entire understanding of current events from Bill Maher it's very, very easy to be ashamed!

But – whoever claimed freedom is easy?

Darby
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Darby 06/30/13 - 11:54 pm
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1
"But I agree I too am ashamed of what

our country has become."

.
Shame is an appropriate emotion.

Crippling remorse for the loss of our dignity, freedom and worldwide respect is certainly another worth mentioning.

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