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?”
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.
(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.)