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The International Writers Magazine: USA Road Journey

Love's Full Circle along the Mother Road
Duncan Shaw

They have worries, they're counting the miles, they're thinking about where to sleep tonight, how much money for gas, the weather, how they'll get there – and all the time they'll get there anyway, you see.

Why think about that when all the golden land's ahead of you and all kinds of unforeseen events wait lurking to surprise you and make you glad you're alive to see?
Jack Kerouac, On The Road

big sky Acoma

This is a story of love, of passion, of hardship pushed through and endured.  And coming through a trial of hardship, the crucible of a first year of marriage, is love’s achievement and love’s triumph.

Twenty years ago, Jenny and I spent our newlywed year as volunteer teachers at a tiny school in a tiny town, amid the red rock mesas and deep blue sky of the desert Southwest.

It was a Navajo grade school in New Mexico on the edge of the Navajo Indian reservation.  We lived in a ramshackle trailer and worked in dilapidated buildings and were witness to the rampant poverty among Native Americans and the attendant ill of alcoholism.

Our volunteer year also saw Jenny laid low for weeks by a bout of debilitating pneumonia.  Despite all the hardship, to this day that year is some of the most amazing and gratifying time we have spent together, a year when we awakened each day and felt like we were helping to save children’s lives.

In the two decades since, we raised four of our own children – four smart and beautiful girls – and talked to them countless times about New Mexico and the work and life we loved there.

So in the heat of an American summer, in the wake of the Great Recession, and in the American spirit of On The Road, Travels With Charley and even The Grapes Of Wrath, we set out on a road trip west with Sophie, 15; Helena, 13; Fiona, 10; Violet, 3.  And like raising children, this round-trip journey from Hillsborough, North Carolina covering 5,000 miles in 12 days in a 15-year-old Honda Odyssey was an act of faith – as well as like any cross-country road trip, an example of the journey as the destination.

Our odyssey’s main aim was for Jenny and me to come full circle with the girls, to finally, after 20 years of marriage, show them where we began and built the foundation of that fruitful marriage. 

For a trip of this scope, we had very little time and very little money.  It was 2009, and there was a feeling throughout the country that things might get even worse, so you had better get your fun done now.  Plus, our oldest girl was a rising sophomore and we might never get the chance to do this as a family before she was sucked into intensive, time-consuming preparations for college.  Thus in our mind the trip was imperative, and it had to be done then, despite the Sword of Damocles anxiety of the Great Recession.

The imperativeness of the trip emboldened us – giving me a fiendish driving energy for my work behind the wheel, and giving Jenny a genius for packing our old small van with an engineer’s economy.  Our traveling route was simple, start in Hillsborough and do a straight shot west on one road – Interstate 40 – that undulating, unwavering ribbon that replaced, and for stretches still closely parallels, Route 66. 

66 I have been fascinated by Route 66, The Mother Road, since I first read The Grapes of Wrath, the book that gave the road its name.  I was a year out of college and it was 1985, which turns out is the same year that highway was decommissioned, its official demise. John Steinbeck’s great historical novel, set in the Great Depression, is about a migration to the American West during the environmental disaster known as the Dust Bowl.  One of thousands of sharecropping families dubbed “Okies”, the novel’s Joad family was part of that desperate migration – and found in the produce fields of California only failure and heartache, the same forces that impelled them westward from Oklahoma in the first place.

Joad, I see, is only one letter different from, and rhymes with, road.  I suspect Steinbeck made the family the flesh-and-blood embodiment of the Mother Road, part of a stream of humanity heading west, a human highway.

The parallel between the Great Depression and the Great Recession is poverty, with the former producing a universe of abject, and the latter, a surge of borderline.  When I think of this I also think of that great, heartbreaking photo from the 1930s of the American mother in the California pea fields, photographer Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother: her small children clutching her and her hand touching her face, and pain and exhaustion making her look 20 years older than she was.

The Mother Road is burned deeply into the American mind, not only because of unforgettable images like this and The Grapes of Wrath, but also because of the light and joyous pop song from the 1940s, Get Your Kicks On Route 66 – with both extremes containing so many hopes and dreams.  The Mother Road gave birth to and nurtured these dreams – a mother lode of dreams – compressed so to speak into a narrow band, the roadbed of that mythic American highway.

In 1987 I spent three months and 13,000 miles traveling solo by car through the West.  I was inspired by John Steinbeck’s trip in 1960, chronicled in his book Travels With Charley: In Search of America, in which he traveled with his dog, Charley, in a camper truck he named Rocinante, the same name as Don Quixote’s old but beloved horse.  Like Quixote’s nag, our Honda Odyssey wasn’t slick or sleek, but it was sturdy and loyal.

While the pros of the peon gallery may have viewed our car as a Joad-family-jalopy and our trip plan as crazy – like tilting at windmills and quixotic as Quixote himself – the truth is they just lacked the vision and boldness.  But another part of the truth is that poverty was also a passenger.

Speaking of windmills, one big change in the cross-country landscape since our Southwest sojourn 20 years ago was the presence of white, gigantic but graceful wind turbines now generating electricity.  Beginning in Oklahoma and continuing into Texas, these windmills, with their humming blades gently cutting the big sky air, were an impressive and strangely comforting sight.
wind mills

After three days of driving, we finally reached New Mexico – The Land of Enchantment.  We settled into Albuquerque and into our hotel, and the next day visited Acoma Pueblo, a village that has been continuously inhabited for about 1,000 years.

Acoma Located atop a mesa a few hundred feet above the surrounding desert, we toured Acoma in what turned out to be hammering heat.  Leaving Albuquerque the next day, we ripped across the rest of New Mexico and into Arizona to see the Grand Canyon as well as Canyon De Chelly, one of the Navajo people’s most sacred places, made famous by photographer Ansel Adams.

On our way to the Grand Canyon, about 30 miles from that iconic American destination –
that desert Disneyland – we got a flat tire.  We were in the middle of nowhere, with billowing white smoke from nearby forest fires clouding the air for miles around us.  Within a few minutes of pulling off onto the shoulder, a fellow motorist and tourist stopped and called a tow truck for us, a hugely helpful gesture since we didn’t own a cell phone.

A nice guy named Ronnie eventually came and loaded us into the cab of his truck, a snug fit for sure.  Driving with Ronnie in the wrecker all the way to Williams, Arizona, where his father’s shop was – about 50 miles and 45 minutes away on Route 66 – we chit-chatted about a million little things, and one tidbit that stuck with me that Ronnie shared with what seemed like an air of achievement, was that he had “been with the same woman seven years”.

Finally arriving in Williams, which would be the westernmost point on our trip, a mere 150 miles from the California line, we got our flat fixed.  We were extremely grateful for Ronnie, but I did feel he was hoping to deliver some big tourist dollars to his dad – which he did.  And because we ended up being persuaded that we needed our three other “worn” tires replaced, I couldn’t bring myself to buy at the shop – despite my girls’ strenuous urgings – what amounted to, in my mind . . . a $700 Mother Road cap.

Leaving Arizona, we ripped back through New Mexico on I-40 and eventually made it to the town of Thoreau, the location of our beloved Navajo school.  It was at once eerie and poignant after so many years.

The school complex looked smaller and more congested, with newer buildings replacing some of the dilapidated ones Jenny and I remembered.  But the town looked more dilapidated – poorer and more forlorn – wearing on its face the ravages of the recession.

The girls took a photo of Jenny and me standing at the entrance of a field of sagebrush that we would often walk through after a day of teaching, a field that looked east to the sacred Navajo formation, Mount Taylor, and west to the sunset’s arcing streamers of lurid-hued light.  The field also concealed a remnant of Route 66 that ran along its edge and vanished into a nowhere of dirt and debris.

Jenny and I loved that sagebrush field – and there, 20 years later, our girls with their camera crystallized our full circle.

Returning to Albuquerque, we headed north from there to the high-altitude air of Santa Fe, where we rendezvoused with Jenny’s brother, Chris, who had visited us twice when we were teachers at the Navajo school.  Around Santa Fe and elsewhere in New Mexico, I was disappointed to see many more Indian casinos, “bingo palaces”.  But my main disappointment was the New Mexico sky, which, because of the August heat and summer air pollution, was a milky ozone haze.

Countless times over the years, Jenny had told the girls how blue the sky is – seeing the Robert Redford film, The Milagro Beanfield War, set and shot in New Mexico, will show you what I mean – that high-altitude blue that looks so deeper and darker, perhaps because at high altitude you are closer to outer space.  I don’t know if this fact truly explains it, but it’s a feeling I have – and one thing I’ve learned in my almost 50 years is that life is as much about feeling as fact.
Leaving the Land of Enchantment, and Navajo country, and heading eastward now for home, we ripped across the Texas panhandle.  Just west of Amarillo we passed Cadillac Ranch, a pubic art installation made in 1974 which consists of ten Cadillac cars partially sunk into the ground, their tail fins pointing skyward at a slant.

As we approached Amarillo proper, a huge violent storm was descending and about to engulf the entire area.  And on the eastern side of town, amid slashing rain and lightening, we looked out our car window and saw what appeared to be a nascent tornado trying to form on the flatlands.

On our way out West, near the beginning of the trip, we stayed just outside Oklahoma City, and a Weather Channel documentary on our hotel room TV reminded us that from there to Amarillo is “tornado alley”; the documentary showed the killer “F5” that struck Oklahoma City ten years earlier.  When we saw the Amarillo storm and its baby twister, “danger-and-excitement” were very much on our familial mind.

Udrop Before leaving Texas, we pulled off I-40 and onto Route 66 in the town of Shamrock.  Given its name by an Irish immigrant in the 1890s, Shamrock is a forlorn spec of boarded-up and shuttered buildings, which sent a shudder through me as we wended our way through its sad and deserted streets – until we came to the town’s only glimmer, the U-Drop Inn. This gorgeous, restored Art Deco-style filling station and diner was built on Route 66 in 1936.  When it opened, it was the only café within 100 miles.  With the decommissioning of Route 66 in 1985, the place – like so many businesses and their towns – died a drip-drip death.

The town of Shamrock eventually obtained federal grants to restore the U-Drop Inn to its original splendor, and in 1997 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.  Its main recent claim to fame is that it was the model for “Ramone’s House of Body Art” in the 2006 Disney animated film, Cars.

The beginning of the end of Route 66 was 1956, with the signing of the Interstate Highway Act.  Gradually segments of the road began to be bypassed by I-40 and other new highways.  And Shamrock, like the fictional town of “Radiator Springs” in Cars, became one of the bypassed towns.  The Great Recession has only added more boards, more nails.

Speeding east through Oklahoma, we passed several tiny towns and their giant billboards: Erick (Home of Roger “King of the Road” Miller), Yukon (Garth Brooks Country), Checotah (Carrie Underwood - American Idol 2005).  We also passed the towns of Shawnee and Tecumseh, and the Kickapoo Indian Casino.

Then came Arkansas, and then, as we entered Tennessee and the sprawling city of Memphis, we crossed the geographic marker that let us know we were back East – the Mississippi River – which the poet T.S. Eliot, born upriver in St. Louis, called the “strong brown god”.

Reading over this story, I see that the tone and pace of the writing reflects the journey it describes: urgent, headlong; and while we’re at it let’s throw in “whirlwind” as well, not only for the tone and pace but also the windmills and twisters we saw along the way.

I also see that I’ve used the word “ripped” a few times, for good reason.  Traveling the way we did – the way we had to – we ripped off huge chunks of daily miles in our 5000-mile 12-day journey, in very cramped quarters and with extreme frugality.  Traveling hard like this didn’t make the day-to-day much fun for the girls – not fun in the Disneyland sense, not squealing fun.

But there were fun highlights for them, and for all of us as a family: the jaw-dropping, spectacular Grand Canyon at sunset; our anxious but exciting hike into Canyon De Chelly; our two days of relative ease and comfort and sensual pleasure in hedonistic Santa Fe with Uncle Chris.

*The Honda in Grand Canyon

Honda om Grand Canyon

Perusing our photo album now, I see page after page of the sweet faces of our girls and Jenny’s sweet face.  One picture stands out, and it’s become one of our taped-to-the-fridge photos: a fellow tourist used our camera to snap a shot of us huddled together, against the dramatic backdrop of the Grand Canyon, our radiant faces almost pulsating with happiness.  I suppose it’s our one Disneyland-type moment.

Together these pictures cement my lasting impression of our trip, our journey, our odyssey in the Odyssey – crystallizing what the trip means to me: the dearness of Jenny’s and my girls and the strength of our love, for them and each other.

© Duncan Shaw June 18th 2011

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