half a mile of the american dream: a glimpse of route 66

Experiencing my own country with a foreigner is maybe as close to really traveling in it as I’ve ever gotten. Here with Victor, I delight in the little quirks that may surprise him. I explain why we always tip, and how much to plan on. I smile as he fumbles with the standard American how are you?, which tends to startle Europeans.

“What do I say? Do they really want to know how I’m doing?”

You can just say, ‘fine, thanks,’ ” I tell him. I fall back on nearly two decades of reading, of soaking up facts like a sponge, and tell him about presidents and steamboats, Disneyland and peanut butter on hamburgers. He has never seen an armadillo. We laugh about the oddness of them, positively prehistoric, little aliens on the side of the highway.

Missouri summer: typically, I am mired in humidity. Mosquito splat on my sweaty shoulder. Shimmering mirage pools on the highway. Dreaming of my next plane ticket.

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With Victor, I feel my curiosity restored. We’ve spent time in Italy together–both of us lost–and in France, where my accent exposes me. Now in the US, though missing for me that intoxicating hint of the exotic, I realize it is truly worth exploring with the same enthusiasm I’d have anywhere.

I try to examine everywhere we go with my traveler’s eyes, my traveler’s mind, to see it all the way Victor might. USA: size staggering, possibilities intoxicating, the freedom of the open road.

Appropriately, a few hours past Chicago, I saw a sign promising a “historic Route 66 museum.”

“Take the exit!” I said. Victor had expressed interest in the famous highway the whole time we were planning the trip. Ah, Chicago. Route 66, non? Trop bien! His enthusiasm made me realize my own knowledge about Route 66 stopped at song lyrics.

After the turn, a modest sign declared “You are driving the historic Route 66.” I pointed it out to Victor. Here it was, the real thing, the American dream.

For about a half mile.

We turned off into Pontiac, Illinois, a town of 12,000. It was also Victor’s first stop in small town America. A good one, I thought. Pontiac has saved itself from ghost-town fate by capitalizing on its Route 66 history. You can’t walk far without spying a vintage mural: Coca-Cola and Victrola and the “Palace of Sweets.” The grand courthouse sits on a verdant lawn. We spent just a quick, quiet hour here. Sunlight rendered the sidewalks blinding; the sky was bright blue and cloud-studded, a Route 66 postcard of a day.

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After parking near a fire station, shiny red trucks on display, we walked down the main street in search of coffee. We stopped at the kind of bakery that could be anywhere in small town America: apple strudel, shellacked sugar cookies, typically bad coffee in styrofoam cups.

Old farmers in overalls and baseball caps came and went, the thin wooden door thwacking shut behind them, the ceiling fan whirring softly. The bulletin board was messy with local news: lost dog: reward!, spaghetti dinner, quilt show.

As we paid for coffee, I thought about how even something as banal as counting out change could carry a whiff of novelty. Victor, unaccustomed to American currency, was fine with bills, but tended to drop any change he received into my palm, until my bag was heavy with dozens of quarters.

At the museum, we met a kind woman who gave us Route 66 buttons and asked us to sign the guest book. The family who arrived just before us was from Barcelona. A quick look through the pages revealed a plethora of foreign visitors. China, Germany. I was shocked, but later learned that in the summer, up to fifty percent of travelers on the decommissioned highway are from Europe and Asia.

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The museum is small. The bulk of the Route 66 memorabilia is displayed in one large room, wallpapered with a dizzying array of vintage road, diner, and motel signs. There are a few photo ops: booths from the world’s first Steak & Shake and a yellow VW hippie van driven by one Bob Waldmire, an artist and wandering soul known by some as the Johnny Appleseed of Route 66. The van was the inspiration for character Fillmore in the movie “Cars,” and is largely how Waldmire left it. You can even see the boxes where Waldmire kept his pot stash. Apparently, he dissuaded curious police officers by telling them the boxes were home to his snakes.

The museum seemed the kind of place serious Route 66 buffs would appreciate, but our quick stop didn’t answer all of my questions. Namely: just what is so important about this road? What is keeping this nostalgia alive for people around the globe? acs_1054

Once I started reading into it, I had a hit-you-over-the-head revelation. Embarrassing in its obviousness. Though I drive on the highway every day, I’d never thought much about how important roads are. Not just the ease with which they get you to Starbucks, but how they determine the character of a country, determine what is possible. How fast can you get from here to there, and where will you stop for a burger and a rest along the way? Route 66 shot through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and California, fostering industry and possibility everywhere it passed through. Its nickname, the “Mother Road,” comes from John Steinbeck, who in Grapes of Wrath described the road’s importance as an escape route: hosting westward-bound migrants as they fled the disaster of the Dust Bowl.

When times were better, Route 66 equaled fun and freedom. “Get your kicks.” Families packed up their 2.4 children and set out on the open road just for fun, ushering in a new prosperity for the myriad diners, motels, and entire towns along Route 66. Some people even made a living managing ‘motor courts’: motels featuring an adjacent garage for each guest.

When the route was replaced by I-44 and eventually fully decommissioned in 1985, it took with it entire economies. Serious fans can still drive sections of the old highway, but parts of it are impassable. Route 66 today would read like a map of ghost towns if not for the odd community, such as Pontiac, appealing to popular nostalgia. Some are committing to restoring and revitalizing the classic route, but the job is not without its perils: put up a new Route 66 sign and someone is bound to steal it. Route 66 is just too iconic for its own good. Learning from this inevitable outcome, some towns are painting the words “Route 66” right onto the road.

I don’t imagine the enthusiasm will die down anytime soon. Disney-Pixar’s “Cars” movies, funnily enough, fostered an increase in activity on the road. And to reference my own recent road trip experience–standing in long lines in Memphis to see Elvis’s Graceland more than forty years after his death–I am convinced that Americans (and others) have enough reverence for the past to keep this particular American dream alive quite awhile longer.

 

PBS Video: A Resurgence for the ‘Mother Road’: Revitalizing Route 66

mediterranean magic: a walk around monaco

Monaco sparkles.

That is my first impression, both times I’ve visited. Passing from the dark train tunnel and into the light, I see a scrubbed-clean city, feel the sun on my shoulders, and hear the many proud flags whipping in the breeze, the red and white color block stark against the blue sky.

These are, of course, the impressions of a mere visitor to this independent city-state, the second-smallest country in the world, of which millionaires comprise thirty percent of the population. I won’t pretend to know how much everyday life here could differ from where I live (or anything else, really). But I do know this: it makes for one hell of a walk.

From the train station it’s a quick climb to Monte Carlo Casino. Climb is surely the word: it’s unavoidable unless you know where to find the public escalators, established to make the hilly terrain more navigable. I’ve only seen a few, but there are 35 total: a great deal for a country the size of Central Park. Perched right between the mountains and sea and highly developed, Monaco has no agriculture to speak of: there’s simply no room.

The climb up is lined on the left by designer stores, labels with enough classe to entice with bold and cheeky window displays. Sometimes ridiculous, still they are fabulous (it must be admitted). There are skulls and metallic balloons and sea creatures, high heels like an art piece. These displays wouldn’t be out of place at the Pompidou.

On the right is the bay, and then the sea. img_6539-3

Entering the casino, I saw that the atrium and rotunda, which visitors are free to explore, were dressed for the holidays: draped in red and white diamond-patterned fabric. Artist Charles Kaisin designed the temporary installation to evoke both Monaco’s coat of arms and card games. The effect–to this viewer, at least–was of a surrealist dreamscape: something between Alice in Wonderland at Christmas and the Twin Peaks Red Room.

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Outside, palm trees and fake snow mingled with giant dice, the mirrored faces reflecting the blue sky and few clouds above.

Neighboring the casino is Alain Ducasse’s Louis XV, a super chic spot at the Hotel de Paris. The current menu includes pigeon breast with quince, milk-fed lamb, and Passe Crassane pears with ginger ice cream. Absolutely dreamy, but I wasn’t really dressed for it.

Back down the hill, I stopped at the Christmas market for a Savoyard burger. It was 63 degrees out, but the cold-weather Christmas kitsch lived on: a scary grinning Santa spun in a slow circle, children dressed as gold stars danced through the market, and the voice of Bing Crosby rose above it all. Stands sold plates of raclette and confit de canard, and a large pig turned on a spit.

My next stop involved a climb up the opposite side of the bay to the Musée Océanographique, an aquarium and museum set into seaside rocks, founded in 1889. The building is grand and palatial, with stately staircases, big windows, and the occasional giant squid hanging from the ceiling.

Downstairs in the darkness is the aquarium, where I saw piranhas and parrotfish and came face-to-face with the spectacularly ugly moray eel. I found a seahorse that wrapped its tail around a plant and hung upside down and a tank of bright clownfish as tiny as goldfish crackers. Starfish of all colors and sizes stuck like wall clings. I watched the jellyfish for a long time as they twirled around their ring-shaped tank, trailing their tentacles behind them, as translucent and impossible as ghosts.

Upstairs, in the Salle de la Baleine, the skeletons of sea mammals dangle overhead, poised in graceful flight. From their plus-sized skulls protrude long jaws with sharp teeth, and in the case of the narwhal, a fearsome tusk. Elegant and enormous, the specimens might drift away at any moment, inhabitants of some undersea underworld.

Outside the museum sits Jacques Cousteau’s mini submarine. Cheerful and yellow, its cuteness belies its significance. Built in 1966, it could reach a depth of 100 meters.

I continue my walk in the Old Town, quiet streets where graffiti and trash are notably absent, an area that also holds the Prince’s Palace of Monaco. img_6321-2 Suddenly twinkling with light as night fell, sparkling a soft pink, le palais recalled my first visit to Disneyland last fall. It was a fun, memorable day with a best friend, but wasn’t what I would describe as magical: not the long lines or screaming children or people stepping on the back of my shoe. The main attractions struck me as unsettling. A man-made mountain. A castle with no history: no bloodshed, no strife, no monarchs born behind its walls. (It is the Happiest Place on Earth, after all). I thought about castles and cathedrals I’ve visited in France, hundreds or thousands of years old. I thought about Paris, its patchwork of struggle and triumph and cobblestone, and then about Tianducheng: a Chinese replica of Paris in the suburbs, complete with an Eiffel Tower copy, created to cash in on francophilia. img_6310-2

There’s a difference. I tried to appreciate what I saw on a purely aesthetic level, but felt about fifteen years too old for that. Old enough for X-ray vision: I could almost see the sweating, tired human inside the Goofy suit. Maybe that’s when the magic goes. The beauty for beauty’s sake (for profit, really): it didn’t quite work for me. It happens all the time, I suppose, but rarely is it so transparent.

Monaco, like Disney, is pastel and lovely and speckled with flowers, but it’s real. It too has a palace that lights up at night, only this one dates back to 1191.

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I finish my walk as the sun sets, sparking color in the sky. It really is beautiful.

I’m no idealist. If I lived here, I know real life would surely creep in, like anywhere, the haze of la vie quotidienne dulling the wonder. Often, the scarcity is what makes something magical. It’s amazing to what extent we can become accustomed to beautiful things: whether that be love we take for granted or the Mediterranean sea on our doorstep. The New is easier to appreciate, with its power to surprise and delight, just when we thought we couldn’t be surprised again. Of course, nothing can stay new for long.

That’s what I remind myself. Living in Monaco would be like living anywhere. Maybe with a better view.

But on a day trip, walking the paths overlooking the bay and the sea, wandering amidst the soft pastels of the Old Town, feeling the warm sun and crisp breeze and watching the lights click on as the sun sets, I forget that for awhile.

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