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

the city of islands: death by tourism?

Venezia is a city composed of tiny islands. 120 of them, spanned by 400 bridges. Wooden or stone, humble or showy, everywhere bridges. Every time you cross a bridge you step onto a new island. 

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Long ago, these borders determined micro-communities, islands like tribes. People didn’t know their neighbors across the water. The communities were self-sufficient, each served by its own church. This explains why Venice is absolutely frothing with churches–from modest works of brick to candy-cane-striped Venetian gothic facades to the grand onion domes of the basilica–quite literally sinking under the weight of all that glory. 

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In addition to heaviness and high water, it seems Venice faces another, more insidious threat: death by tourism. 

Today, when you cross a bridge, you step foot upon layers of history and human invention. Your shoes touch the worn-smooth stone of another cobbled island atop layers of foundation atop sturdy wooden piles shoved into the cold mud of a lagoon in the Adriatic sea. Improbable. And it fascinates. Surrounded by teal water and nautical chaos–daily deliveries made by worn motor boats, the glide of gondolas under canal bridges–I feel fairy-tale free. Venice feels like a place of no rules–new rules–a place where animals could talk, time could stop. A stooped man plays the viola on a corner overlooking the frenzy of the Grand Canal, music so beautiful it sounds like a gift. Many times I abandon my plan in favor of sitting to savor a scene, a sound. 

Yet. Competing with this beauty is the kind of tourism that drowns a place. Cross a bridge today and there is more of the same: not just the aperol spritzes and jewel-toned gelato, but more junk. There are vendors selling cheap plastic selfie sticks, cheap plastic everything, mass-produced “paintings,” “designer” bags…whole categories that must be put in quotation marks. There are aprons with pictures of Leonardo’s David (who does not reside in Venice, last time I checked); there are tee-shirts with the Mona Lisa. There are restaurants whose menus read like a list of obligatory “Italian” specialties. There are aggressive salesmen and signs in ten languages.

On some streets, it doesn’t feel much like Venice, or Italy, or anywhere. It feels like a whole new world: the land of globalization. You could be in Paris or New York. You could be in an aggressively-peopled dollar store. You know it’s Venice, though, because these stores and stands and hats and handbags and posters and magnets and towels and water bottles and keychains tell you so: VENICE, no beating around the bush. Look a little closer, though, and ah, there it is: made in China. 

Nothing revolutionary: this is the price to pay, you may argue, for popularity. This is 21st-century travel.

Venice, though, is no New York or Paris. It is infinitely smaller and much more delicate. The majority of Venice’s 30 million yearly visitors flood the city for less than twenty-four hours.  

This approach to Venice–a whirlwind tour like a day at Disney–hurts Venetian businesses, culture, and citizens: of whom there are only 50,000. Venice sees about that many visitors every day. The exponential growth of tourism in the area means that everyday businesses like grocers and bookstores are closing, priced out by more and more souvenir shops. It’s an expensive city to visit–and to live. But the city is working towards a solution, promoting detourism: a campaign aimed at teaching visitors how to “go beyond the usual tourist sights, stumble upon unique experiences and see Venice with new eyes.”

Victor and I took a free walking tour that is part of the campaign to #enjoyrespectvenezia.

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The website explains: Venice Free Walking Tour is for those who want to see and know more than the 90% of people visiting Venice will see. Venice Free Walking Tour is for Travellers, not for tourists

Our guide was Elena, Italian, in her late twenties with red hair and glasses, all charm and energy. She introduced herself, telling us she studied literature and history and languages. Victor nudged me: I think you found a new friend. I was thinking the same thing. Her passion about Venice, both its past and its unknowable future, had me intrigued, leaning forward and writing down most of what she said. She had moved to Venice temporarily, she told us–for studies–but plans changed when she fell in love (with the city and one of its residents). 

She told us many dreamy details of Venice. There were stories of Venice’s cemetery island (hosting the graves of Ezra Pound and Stravinsky). We passed a grand old building with frescos on the walls that now holds a basketball court, because the city didn’t know what else to do with the space. She told us about a small grocery store in a marble-floored theater. We talked St. Mark and chiaroscuro and what those symbols on the ground meant– little letters everywhere; codes for city engineers.

I am saddened by the touristic tendency to consume a place: to bury it under cheap knickknacks, to aggressively photograph it, to patronize only that which is obvious, to leave none the wiser.

But, if this initiative is any indication: there is hope.

At the end of the tour, we were given a map marked with recommendations for bars, restaurants, shops, and more, so even the most casual tourist-traveler could get a real taste of Venice. Elena told us what to look for, what to order.

We left hungry and found one of the restaurants on the list, where we shared a plate of nero di seppie: cuttlefish cooked in its ink. The dish had a delicate, complex umami flavor and was a deep black that stained our mouths. Accompanied by bright-orange aperol and a caprese salad, the spread was a visual treat, and the meal marks one of my favorite moments in Venice with my chéri: happy with a cold cocktail after a day of sun, alight with new perspectives and ideas.

snowglobe city: alone in italia, day seven

In my last full day on the Ligurian coast, I found myself far from the crowds, in a village one could reasonably conclude was populated only by renderings of the Madonna and electric green lizards like flashes of light.

Maybe it’s Cinque Terre, maybe it’s Italy, maybe it’s luck, but my time here has brought a lot of getting lost in the best way. There have been no blisters or tears or sleeping in train stations, but rather a lot of unexpected, unplanned beauty in a place that seems to hold no wrong turns, only choices. Left or right: pick your pleasure.

Once again I had woken to a day where nothing was expected of me and where I expected nothing. Bliss. After lazy bread and butter breakfast in the common room of the hostel, with my dear view of the church belltower in Biassa, I went downstairs to write. Tired of typing out blog posts on my iPhone while lying in a bunk bed, I had since migrated to the computer near the front entry. It was a distracting but fun place to work that led to several good conversations.

I wasn’t long into it before Damiano asked what I planned to do that day. To my cheerful “nothing,” he suggested I take the train in La Spezia past the Cinque Terre villages to Levanto, where I could rent a bike and ride along the coastline.

I had missed the morning shuttle, so Andrea again gave me a ride down to La Spezia, right to the train station.

In Levanto, the air felt purely tropical. I followed the signs into town and found a bike rental place without trouble. For five euros, a cheery purple bike with a basket was mine until 6 pm. To find the trail, I followed some tourists on bikes until I saw the signs for myself. Levanto to Bonassola to Framura.

The trail is a renovated railway tunnel, which means it is cavelike and agreeably flat. The long stretches of dark and chill would be suddenly broken by openings in the rock every two or three minutes of cycling. They left me blinking in the sunlight and relishing the 15 degree temperature jump. acs_0859I followed the trail to the end, which didn’t take long as it’s only about 5km. I parked my bike overlooking a small port and started walking. I was at the end of the line, in Framura, which I later learned is a town composed of five separate villages. I took some steep stairs for about ten minutes and found myself in one of the five.

It was so quiet I could hear the brush of lizards through leaves, laundry flapping on lines, my own footsteps. The loudest noise was a stream that seemed to originate far above me and end near the sea. Other than my presence, there were no signs of modernity. A village preserved in amber, emptied of inhabitants and immune to the passage of time. A snowglobe city. Madonna stared at me from fountains and above doorways, and besides her ancient gaze, I felt completely unobserved.  acs_0876I crossed a church that I found unspeakably lovely, more so for how it hid in these hills, something so pure and sad about that. Time had barely sullied its facade–marble striped white and lavender–though vines wound up its bell tower. The area smelled of moss. Had the heavy wooden doors been unlocked, I might well have entered Narnia.

Attached to its side was the cheerful anachronism of a basketball hoop, a suggestion of life and play despite the quiet. acs_0849

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acs_0875acs_0877 After a good twenty minutes of enjoying the silence (à la Depeche Mode), I cycled back to Bonnassola and Levanto, where signs of modernity were rather more abundant. I ate really good arancini and accidentally asked the boulanger in Italian: what are you doing. (A whole new language to make weird and startling errors in, and boy am I excited about that.)

I braved the Cinque Terre crowds one last time, bidding adieu to my favorite of the villages, Manarola, with a final souvenir. img_5732

no shoes no service: alone in italia, day six

Monterosso al Mare. I am ready for my second try of the hike between three villages of le Cinque Terre. It’s a fine day for a hike, not too hot, and we’re getting an early start. We will stop in Vernazza for some pizza and then finish in Corniglia, where the basil gelato is once again calling my name.

I hand the man at the trailhead a ten-euro note and he looks past the money to my feet, which are outfitted in my black Birkenstock slides.

“Oh no, signora. This is not recommended. This is very dangerous.”

I smile, sheepish. “Thank you, I understand. I’ve already done the hike; I understand the risk… I think I would like to try anyway.”

The man narrows his eyes, and for a second I think he’s actually going to make me turn back.

Trying for respectful, yet determined, I offer my best charming smile. There is a silence.

The man waves his hands at my foolishness. “I understand this for you, you are young, no problem,” he shakes his head. “But I tell you this: very dangerous. Not recommended!” He hands me my ticket.

With this “beware the Ides of March” word of encouragement, I start hiking.

In all fairness, I did not expect to be hiking today. In the latest incarnation of my usual plan not to plan, I am in the shuttle down to Riomaggiore with a vague vision of cannoli dancing in my head, when I find a group of guys to go hiking with.

I had met Martin the night before while I was camped out in my office for the week (the computer near the front doors of the hostel), working on a blog post. He sat down beside me: “Hi, what are you doing?”

The first thing I notice is his impressive beard and an accent I’m not sure about. He’s Austrian. Later, he pops back around with a handful of peanuts for me. “Brain food.”

He tells me about his plan to go hiking the next morning with a group of Welsh guys. “Oh cool, hope it’s nice weather,” I say, or something like it, having no clue I will be making the trek with them.

The next morning, we all happen to be taking the same shuttle. “Will you be hiking with us, then?” One of them asks me. I say no, automatically. “I’m not really dressed for it, anyway.” But as we get to talking, I find I do want to go. The sky is so gray and I have nothing better to do. Sandals be damned, I’m doing it.

We get coffee and cornetti al cioccalato before taking the train from Riomaggiore all the way down to the last village, Monterosso, where we’ll start our hike. On the train platform, the conversation turns to food.

“I love a great stack of American pancakes,” says Jimmy. “Smothered in maple syrup. Absolutely de-” I think he’s going to say delicious, but debaucherous is the word he chooses to describe his favorite breakfast.

“Absolutely debaucherous.”

That is when I know for certain this is going to be a fun day. If I survive it.

Thirty seconds into the morning’s activity, I think that my red-painted toenails look absolutely frivolous, and I have a vision of falling to my death, or even just spraining my ankle, while French and Italian families look on, shaking their heads and thinking, she had that coming.

And I do. Hiking in Cinque Terre isn’t complicated; there are just a few rules:

Drink water.

Don’t wear sandals. 

I feel a sudden kinship with the Chinese grandma who is making the hike in dainty ballet flats and a sun hat. The man at the trailhead warned her as well, and she just grinned at him, uncomprehending. It is her and I against the world, respectfully disregarding the naysayers. An Iggy Azalea song flashes through my head: I just can’t worry ’bout no haters, gotta stay on my grind…

Unfortunately, my ally gives up the grind fifteen minutes into it, turning back with her daughter holding her arm.

I forge on ahead.

I don’t like the looks of the heavy clouds, which start spitting rain at us and make the trail woefully slippery. I also don’t like the way these sandals threaten to slip off my feet at any moment.

I admit it. I was wrong. And my punishment is having someone scold me every ten minutes for my impractical choice. The fun part: I hear disapproving and incredulous muttering in at least four languages.

travel notebook, portovenere: alone in italia, day five

acs_0767By the fifth day of my trip, I am exhausted, and sleep so late I barely have enough time to get ready and leave my room before the lockout hours of 10:30 to 2. It’s raining pretty hard, but I’ve missed the shuttle, so I have my coffee and put on a rain jacket, with a loose plan to walk from the village where the hostel is located–Biassa–down to La Spezia, where I can take the train. It should take an hour and a half to walk those same (traumatizing) hairpin curves and is, quite frankly, a dumb idea.

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Luckily I am saved from myself. Downstairs, I’m greeted with a ciao and a question from a guy I recognize vaguely: the shuttle driver from the first day. He asks if I’m going to La Spezia because he’s heading that way, and he’s just about to leave. His name is Andrea and he’s from La Spezia and has been working at the hostel for just a month. He’s 25.

He speaks in English, punctuated with allora, and I do my best to answer in my rough Italian, which gives me a very clear picture of what I need to work on or learn. I make a mental list: past tense of ‘to see,’ ‘andare’ conjugations in the future, the word ‘before…’

The great thing about speaking to someone my age, who’s not trying to impress upon me a detailed grammar lesson, is the language improvisation muscles I’m able to flex.

My Italian tutor, Gianluca, is a great teacher who provides interesting cultural materials–we read Italian fairytales or articles that discuss the surprising success of Campari in the US–but sometimes I wish we could just have a conversation about Cinque Terre, for example. Or that I could learn how much is that, or, ATM or, can I please have the check, none of which, surprisingly, I know how to say. I may search an everyday conversation kind of partner to bolster the grammar workout I get in my lessons.

Andrea finds parking and then asks me what I’m doing today. The truth, and my typical travel strategy, is I have no idea.

I try to stay as unplanned as possible, and once again, it proves a success. Andrea asks if maybe I’ll go to Portovenere, or rather tells me I will, in that direct European way: allora, you’ll go to Portovenere today.

I’ve got my rain jacket and sneakers, I’m up for anything. Perchè no. 

My other motto: listen to locals. acs_0745

We walk through La Spezia’s morning market where Andrea tells me he used to work- He greets his mamma who is buying cheese. We visit three tobacco shops before we find one still stocked with bus tickets to Portovenere.

“We have coffee now?” He shows me to a Sicilian bar where we continue a conversation in an Italian-flavored English patois. I have a bad habit, I’ve learned. If I don’t know a word in Italian (very likely at this point), I automatically substitute the French equivalent. The problem with that is, most of the people I’m talking with speak much more English than they do French. The result is a garbled mélange of tre languages that does more to impede communication than anything else.

Andrea shows me to the bus stop and I’m on my way to Portovenere, which I know nothing about. The drive is once again nauseating. I observe passengers and concentrate on not throwing up. There’s a little French boy seated next to me, so excited he can’t sit still. He makes me smile, reminding me of my second-grade students from last year.

Portovenere is calm. That’s my first impression. Fresh air. Cinque Terre emptied of the selfie sticks and waiting lines for photo ops. A slight drizzle falls and boats creak in the port.

I enter a striped marble church on a cliff. Inside, a single candle is burning. Outside, through the narrow windows, the sea is stormy.

It is an atmosphere ripe for a Romantic poet, an impression validated when I come to “Grotta Byron.” Engraved over a door made of stones, it is written This grotto was the inspiration of Lord Byron/ It records the immortal poet who as a daring swimmer defied the waves of the sea from Portovenere to Lerici. It must have been a seriously demanding swim to merit recognition like that, in marble, no less. Apparently, the “daring” poet would “defy” the waves in order to visit friend and muse Shelley, who was living in the village San Terenzo.

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The black, stratified rock of the promontory is slick with rain, and I edge down it carefully. Yellow flowers spill over the rocks and the air once again smells of honeysuckle or jasmine. I surprise a seagull in his nest and he squawks at me, loudly, just once.

Staring out at the sea is a woman, gathering her dress in her hands, frozen in an expression of quiet resignation. She’s not real, but she could be. She seems to breathe, almost, and the rain falls down her carved cheeks like teardrops. She sits like someone too hopeless to take shelter from the storm. What’s the point?

I think she is waiting for a lover who will never return, lost to the sea. Mourning, perhaps with just the faintest glimmer of hope: maybe

There is no plaque, no dedication, no direction to listen to Section 6 on your audioguide, and I am charmed by this, by this sad, solid, nameless woman in the same color as the sea.

acs_0701 I start down some stone steps, almost missing the sweet scene of pink petals swept to the ground by the rain. Next to them is the tiniest snail.

I think: that looks like poetry, before remembering the specific piece it brings to mind. Ezra Pound’s one-sentence Imagist poem, “In a Station of the Metro”: The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet, black bough

Famished, I eat at what seems to be the only restaurant still serving. I have trofie (a pasta specific to Liguria) with pesto. I am firmly in basil country here. As noted, they’ve even found ways to include the herb in really delicious gelato.

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I continue my walk, and when some bored waiters see me with my camera they shout in English, “hey! Take our picture!” So I do.

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