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.

acs_1208acs_1207acs_1061

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.

acs_1056

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.

acs_1209

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

flyover country

ACS_1155.JPG

I remember reading once that there is more life in a one-square-foot patch of earth than in an entire city block. I may be off on the specifics. The point is just how much life there is–from microscopic to tiny–everywhere you go. The point is what you can see when you stop and look. I remember being floored by that colorful fact, probably encountered in National Geographic Kids, and crouching in the grass for several minutes. Sure enough, there were more bugs than I knew how to name. Everything was moving, when you really looked at it. Everywhere things were crawling and seething and hiding.

I’ve had lots of time to look, home in Missouri, waiting on paperwork to process for a teaching job in France. My room overlooks fields, a garden, a lawn of browning grass. I count the surprises viewable from the windows: Deer in the field. A sudden rainstorm, sweeping in with bruise-colored clouds. A few bats in frenetic flight, just blacker than the matte night sky. The wind carving paths through the knee-high soybeans. ACS_1184 2

It’s less than exhilarating, my existence here. Friends have moved on, to engagements and new cities. My old jobs are positively vintage, inaccessible: I spent sweaty afternoons at the local pool completing the teenage rite-of-passage known as lifeguarding. What’s left is family and this old house where each creak of the floorboards is familiar.

In a world so full of noise, this kind of quiet feels almost radical. In a time of life where I am expected to be always striving, always carpe diem, this time to just be feels like a revelation. It affords the kind of clarity that I realize comes from simply paying attention to things.

For maybe the first time, slowing down hasn’t tortured me, overwhelmed me with immediate existential crises or urges to make unwise impulsive decisions. Free from the childhood distractions of summer camp and swim team and general growing up, I have a whole lotta time to think. It’s not so bad once you get used to it.

Plus, there’s more time to read. I’ve been enjoying what I think of as “rural novels” or “Midwest novels,” marked for me by a matter-of-fact tone, no artifice. Characters largely stay put, but compensate for a lack of mobility with rich appreciation and description of their surroundings. Two such examples are Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer-winning Gilead and companion novel Home. These novels follow two aging Iowan pastors and their families in rural Gilead in the fifties. The books are subtle and true, imbued with melancholy and sunlight. Robinson manages to write about faith and family without bowing to the sentimental. These books are slow, meditative. Not at all boring. This time at home feels like that.

All this practice slowing down–like a temporary life of retirement at 24–had me eager for the road trip I took in July with Victor. We saw a lot and just like with that fabled square-foot of earth, it brought me to a few realizations. First, once again, this earth is teeming with life. There are stories and things of interest everywhere, often very subtle. Everywhere were curiosities. Even at the rest stops. Even in the odd ghost town in Arkansas. Just a matter of paying attention. ACS_1185

Second was the melancholy acknowledgement that I will never see everything, know everything. The more I learn, the more I am humbled by all there is to know. Our trip made me think, and say: I know nothing. Or very little. 

It reminds me of when I was 15, working on Rosetta Stone French, able to recite a few phrases from memory. A friend asked me, without irony, “so are you like fluent now?”

“Yeah, I’m pretty close,” I responded. It would be years before the assertion of fluency was accurate. I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.

I feel that now, just with life. A full acknowledgement of how small I am, now that the sparkle and arrogance of the college days has faded. Time felt endless. Now it doesn’t. The reality paralyzes for awhile, and then you move forward, conscious of your place. I am, I think, a raindrop in a sea.

Home is where you go to entertain these true, hard thoughts. Absence of distraction. Marilynne Robinson wrote “Home. What kinder place could there be on earth, and why did it seem to them all like exile?”

On the road trip, there is again much time to think. Companionable quiet as we drive, all corn fields and cloudless skies. I become well-acquainted with the right side of Victor’s face. I grit my teeth when semi-trucks seem not to see us or when a storm rolls in and slicks the highway. I am scared of car wrecks. Not in any inhibiting way, just with an acknowledgement that floats hazy on the edge of my consciousness. It’s such a common way to die. Every time we leave the house we surrender to the possibility of falling victim to another person’s inattention. I’m surprised we don’t consider it quite a bit more often, our own mortality.

getting to know you…sunshine blogger award

One of the things I’ve most enjoyed over my year in Cannes has been gradually building up a blog readership. I sat down one day full of ideas and wrote about how speaking a second language opened my eyes to the greater absurdities of life itself. Many of you seemed to relate, sharing humorous stories and memorable experiences from all around the world. This was the post that really kicked off a community.

Thank you, truly, for reading what I have to say and leaving your thoughts and ideas and encouragement.

img_7309

Today I’ll be answering some questions about me! (In case you’re interested in learning more about The Blogger). Thanks to My Library and other Mischief for nominating me for the Sunshine Blogger Award– given, doth say the Internet, to bloggers who are creative, positive, and inspiring. I appreciate it!

SUNSHINE BLOGGER AWARD RULES:
-Thank the blogger who nominated you.

-Answer the 11 questions asked.
-Nominate 11 other bloggers and ask them 11 new questions.
-List the rules and include the Sunshine Blogger Award logo in your post.

What inspired you to start blogging?

My mother. Before I left for France for the first year, Mom encouraged me to share my experiences in writing. I already had a blog, but it was a mishmash of music I liked, some free-verse, some trips I’d taken… My mom thought I should start a new one. Knowing what a perfectionist I can be, she emphasized that it didn’t always have to be something edited and profound. “Just so we can know what you’re up to!” Little did she know (I think) the hours I would toil away on this project, striving to produce pieces that are edited and are profound (or at the very least, thoughtful and true).

My blog has kept me afloat during some challenging times. When things are hard (or funny or ridiculous), thinking about the story I’ll be able to tell makes it better. And the fact that a few people might read it and respond is a bonus: very motivating for me.

What are you most proud of?

A friend gave me a cool compliment last year. She said I was more committed to self-improvement than anyone she knew. When she said that, I realized that it is a sort of skill. When I perceive a personal flaw or weakness, I work hard to change it. “That’s just the way I am” is never something you’ll hear from me. I am proud of transforming from a fearful, miserably self-conscious teenager into the person I am today. I worked for that; it didn’t happen by accident. I am proud of the (hundreds of) times I’ve challenged myself to do things that scared me. This used to mean approaching a stranger on campus (I was cripplingly shy). More recently, that means living abroad by myself, arranging job interviews in my second language, picking myself up after rejection.

If you could meet anyone from any time period who would it be?

I like to ask people “who’s your favorite Missourian?” (If I only had a dollar for every baffled “I don’t have a favorite Missourian…”) I then inform them they could choose T.S. Eliot or Josephine Baker or Walt Disney. But I mostly bring it up as a non-sequitur so I can talk about Mark Twain. Mark Twain had humor, style, soul and wit. He toured Europe and wrote a diatribe about how bad the food was. He wrote a novel that changed the course of American literature. He provided withering and hilarious social commentary, spoke out against slavery, and had this to say about travel: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth.”

Here is a hardcore Missourian who did anything but vegetate in his little corner of the earth. He saw the world, he unlearned the racist views he’d been brought up with in a slave state, and he used his skill with the written word for good.

(Other answers would probably skew literary as well! I would love to talk to Virginia Woolf regarding “A Room of One’s Own,” just for starters. Or artistic weirdos like Salvador Dalí).

What would you like your older self to remember when you look back on this period of your life?

I would like to remember the actual and emotional challenges of being in one’s early twenties so I am able to provide empathy and encouragement to others in the future. I am helped enormously by older women that remember what it is to be 22 or 24, adrift. Wanting everything, sure of nothing. In a few years, the problems I have now might seem laughable to me. I hope they won’t, though. Each age has its burdens, all of them valid.

Where is the last place you travelled to? Would you like to revisit it in the future?

Venice. And yes, very much so. Venice captured my imagination and won’t let it go. A city of music and water and color and drama.

What is the silliest thing you have ever seen or heard on public transport?

After two years in France, I am begrudgingly well-practiced in the art of public transit. I have occasionally been the silliest thing on public transport, I’m afraid. There is a story involving a very large, very obtrusive swan-shaped pool float on a regional train.

What book do you think everyone should read?

It’s tough to choose a single book. I’ll go with genre. I think everyone should read dystopian novels. The Handmaid’s TaleThe RoadThe Girl with All the Gifts, Fahrenheit 451… Besides being impressive and entertaining works of imagination, these books are warnings. They remind us to ask questions and retain a healthy dose of skepticism. They are parables about greed, power, ignorance, fear.

What film would you recommend watching on a rainy day?

My Best Friend’s Wedding. It is no secret I have a massive girl-crush on Julia Roberts. Since I don’t expect to run into her anytime soon, unfortunately, I have to console myself with the thought that perhaps one day I will be as cool. As charming and funny and real, even and especially when things aren’t going my way. In My Best Friend’s Wedding, our dear Julia is a hot mess, a food writer pining after the one who got away. She’ll do anything to get him back. However, her happy ending doesn’t exactly come to pass. In the world of romantic comedies, this is almost revolutionary. A story that’s funny and true, a balm for anyone who has ever been unlucky in love. Laughter helps.

What is your beverage of choice when writing?

It has to be hot. My preference is a cappuccino or really good black coffee.

Have you ever studied a foreign language? If yes which one and what are your study tips?

French, clearly. And much more recently, Italian! What works well for me: creating a personal immersion environment to foster creativity and motivation. I read books about Italy (culture, language, food). I watch Italian movies. I use Duolingo to learn new vocabulary. I listen to opera. I have speaking lessons 2-3 times a week. I have been able to take a few trips to Italy and thus have a real reason to speak the language. All of this keeps my motivation strong.

I guess my advice, condensed, is to make the language/culture a real hobby. If you sit down thinking just, “hooray. Prepositions,” there’s a good chance you’ll let it fall by the wayside. Instead, let it capture your imagination. Learn about (or meet) the people. Taste the food (recreate it at home). Dream of the places you could go and enjoy if you keep studying.

Do you prefer large or small marshmallows in your hot chocolate? 😉

This brings back sweet memories of snow days spent playing outside. Any marshmallows are just fine by me.


Now, here are my 11 questions for some other bloggers/generally cool people. (I hope this could inspire a post if you’re feeling stumped!)

What inspired you to start blogging?

What do you hope to accomplish with your blog/writing?

Have you ever experienced culture shock? 

Describe the most memorable meal you’ve ever had OR the worst date. Or both.

What is something you wish you were better at? 

What cities/countries have you lived in, and do you have a favorite? 

Where do you find inspiration? 

What is your travel philosophy?

What is something you think is completely overrated? 

What’s your drink? 

Describe a piece of art (in any medium) that changed the way you saw the world. 


Heide at HeideBlog

Haley at A World Full of Scribbles

Anne at Present Perfect

Ruth at Talk Foreign to Me

Boomer’s Baby Steps

Girls on a Train

Bola at Flâner

Arielle at Whiskey Sour Wayfarer

Diane at Oui in France

Jess at Ordinary Girl, Extraordinary Dreamer

Persephonetically

bringing missouri to montluçon

Many of my students have never met an American, so I didn’t want to teach cliches.

Burgers and fries, big cities and celebrities? They’ve seen enough of that, maybe only that, on TV. I wanted to share what think of when I think of home.

So rather than trying to introduce the whole country in one go to children who think I regularly hang out with Obama, I took a local approach. There are now dozens of small-town French children learning about float trips, caves, the Gateway Arch, and gooey butter cake.

I’ve explained the term “America’s Heartland” and shown pictures of KC barbecue and played black-and-white YouTube videos of 1920s jazz.

I’ve told them how to say St. Louis with an American accent and shown them a picture of the arch at sunset, city lights glowing against a purple sky. That one always elicits gasps of awe. Mais c’est trop beau!

I’ve shown them a photo of Mizzou’s Jesse Hall and the columns that got the same amazed reaction. A university?! You’d think it was a castle! Does the president live there? When I tell them the enrollment number (30,000 to keep it simple), they think I must be mistaken. Trente-mille ?!  One little girl wondered how on earth so many students could fit in that building.

Of course I had to talk about sports, showing a picture of the MU Tigers. Ah oui! Le football américain! 

I even talked about armadillos, those prehistoric-looking creatures that now line Missouri roads.

The presentations have gone really well and I am mobbed at recess and in the halls. When they’re not talking to me, trying to impress me by saying a word they know-blue! fish!-or a phrase–my name eez Akim-I hear them talking about me. Mais elle est belle ! Oui, elle est belleElle parle anglais ! Elle est anglaise ? Elle vient des États-Unis en fait ! Elle parle français aussi !

They’re kids. And they’re French. So naturally, frankness abounds.

But the attention is enough to make a girl feel like Beyoncé.

At the TAPIF orientation, we were told to always link language with culture, and it makes so much sense now that I see it in action. I get why they brought us here: the kids are naturally curious about us, so we can help translate the enthusiasm about us into enthusiasm about English. We can show them that learning a language is a real, worthy pursuit that goes far beyond scholastic exercises.