old soul: on the charm & melancholy of small towns

September 2018: Newly engaged, I am visiting Victor’s hometown for the first time, to meet his family and (let’s not forget) to complete wedding paperwork. La Ferté-Alais is where our wedding would take place two months later.

As a kid, I daydreamed about being able to walk to school or to the store. There was something romantic about going somewhere without wearing a seatbelt. It seemed to me, I think, like something out of a book. Independence! Excitement! My friends in town didn’t know how lucky they were. The closest it got for me was a walk to the gas station up the street, where I was occasionally allowed to choose a wrapped ice cream from the freezer. 

But my husband grew up in one of these places, navigable by foot or bike. The house where Victor grew up, where his parents live now, is just down the street from the town’s main drag. 

I found, on my first walk around the place, that La Ferté-Alais is a town that recalls a simpler time. The past is quite literally built into it, from the imposing steeple of the Catholic church Victor attended with his grandmother as a small boy, to the wide stone basin near the river, where generations of women gathered to scrub their laundry. The river stirs in the wind. It is crossed with delicate bridges, cheery flowers woven into their sides. Under bright sun and skies, this town of not-quite-four-thousand is beautiful, yet there is always something about a place like this that feels so melancholy to me. It’s too quiet, temporal, and I feel as if I’m seeing its hushed final years. 

Once upon a time, people could walk down the street to faire les courses, stopping at the boulanger for warm bread in the morning; the butcher and fromager for carefully weighed meat and cheese. They still do, but the population is clearly lopsided: dominated by petite mamies shuffling behind rolling grocery carts or pulling fussy little dogs. Lone cats strut on quiet paws, clearly comfortable as lords of the sidewalk. Overhead sit two to three stories of apartments, windows covered by sweet white lace curtains.

In this mysterious past that I have never seen, the same cobbled street addressed a whole host of needs: neighboring each other were a bank, librairie, fleuriste, record store, clothing shop, optician, and a papeterie for office and school supplies. The framework still stands, but today, every other storefront is dusty, with closed or up for rent signs in the windows. Did residents once mill in the streets like you see in movies about the past, where people are always marching past each other industriously and calling out greetings while they dodge a merry bunch of horses, dogs, and chickens? That’s an exaggeration, I know, but I wonder if visiting this same street ever felt like going to “town.” 

The morning market, with its whole fish on ice and lopsided fresh goat cheeses, still seems to attract a good crowd, but I wonder how long that will last. The younger people I know simply don’t seem to consider getting their groceries that way. It’s too easy to hop in the car, leave the town in a quick minute, and land at big boxy stores like Carrefour, where most everything you need waits beneath one massive roof. I get it. No one wants to oppose progress. Still, I’ve always ached for small towns, having grown up in one and regularly driven through towns of tiny unrounded numbers–46 or 103–numbers small and specific enough to make you wonder about the individuals they represent. Now and then I read something about an exodus to the country, a supposed renaissance of the small town, but I’ve yet to see such a transformation for myself.

La Ferté-Alais still seems somewhat self-contained, with its schools, church, city hall, retirement home, park, swimming pool, and hiking paths within easy walking distance. There are several tabacs, with the ubiquitous cloud of cigarette smoke and crowd of old friends drinking espresso around small outdoor tables. There is–perhaps most importantly for the town’s survival–a train station that provides a quick path into Paris.

Victor shows me the old gym where he learned judo, his elementary school, even the spot in the forest where he and friends once cut an electrical fence as a practical joke. Boyhood in a couple of acres. We visit his grandmother at the retirement home and he shows me her old house, the one he grew up visiting, just a couple of houses down.

When school lets out, Victor’s niece and nephew can run to grandma and grandpa’s for le goûter–the classic 4pm snack that usually involves some combination of bread and chocolate. They actually run there, that’s how close it is, backpacks flying behind them. For all my love of cities, there is something unspeakably touching about this simplicity, about the kind of place where your child could still ride their bike all around town and promise to be home for dinner. Maybe we shouldn’t be too quick to mourn these places; maybe they will evolve and survive. A town’s soul, after all, has more to do with its people than with places to buy artisan bread or local beef.

We follow behind the kids and I am soon shoeless, laughing, jumping on the trampoline, the three of us getting used to my new title: tata. Aunt.

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