Faith Works 7-21-12
Get your kicks this summer
Have you ever driven Route 66?
I was born and raised near the eastern terminus of "the Mother Road," which in Licking County we know takes second place in chronology to The National Road, but it's the best known by far.
Maybe Doug Smith has written one by now, but no one did a Top 40 pop song about US 40. Bobby Troup strung some town names together, from "starts in Chicago" to ending in San Bernadino, and had himself a catchy hit which most of us can hum if not recall all the words to ("don't forget Winona!").
So from the steps between the lions at the Art Institute of Chicago, where the sign "Route 66 begins" faces the exiting crowds, down across the Land of Lincoln and launching out across the Great Plains, a journey could begin.
Actually, few people ever started out meaning to drive from the shores of Lake Michigan to the Pacific Coast. It was driven by Dust Bowl refugees to the Inland Empire of California looking for migrant work, or used by trucks to carry products from state to state.
In the 21st century, it's been supplanted (mostly) by I-40, an interstate which plows through the landscape. There's a beautifully evocative scene in Pixar's "Cars" where a James Taylor song accompanies an explanation of how the development of the interstate and the growth of speed left small towns and simpler pleasures in the dust, such as the town of Radiator Springs.
A couple of weeks ago, I took my family in our rental car, as we hopped about from national park to national park, down some stretches of "original" Route 66. We drove through Flagstaff and waved at the Lowell Observatory, and after a stretch of I-40 towards Kingman we turned off to a long, winding stretch of Route 66 that was still concrete, the tires going thumpa-thumpa-thumpa over the joints in the road, ponderosa pines on either side. A few former "porch" style gas stations could be identified, even if the pumps were now planters and rockers sat in the one-time service bays.
In fact, this was a part of the second layer of Route 66, which (if you have time and temperament for it online) can be traced in sections as the original narrow lane in some places, a more developed built road of mostly concrete, and then occasionally abandoned pieces that are more farm or ranch lanes than county road, which in turn may run right into the towering berm of the modern obliterating interstate. It's not like US 40 vs. I-70 thru Licking County, but a puzzle of pieces and layers. You really, really have to slow down to find it. And you may never quite find it all.
Following the ghost of Martin Milner's Corvette, or picking up the hints in pop culture far afield from any path Route 66 once took, you can cover quite a bit of ground. Monument Valley is rooted in the imagination as part of the path, which in fact runs far to the south of that iconic landscape . . . but the gift shops in Monument Valley sell more Route 66 souvenirs than almost anywhere else, in acknowledgement of the fact that Route 66 is a state of mind.
All of which is part of an approach I've been taking with a group on Wednesday nights this summer towards the Bible. It's a sacred library of (in Protestant tradition, anyhow) 66 books, and we moderns tend to take the highway through it, hitting the high points and speeding on to predetermined destinations.
What I'm finding rewarding is the slower, more leisurely look at the landscape all around, and trying to find the thin red line that originally connected it all without just passing by. Sometimes the path is well marked, and occasionally you just have to stop the car, Corvette or Impala or VW minibus, and get out and look around.
And when you do that, you realize the road is not just the pavement, or the horizon, but the people who built it, and travel it, and whom you meet along the way.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor around central Ohio; tell him about meeting the Word along the Way at email@example.com or follow Knapsack @Twitter.