The Lessons of Route 66

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Where to go on our summer vacation? My husband and I asked our 11-year-old son, Isaac, to decide. Someplace beachy, we nudged. Hey, doesn’t Italy look nice? His answer was swift and firm: Route 66. This can be explained two ways. Isaac is enamored of the movie Cars, which is mostly set in a town long ago forgotten when America’s legendary highway was eclipsed by the faster interstate. Isaac also loves taking long drives (mercifully we do, too). Here at home we’ve spent many weekends exploring the entire lengths of some of the city’s less scenic but no less intriguing byways, including Sepulveda Boulevard, Figueroa Street, and San Fernando Road, with Isaac as navigator. Route 66 would be like one of those road trips, writ very large.

Though I’ve crossed the country several times by train (my family is well acquainted with Amtrak, should you need any railway tips), I’d never seen it from behind a steering wheel. We wanted to start the route so engrained in our national mythology at its origin: Chicago. I plotted our course through mountains, tall grass, clay, and dust, careful to stay on the original road (about 85 percent of it still exists) and away from the interstate as much as possible. We flew to O’Hare, rented a minivan, and embarked on a two-week, 2,500-mile trek back to L.A.

We bisected cornfields and farmlands in Illinois and Missouri, verdant and pastoral, the constant hum of cicadas a soundtrack outside the car window. In Kansas we visited the old jalopy that inspired the tow truck Mater in Cars. We stopped at attractively derelict gas stations in Oklahoma and slowed to a crawl when we came upon ghost towns in Texas. I must have snapped a hundred pictures of vintage neon signs buzzing in the New Mexico twilight. In Arizona the afternoon skies crackled with lightning before releasing four-minute torrents. We marveled at how green everything was, everywhere. Then we arrived in California.

Route 66 takes travelers along some of the most unforgiving stretches of the Mojave Desert—parched and desperate, hot as Hades—where even a coffee shop’s doorknob burns to the touch. We passed through Barstow, which gave way to Victorville and then the Cajon Pass. It was there, at the gateway to Southern California, that we encountered our first traffic jam in two weeks. We spent the next day wending our way across L.A.’s crispy and overcrowded landscape to our final destination, Santa Monica.

When you enter the state as we did, at ground level, the aridness, density, and gridlock hit you like a kick to the ribs. In the September issue’s cover story, “The Dry Years to Come,” writer Judith Lewis Mernit explains why even if an El Niño ends the drought, the future of L.A.’s water supply remains uncertain. We need to stretch every droplet in this land of little rain, or else our situation will grow ever more untenable. Route 66 has persisted, decades after it was superseded by Eisenhower’s highway system. The flow of tourists and travelers may have turned to a trickle, but Route 66 has been a scrappy survivor. California must become one, too.

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