Route 66 (Essay by Susan Newark) Memoir 1960s Culture Nostalgia Travel
The following piece was previously published in From the Depths literary journal, Spring 2014 issue, and is excerpted from Susan Newark's memoir The Phosphorescence of Pearl (e-book second edition).
My parents were movers—not in the sense of hoisting someone else’s belongings around but rather in the sense that they literally couldn’t stop moving their own. Both had emigrated from overseas during their early twenties, Mom from Scotland (though she was actually British) and Dad from Denmark. Meeting in Canada, they fell in love, had me, and proceeded during my childhood and teens to move twenty-five more times. Their official motivations coincided with the propaganda prevalent in the 1960’s invented to lure people to California and other western states, and my northern European immigrant parents wanted what everyone else wanted: more sunshine and the opportunity to better their lot in life. This El Dorado, of course, was harder to find than expected, which led to their unofficial motivation: they were constantly on the road looking for the ultimate place to go.
Recently researchers have tied the discovery of a gene called DRD4-7R to the tendency toward explorative and migratory behavior. We obviously didn’t know it when I was a child, but my parents both must have had that gene. Thus the road trip became their forte. We were on the road almost as much as we were at home. If I hadn’t also possessed that gene, then I might have grown up resenting the constant uprooting. One year I was in four different schools. But my childhood memories are not at all resentful. Rather, as I explain in my coming-of-age memoir The Phosphorescence of Pearl, “Childhood was one of the best places I’ve ever lived—and I’ve lived in a hell of a lot.”
In 1964, when I was six and we hauled a 45-foot trailer on that first trip from Montreal to Los Angeles, there were no superhighways as there are now. The most prevalent cross-country road was Route 66, and though it was already under threat from the proposed interstate highway system that would soon gobble it up in some places and bypass it in others, it was one of the most fascinating routes in the country—at least that’s how it seemed then, in the days before smart phones and laptops and various virtual realities. Amusements were easily had because it didn’t take as much to amuse us. We journeyed inside our own imaginations rather than in predetermined forums.
Had I repeatedly driven Route 66 in the backseat as a child with my eyes glued to a screen, I might have missed out on scrutinizing the desert to figure out where the jackalopes were hiding. All of the southwest service stations had postcards of these fabled creatures, giant jackrabbits with antlers. Did they slip into burrows like the little rabbits, leaving only their enormous headgear exposed on the desert floor to blend in with the tumbleweeds? And was the Wigwam Motel cone-shaped inside as well as outside? Or was it more like a regular room fitted into the unaccommodating shape the way a souvenir store fitted into a Giant Redwood? If so, what was in the extra space at the top? Was it hollow? Did the wind whistle through the emptiness the way it did through the gap between our trailer roof and the surrounding metal sheeting, so that it worried my mother into thinking there were ghosts walking on the ceiling when we parked at night? Did the Wigwam Motel have real Indians like the children we encountered in colorful tribal outfits at the gates of the Grand Canyon, the ones who would pose for photographs in exchange for a couple of dollars?
Most assuredly I would have missed out on tracing the maps. In the 60’s, maps of the states were free at all the Texacos, which weren’t called gas stations then but rather service stations because they really did provide services. My parents could get their oil checked and topped off, plugs or points changed while we popped across the road to a Mom-and-Pop diner, and if our car broke down, there was always a mechanic on duty to help us. Every time we stopped at a Texaco in a new state, I added a map to my collection. Then I sat in the back seat tracing all the highways and byways with my Crayola 64 set. The result was a series of psychedelic designs that any hippie would have gladly tacked on the wall, but for me these creations opened into new worlds where I savored the thought of exploring, anticipating what wonders I would find on each highway, each side road, each dead end.
Had I been busy on all those road trips frantically pressing buttons on some electronic device, I might not have practiced jotting my juvenile ideas down in notebooks, the ones that even then helped define the person I would later become: a rebel, a loner, an activist, a writer.
I might not have made a point of collecting the little souvenirs that for years to come would remind me of the highlights of each of our trips and keep the road alive in my memory: Route 66 wall pennants, bone china trios of miniature skunks or ducks, snow globes from Illinois or New Mexico, and postcards from each state with maps prominently displaying our route. I might not have spent so much time reflecting on whether Lincoln actually knew we stopped to visit him or what would happen to life on earth if it was hit again by a meteor as big as the one at the Arizona crater. And I certainly wouldn’t have bothered to ponder the eons of time that it took for the Colorado River to carve out the massive Grand Canyon.
My mother kept a journal of our first trip in 1964, and when I discovered it after her death I was surprised to find that it was mostly about all the things that went wrong that summer. I was six years old, and I remember none of them. What I do recall with almost startling clarity is the handsome bronze skins of the Native children whose costumes blazed as brightly as the canyon walls when we took their pictures, the roadside rock shops filled with sparkling purple amethysts, fool’s gold, and slickly-polished agates, the tree rings made of solid rock in the Petrified Forest and my father’s having sneaked a few pebbles out in his shoe, unknown to my mother who was superstitious that it was bad luck to do so, good-naturedly called him a stinker, and later sent the stones back. I recall as well the three crappie I caught at a lake in the panhandle and how several locals sauntered up with a burlap sack full to offer us some more, the friendly Texas service station attendant who brought a dish of water to the car for our German shepherd, and most of all the sense of adventure, of something new to look forward to every day, and of not knowing exactly what it would be.
Whether short (west coast only) or long (cross country), we probably took a hundred road trips when I was growing up, and I’m just as hooked as my parents were. I’ve probably taken a hundred more in my own adult life. But even if I inherited the trait that drives me, I know that my desire to hit the road goes far beyond that, stretching forward into a future where the unknown relentlessly beckons a come-on and back into a past whose recollections are as poignant as they were almost fifty years ago when I first headed west. The Route 66 that I remember would be unlikely to appeal to modern youth, but it inspired me to imagine a life for myself that could never be contained in a box, because no matter how intricate the contents, the rapture of my recall will always surpass them. Route 66 wasn’t just an experience I was fortunate enough to have. It was a catalyst for a process that goes beyond total recollection and into a realm where remembering my imagined memories is just as important as remembering my real ones.
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Photographs at left are 1) The original booklet from the family's first Route 66 trip in 1964, 2) Susan at age 13 in 1970, 3) Susan at age 10 in 1967, and 4) The back cover of the original Route 66 booklet.
All photography and texts are copyrighted to Susan Newark and are protected by Digimarc invisible watermarking and online image tracking.
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