© 2014 Susan Newark
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. 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 exploratory 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. But my childhood memories are not at all resentful.
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 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 1960'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.
The spider crawls along the barn floor,
Slowly advancing to the door.
People hate him, he doesn’t know why.
He isn’t harmful, just a lonely guy.
The female spiders say he’s a louse,
They say he’s afraid to go into the house.
The ladies scream, the children shout,
The men have to come and throw him out.
He always seems to be so sad,
But wait for the day when he gets mad.
Then on one of those summer nights,
He’ll really stand up for his rights.
That star is alone
Away from the rest.
It’s not even known
Though it’s one of the best.
Men should learn about the star,
They think they’re so smart,
When really by far
The star is the start
Of a world beyond our own
So different yet the same
A world that is unknown
A world that has no name.
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 must have taken 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 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.
Route 66 © 2014 Previously Published in From the Depths (Spring 2014
Issue) & in the second edition of The Phosphorescence of Pearl.
The Route 66 artwork shown at the top is scanned from the front and
back covers of the original pamphlet my family got on one of the trips.