Trying to follow Route 66

Route 66. Mother Road as they call it in the United States. Initially set on a parallel to Interstate 55, I caught the route some 90 kilometres from Chicago, via a small town known as Dwight.

“A small city with a big heart where everybody is somebody,” inscribed a welcoming sign at the entrance of the town. Looking back, I guess this is a saying that is valid for the entire Route, for each ‘town’ you enter as you make your way West owns its own individual vicinity.

The prosperous Route that opened in 1926, once supported the economies of the communities through which it passed, yet today what you will find is communities striving to maintain a dream which began to fade out when the Route was removed from the United States Highway System in 1985.

As American journalist Charles Kuralt wrote at the time: “Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel across the country from coast to coast without seeing anything.”

The effect of this is obvious; a form of urbanisation which has left the Route in an outlook of the 70s, dressed with materialistic effects that offer little aesthetics to its path.

Predominantly, these scattered towns are battered by time, those that remain perhaps don’t even tell a story of yesteryear; opportunistically, these towns are ‘alive’ to assist their residents’ survival and provide a tourist destination, not just for foreign travellers like me but locals too.

At times, this is done wholeheartedly. There were a couple of occasions where my venture into the ‘Historic Route 66’, a tag that can be deciphered in various ways, had me begin to get a wider picture of the United States altogether.

My coincidental stop in the small town of Tucumcari in New Mexico had me immersed in the annual Tucumcari Rockabilly on the Route Festival.

The happenings on location had nothing to signal the prospect of an outstanding experience, although the parade of vintage cars boasted the local tradition of sustaining mechanics which are scarce on the roads we tread on nowadays.

Late that same evening I was invited to the home of a couple which had relocated there in the name of marriage. Here I saw the inside of a typical home within the suburbs of a town which once boomed with life.

The Safari Motel built in 1959, a retro architectural building style known as “Doo Wop” or “Googie” offered the notion of what used to be, yet within the home I was welcomed in, I came to know the reality of people living on the outskirts of the town who seemingly strive for a country living, for a good job, for a simple daily life that takes them no further than their vicinity and local realms.

The little diners and pit stops leading me to Nevada continued to puzzle my recognition of any alternative peoples, even though within every locale, I was welcomed in a particular way, yet with no further curiosity than where I was from.

My brief stop in Williams, Arizona before I ascended towards the Grand Canyon had me infuriated with the tourist trap I had now been following for the past five days.

But once I had managed to figure out the bus routes and alternating nature trails that wound me through the history and mesmerising, larger-than-life, natural character of the Grand Canyon and its embracing Colorado River, I was put at ease.

As I waited for the sunset to set on the far west of the Canyon, sitting on the edge of a cliff, with endless sheer drops of valleys beneath my feet, I found it difficult to recollect the twitchy feeling that had enveloped me since I had left Chicago.

I came to accept that if a route that had clearly begun to lose its value some years before I was even born had the potential to lead me to where I was standing, I wasn’t to judge. Indicatively, this is where I began to let go and discarded all of my guards.

Needless to say that this was partially shattered by my encounter with Las Vegas, Nevada.

The desert town is an example of what it would be like to live in a real, life-size hotel, where happy faces and easy-go-lucky attitudes are everywhere.

This is combined with robust features of international landmarks; the gondolas of Venice, Eiffel Tower, Brooklyn Bridge, the endless casinos and architectural frenzies lead you to a state of anomie; there’s no looking deeper into things here, what you see is what you get; in any case, what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.

I left Vegas thirsty for the Pacific coast.

Although the route I was following ended in LA, I decided to divert and head to San Francisco, and follow the coast to reach LA instead.

Nevada had more to offer however. Although beginning to appear in New Mexico too, I’m assuming the landscape had a lot to do with this.

It’s here that you begin to encounter more delicate vegetation, where the luminous greens growing on the backdrop of boisterous red earth teases the eye. Once away from the plains, and having crossed landmarks such as Death Valley, I began taking altitude towards the Sonora Hilltops.

Little towns such as Goldfield give you a taste of the gold mining eras of the 40s, semi-ghost towns where the local saloon hosts you; the melting pot of people sitting at the bar makes absolutely no sense.

Yet, most of us are on our way, the local waiter that attends to us just opened his bar.

I understand it’s an attempt to revive the town and its locality. I wonder whether he will make it.
My puzzlement returns, but I continue my journey.

And once in the State of California, the prune, cherry and apple trees, along with the strawberry fields and the dryer vegetation from the blurring sun give me an indication that I’m out of the ‘tough’ inland that has brought me here.

As I write to you I’m sitting on the 32nd floor of a hotel that looks out towards the piers of San Francisco in the background and the Yerba Buena Arts Centre at my feet.

Last night had me sitting in the amphitheatre of the Orpheum Theatre. I spent the late afternoon wandering the area by bicycle before I indulged in watching “The Book of Mormon”.

I can’t begin to describe the characters that you find here. During my few hours here, I’ve learnt that it’s easier to drive wheelchairs backwards with the help of a mirror.

I’ve also learnt that there are more dogs than children around, a joke a local told me when he referred to the LGBT community.

It feels suiting that I should arrive in San Francisco after driving through the States of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Nevada and California.

In my mind, perhaps all the characters that I see here are made up from all these parts of the country as well as beyond the Pacific Ocean; that’s a comforting feeling that makes sense in the puzzle I’m trying to put together as I go along. Next stop. Texas.

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About Melissa Hekkers

I am freelance journalist and author, who has frequently been featured in mainstream news outlets and other publications in Cyprus. Recently, I've been focusing on developing my writing, promoting my own books and teaching creative writing to children and adults. My most recent publication (2020) - Amir's Blue Elephant- pushes the boundaries of creative non-fiction, and recreates the moments that marked me the most, whilst volunteering in refugee camps in Lesvos, Greece, and during her ongoing involvement with the refugee community in Cyprus. In 2018 I published My Capre Greco Mandala which is the third in a series, an interactive colouring book about the biodiversity of the Cape Greco peninsula in Cyprus. My Akamas Mandala, the second in the series, is a colouring book inspired by the variety of endemic plants found on the Akamas Peninsula. In 2016, I published My Nicosia Mandala, the first of the above series, an innovative, interactive colouring book about the historic fortifications of the old town of Nicosia. I also focuses on silenced communities in Cyprus: I writes about migrants and refugees, both as a reporter and a features writer; I profile them and teach them creative writing skills. In 2007, soon after graduating with a Communications degree, I published my first children’s book in both English and Greek entitled Crocodile, which won the Cyprus State Illustration Award. In 2012, I launched my second children’s book Flying across Red Skies (in English and Greek), using an experimental approach to literature, for which I was nominated for the Cyprus State Literary award. My third, similarly well-received children’s book was Pupa (Greek and English), published in 2014. In between the last two books, I published my first free-verse poetry book entitled Come-forth. In 2019 she was contributing author to the anthology Nicosia Beyond Barriers: Voices from a Divided City, published by Saqi Books, London