Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 23, 2017
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Riding the Mother Road

It's littered with potholes and souvenir shops, but Route 66 still offers a nostalgic alternative to the interstate....

This year marks the 75th birthday of Route 66, America's main street. Even though larger highways have bypassed it, remnants of the road survive and it continues to loom large in the popular imagination. John Steinbeck called it the Mother Road in The Grapes of Wrath. Singer Bobby Troup got his kicks there and Tod and Buz cruised the highway in their baby blue Corvette in the 1960s TV show of the same name. People still get their kicks out on Route 66.

The highway originally spanned 38,600 kilometres across eight states as it made its way from Chicago to Los Angeles. Completed in 1926, Route 66 played a significant role in the defining years of modern America. In the '30s, it carried refugees from the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl to the promise of a better life in the west. In the '40s, it was a major conduit for troops and materiel crossing the nation during the war. After that, many returning GIs followed the road as they looked to restart their lives on the coast. Once settled, they brought their families on road trips to see some of the great sites along the road, such as the Grand Canyon.

Tourism boomed along Route 66 during the '50s and '60s. Hundreds of businesses sprung up along it to service travellers, but as the decades rolled on the volume of traffic on the road became too great and new interstates were built to take the load. Route 66 was officially decommissioned in the '80s. Many sections of the road were torn up to be redeveloped or simply left to crumble into nothingness. Smaller communities that were bypassed by the interstates became virtual ghost towns and many of the roadside motels and diners were boarded up.

Despite efforts to kill it, large stretches of Route 66 are still drivable, especially in the southwestern states. People looking to reconnect to America's past are taking the road less travelled. I am one of them. Return to the route

Route 66 holds some nostalgia for me. I went on a family road trip on it way back in 1968. Even though I was only five years old at the time, I still have memories of the highway, although sometimes I wonder which recollections are real. Are they memories or are they stories my parents told me, or perhaps scenes remembered from faded photographs or scratchy 8mm home movies? All I'm sure of is that it was a defining moment in my life. I'm convinced that my early journey along that road turned me into the inveterate traveller I am today.

I returned for a trip down Route 66 memory lane more than 30 years later, as I was about to start my own family. I flew to Phoenix with my ife, who was seven months pregnant and we rented a car to tour the southwest. When my father did it in 1968, he did it the hard way. He and my mother drove their 1966 Ford Falcon all the way from Montreal to the Mexican border and back again. For extra fun, my parents had not only a five-year-old to look after, but also my infant brother. My trip would be a lot easier.

My wife wasn't as interested in highway nostalgia as I was. After all, it was her first time. And she hadn't been nurtured on late-night road movies like I was, the kind of films where a man is unfairly accused of a crime and is on the run from the law or escaping a failed love affair. Along the way his car breaks down in the desert, he passes through small towns with odd names and meets strange characters dispensing wisdom. At the end of the journey, he ends up a changed person. Route 66 starred in many of those movies. On the road

Our first drive on Route 66 was a stretch of the old highway that runs through Flagstaff in northern Arizona. A string of old motels lines the road in the eastern part of town. As the sun sets, the stretch of road becomes a garden of garish neon as signs light up to advertise their wares to passing motorists. We pull up to one of the motels, book a room and sleep soundly in the cool mountain air. The room feels familiar, like any motel room -- they are interchangeable. It has twin beds, bad art on the walls and a colour TV staring at us from a bureau. Could I have stayed in this motel 30 years ago? Possibly, but I'll never know. Who can remember the name of the last motel they stayed at, let alone one from three decades earlier?

 

From Flagstaff, we drive to Walnut Canyon, a national park just east of town. It is a place of beauty, famous for the remains of Sinauga native cave dwellings. I have vivid memories of that place from when I was there as a kid. I know the memories are real because I've never seen photos or movies of the place. When I start climbing down the canyon, it's like I'm taking a time machine back 30 years. It is exactly as I remembered.

Armed with a copy of Tom Snyder's Route 66 Traveler's Guide and Roadside Companion, we spend the rest of the day looking for the remains of the old road. Arizona features some of the best-preserved stretches of Route 66, even though Interstate 40, which cuts a swath across the state, obliterated much of it. Rock 'n' roll history lessons

Bobby Troup urged us to not forget Winona, but somehow we do. It's a blink of a town that sits at the intersection of the highway and the interstate. Instead of stopping, we travel toward Winslow along the interstate. We can see asphalt remains of the old road running alongside us. On a map, the Mother Road and the interstate wind around each other like a pair of DNA strands.

When we pull into Winslow we get back onto 66, which cuts through the centre of town. It feels empty, but the town is still breathing. The architecture of the old motels and gas stations is unmistakable, but the buildings have been transformed into private residences or new businesses. Bobby Troup forgot to mention Winslow in his ode to Route 66, but The Eagles put it on the map. In Take it Easy, they wrote a lyric about someone standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona. The town fathers tipped their Stetsons to the band by putting a statue on the corner of Kinsley and Route 66. The town offers another nod to the road with its Old Trails Museum, which is a must-visit for Route 66 buffs.

From Winslow, we make our way to Joseph City, which isn't much of a city anymore -- it's more like a ghost town, another victim of the interstate. There is a nearby stretch of Route 66 that peters out into the desert. On that road is the Jackrabbit Trading Post. A large red and yellow sign with a crouching rabbit marks the spot. It's a prime example of one of the tacky souvenir shop/gas stations that used to line the highway back in its heyday. It has been there since the '40s and even though that stretch of road was bypassed back in 1958, its proprietors have somehow managed to eke out a living since then. Route 66 nostalgia is a powerful thing.

From there, we head to Holbrook, a dusty town (in)famous for its Wig Wam Village Motel. How I wish we could spend a night in a concrete teepee, but we have many more miles to travel. I probably had the same wish when I was five, but I imagine my father would have said no. We settle instead for a delicious lunch in an old-fashioned roadside diner, the kind that spawns kitschy imitations which never get it quite right.

Near Holbrook, we make a stop at another trading post that is hanging tough -- Geronimo's Trading Post. It seems eerily familiar. Had I been there as a kid? I don't know, but I do remember playing with plastic dinosaurs that my mother had bought at one of these places in order to placate me.

We spend the rest of the day in Petrified Forest National Park. It's a fascinating place that preserves the fossilized remains of a forest that stood during the Triassic -- more than 200 million years ago. Logs from those trees are scattered across the park, but closer examination reveals that they have turned to stone. In the northern part of the park are the multicoloured badlands known as the Painted Desert. It is a beautiful sight in the late afternoon as the sun's rays deepen the purples and reds of the sandy mesas. Cowboys and Indians

We finish our day just over the border in Gallup, New Mexico, another town honoured by Bobby Troup. We spend the night in the Desert Skies Motel, another classic from the route's heyday. It's no Wig Wam Motel but it is run by an Indian, although he's from Gujarat in India. We turn on the TV in our room to find Grease, the musical paean to the '50s. We eat a supper of chicken-fried steak in historic Earl's Restaurant and take a walk along motel row to admire the flickering neon lights reflected in the puddles on the pavement.

After Gallup, we take a break from Route 66 and travel north to Canyon de Chelly, Monument Valley and into Utah. We circle back through Nevada over the Hoover Dam and return to Arizona where we pick up the Route 66 trail once again.

The stretch of Route 66 from Kingman (also in the Troup song!) to Seligman in western Arizona is one of the longest untouched stretches of the original highway left in the country. There is one spectacular 30-kilometre straightaway that stretches out to the desert horizon. Telephone poles follow in a row alongside it. It looks like a scene from a classic road movie. All that is missing is the Corvette convertible with a blonde by my side. I settle for a Toyota Corolla and a pregnant brunette.

We have lunch in another retro diner in Kingman, then mail some postcards before setting out on the long stretch of road ahead. As we set out, a man in a convertible passes us. There's no blonde beside him in the car, but he has the right idea. He's obviously another Route 66 aficionado. His is the last car we see until we get back on the interstate several hours later.

What we mostly see on the road are tumbleweeds and prairie dogs sunning themselves on the blacktop. Occasionally in the distance we can see the interstate, with its lines of cars and trucks hurrying along. We're in no hurry to join them and enjoy the afternoon sun and the spectacular desert scenery. It feels good to be on the back road.

The highway continues to Seligman and then Ashfork where we are forced to get back on the I-40, whose speed limit is 110 miles per hour. The spell that Route 66 had cast upon us is broken.

We drive to Williams where we spend the night. We leave the old road the next day and head north to visit the Grand Canyon. On our way back to Flagstaff we hook up with a few broken snippets of the old road. We dutifully drive them, but can't recapture the spirit. Back on motel row we enjoy the neon lights for one more night before heading back to Phoenix and the flight home.

I don't know if I came back from this road trip a changed person, but I do feel ready for my impending fatherhood. Along the way, we chose a name for our son and I plan to show him photos and tell him about the trip some day. Thanks to the 1999 Historic Route 66 Corridor Act I know the road will be preserved for generations to come. Maybe one day he can follow in my footsteps as I did in my father's, and get his own kicks on Route 66.

 

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