My daughter Hannah and I arrived in Ludington, MI Saturday, June 27. We had a long, hot drive from California in our 1963 Dodge Dart GT convertible with no A/C. There was, of course, a heat wave over much of the South, but despite the heat in Oklahoma, Texas, and Missouri, we had a great time. We traveled along the old Route 66, using the “EZ 66 Guide for Travelers” as our map. Most of the old route runs parallel to the Interstate, and during those times we kept to the big road. But there were many occasions when the old route (or “Mother Road” as it is affectionately called) veered off through unknown countryside and towns, and in those instances, we usually veered as well. The experience was truly wonderful for me, although the 12-year-old couldn’t have cared less about old gas stations and one-horse towns. But she went along with my agenda so long as I kept her in hamburgers and cream soda as we traveled.
There are many valid arguments in favor of bypassing the small towns that dot the old Route 66, but many of these communities – that had no other real economic base other than tourism – became ghost towns when the interstate system replaced the old highway. There were countless abandoned motels, restaurants, gas stations, and other storefronts along the Mother Road. These artifacts were fascinating to see, but I wondered if something of value was lost as a result of America’s push for speed and productivity. Again, I am not arguing the efficiency of the Interstate system, nor the need for it. But something was compromised in that transaction: The heart and soul of small town life, and the human connection that is unavoidable as one passes through. At times it made me well up as I observed a way of life that is seemingly lost and unrecoverable.
As a nation, we depend on the expediency of our Interstate system to move people, goods, and services and provide an infrastructure for the self-defense of the nation. And that is well and good. But I feel a real sadness as community is often sacrificed for commerce. This is especially evident where we live in Los Angeles where things are always moving close to the speed of light. Life is so urgent, so stringent. I miss walking down Gaylord Avenue and stopping to chat with neighbors sitting on their front porch. I miss pulling into the Pure Oil station on North Main in Scottville and having Don Butler ask, “Check the oil?” Thoughts and feelings that have been rattling around in my heart for a while now were exacerbated by the experience on Route 66. As my family and I navigate life, I wonder if we should be paying more attention to quality, community, and calmness, and less attention to commerce?