Posts Tagged ‘Route 66’

Main Street

When talking about the wonders of Main Street, I couldn’t help but think of the only Main Street near my hometown.  Although now the street is the exact opposite of spectacular, when I was younger the street was full of great shops and people. In nice weather, it was hard to park your car in the parking lot at either end of the street and even harder to wade through the crowds to shop. The Italian bakeries, pizza places, candy stores, and even the county offices were all run by people who would remember you and strike up the same conversation about how great it is to have a street like Main Street. The local theater, the Grand Theater, is shown in the far left. Although it looks less than grand in this photo, it was the place to be on an otherwise boring Friday night.

Unfortunately, all those great places are no longer there as they have been replaced by newer, more specific stores such as a Zumba studio and a framing store. The Italian bakery went out of business due to a WaWa two blocks away that sold cheaper hoagies, the pizza place couldn’t compete with Dominos, and the candy store went out of business after parents complained that the children were eating too much sugar. As nice as the street was, it couldn’t compete with modern ideals of fast and cheap. A street where timelessness is supposed to live became a wasteland in only a few years. I think this can be seen in many American icons; for example. Route 66 was great and needed until a new modern road existed. The way to become modern often involves harming those classic places.

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Europe and Route 66

In class when I heard that route 66 is popular with Europeans, I was slightly surprised and decided to look into the draw. I read an interesting article (http://allaroundtim.com/why-are-europeans-fascinated-by-route-66/) written my a man, Tim, who blogs about traveling the globe. Below is an excerpt:

“I decided to swing by the hotel bar for a couple of drinks one night in Edinburgh, Scotland. That’s where I met Kris the bartender. He was originally from Latvia, but relocated to Edinburgh after his girlfriend broke up with him. He wanted a fresh start, so he and a friend moved across the continent. Kris and I quickly bonded once he found out I was American (which didn’t take long). Kris had a passion for American basketball (he played with Golden State Warriors center Andris Bierdins growing up) and American cars (his dad sold them in Latvia). Even though he thinks Americans are racist, Kris told me how bad he wants to drive his Chevy Malibu down Route 66. As he told me about his dream, he leaned back, put one hand out like it was on a steering wheel, and started nodding his head with a ‘cool’ look on his face. I always thought there was nothing worth seeing on Route 66, but there was nowhere else Kris wanted to be. Since he talked about his dream with so much pride, I didn’t question him for a second, but it definitely struck me as odd.

I flew from Edinburgh to London a few days later, and I met this guy named Ravi at the airport. He was a young go-getter working for IBM. He just graduated from college, but he was already climbing the ranks. He had a company car (a BMW) and traveled all over the world for work. Ravi and I wound up next to each other on the plane (it was one of those pick-your-own-seat airlines) after he found out I was American. He always wanted to go to Las Vegas, and I had been there several times, so he wanted to pick my brain about the best places to go in Sin City. We talked the entire flight. I don’t remember exactly how the conversation shifted, but Ravi told me about his friends that were going to America to drive Route 66. Seriously?! We were suddenly talking about a bunch of 20-something-year-old dudes rolling down Route 66 for fun. That sounds like a snore fest to me, but I quickly realized that Kris the bartender wasn’t unique in his dream — many Europeans are enamored with Route 66.

I actually played craps with a pharmacist from Amarillo (one of the main cities along the old Route 66) in Las Vegas last week. When I asked him what Route 66 was like nowadays, he just sort of shrugged and gave me a look like it’s nothing special. I laughed and told him about my experience with Europeans and their interest in Route 66. He told me that’s not a surprise, because many of his customers are Europeans who need something from his pharmacy as they cruise the old highway.”

Tim was not so high on Route 66, and couldn’t understand why the Europeans he spoke with were so interested in the Mother Road. Generally it seems that Route 66’s European popularity is derived from similar emotions that some Americans feel towards the road, but perhaps stronger or less complicated. Nostalgia seems to be the primary emotion; yearning for a time when things were simpler, and we didn’t always prioritize the fastest way to get somewhere – which was replaced with the Interstate System.  America’s boast of individualism meets a sense of community and good nature. Maybe the nostalgia has worn off more for Americans, while Europeans are further removed and thus maintain an idealized view of America. However this is challenged by the reference above that Europeans may feel ill towards Americans, but still are interested in America’s icons. This seems to be a dichotomy that we continually discuss.

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One of the most famous icons of America is the images of the long Route 66, stretching from Chicago to Los Angeles. It has come to represent opportunity and freedom. John Steinbeck (and later Bruce Springsteen) picks up on these ideas and twists them in his novel.

One of,  the most famous pieces of American literature, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, features Route 66 prominently in the novel, both in the story of the Joads and in the in between chapters. The novel includes themes  of helping out one’s fellow man. The novel was intended to show more of the brutal aspects of life during the Great Depression, specifically people who were put out of work by the Dust Bowl droughts. Bruce Springsteen echoes these themes by referencing many aspects of it in the song.  Rage Against the Machine, a band known for political-minded songs, covered this. The song resonated with so many that other acts such as Nickleback, Mumford and Sons, Junip, Martyn Joseph, the band Solas, and Rise Against have all covered this. The only American between these (outside of Rage and Springsteen) is Rise Against, showing that the themes and images (especially of the highway) presented here resonate internationally.

Springsteen sings about the Ghost of Tom Joad, who acts as the spirit of many of these themes the way he does in the novel. He sings about the highway, evoking the ever famous Route 66 without mentioning it by name. In the novel, the highway is the path of mass migrations out west, which is alluded to in the song. In both novel and song, the highway is a path to a hopefully better life, and a path to discovery. This plays on two classic American mythology themes: the romanticizing of the West, it’s vastness, its opportunities, and it’s hardships.  The second theme played on here is the idea of moving around to make a better life. However, both are a subversion of each theme as it shows “Families sleeping in cars in the southwest”, “Bathing in the aqueduct”, etc. It shows poverty, desperation and anger (especially the Rage Against the Machine version). But the song uses these themes, and the image of the highway (more specifically Route 66-even though it is never mentioned by name in the song) to get it’s point across.

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Having never actually watched Crossroads, I took the opportunity to relive the glory days that were the early 00’s while visiting the concept of the American road. Crossroads typifies a classic American road trip movie as a symbol for America. Three best friends, Lucy, Kit and Mimi, lose touch over the years until a road trip after their high school graduation promises to reunite them through achieving their childhood dreams. Ironically, the realization of the ladies’ dreams is found in California and Arizona, in the West, making it once again an opening for opportunity. Just as the journey to the old West was filled with danger, Crossroads is as well, but in the form of car trouble and destitution. The girls had to overcome the dangers of travel using cooperation to reach their destination and ultimately fulfill their American dreams.

After their travels, the girls were then faced with the danger of their dreams. Lucy dreamt of reconnecting with her estranged mother who left her as a three year old. Her mother rejected her, calling her a mistake. Kit dreamt of getting married, only to find that her fiancé was a cheater and rapist. Mimi dreamt of leaving their small hometown in Georgia, and traveling the world, but having been raped and impregnated, she had to rethink her dream to travel. After falling down a flight of stairs, and miscarrying, however, she now had the freedom to continue her travels, and had successfully left her hometown. Mimi is the only one whose dream came true, albeit in a horrible fashion.

All three girls went through traumatic events while trying to accomplish their dreams. In the end, those dreams shifted through the experience they gathered on the road, and while in the West. Their road trip transformation about the transition from girls to women mirrors the transition into Americans experienced by the pioneers. Much like other road trip movies, Crossroads presents the American road as a place full of opportunity, leading to the West, to follow your dreams, and to experience life-changing danger.

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China and Route 66

Source: http://kdminer.com/m/Articles.aspx?ArticleID=57726

In class, we discussed some of what Route 66 and the road mean to American culture: freedom, social mobility, masculinity. The article linked above follows Chinese citizens that win a contest sponsored by Shanghai General Motors (SGM), which is jointly owned by GM and the Chinese government. Winners are chosen based on their score on a test that includes details about Route 66 and General Motors. The winners are then flown to the U.S. and drive part of Route 66 in Cadillacs. Based on quotes from those involved in the contest and the trip to Route 66, one can deduce that Chinese view the iconic road very differently than Americans.

The first quote is from an SGM marketing manager:

“We are an American brand, and we want people in China to know about American culture,” said Su. “Route 66 is the best road to experience that culture because it helped to develop America. There are so many stories on this road, and when our group sees that, they realize how different it is here from China. We tell them about freedom and the importance of respecting it, and that people can say what they want in America and aren’t told what to speak. It really impresses them.”

The SGM representative sees Route 66 as not only inextricably tied to U.S. development, but also as a symbol for American constitutional freedoms. Although some Americans do view Route 66 as giving them the “freedom to,” I don’t think that they tie it back directly to the country’s founding documents. Personal freedoms are already so deeply ingrained in American culture that the thought of not having them isn’t even entertained. In China, this is not the case.

One contest winner gave his opinion of Route 66:

“We need to understand Route 66 and the culture behind it to be able to bring information back to China that will help develop it. Everything is getting better there, but it developed too fast and we created new problems because the people weren’t ready for it. What we learn here is valuable to us.”

In this context, Route 66 is viewed as a successful component of America’s economic development to be emulated. The contestant views Route 66 as an example of progress without sacrificing substance; economic growth while still maintaining cultural integrity. This demonstrates not only the idolization of America by many Chinese, but also the skepticism among Chinese regarding the rapid economic growth of the past 30 years.

The final quote comes from an American who travels with the group:

“We take it for granted that we can travel here without having papers on us or paying fees. They can’t just jump in the car and go without having government approval. And they are fascinated by the fact that we can do that in America. They are here to find out how to make that happen in China.”

In this case, Route 66 represents an alternative to a restrictive, bureaucratized government. Like Americans who use Route 66 to nourish a craving for spontaneity, so do Chinese want the ability to travel anywhere in the country at a moment’s notice, without first having to receive government approval. Yet, the restrictions that Americans feel in everyday life are not often from the government, but instead from social or work obligations.

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Route 66

Automobile pulling a trailer along Route 66. This is perhaps the most ideal depiction of “Freedom to move” and an early 1900s definition of “Modern dream of mobility”. Perhaps, the travelers in the car are a family of 4 from a suburb of Chicago who want to move out West for opportunities. Or perhaps, the traveler is a male individual who has packed up his belongings to move West for a new beginning. Like most images, the West is portrayed as a “place for new beginnings”. I think the road changes people by opening up their eyes to new possibilities that their previous lives did not have. The invention of the Model T by Henry Ford helped make images like this more realistic for many Americans who dreamed of starting over out West.

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Check out this new project looking at the impact of Route 66 on the Native American communities of the West. This is icons and iconicity in action.

New Mexico Scenics


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