At Albuquerque, I exited I-40 onto Central Avenue, which is the part of Old Route 66 that runs through the city. Instead of quickly zipping around the city, I motored from red light to red light, through the quaint downtown. At around 6th Street, a cargo truck was parked in the center lane, out of which men unloaded Christmas decorations, then scooted across the traffic and to hand the decorations to other men on ladders who affixed the decorations to streetlights. A cop had stopped to direct traffic. A few bums milled around the downtown area, in front of cafes and coffee houses. Little clouds of breath exited everybody’s mouths on this cold, crisp desert morning.
I rode Route 66 all the way to about 5 miles out of town, where the pavement of the old thoroughfare had been torn up, nothing but a dirt road lay out before me as far as I could see. I turned around and headed back to the I-40, continuing west toward Gallup, NM.
Every now and then a piece of Old Route 66 came into view, either crisscrossing the interstate or running alongside it. Burned out gas stations, cafes and motels stood just off the shoulder of the old highway, here and there. Many of the structures had crumbled completely, with just studs sticking out of the ground like witches teeth. But others still maintained their structure. One gas station had what looked to be an apartment atop it…waking up in the desert, turning on the pumps, filling up the tanks…behind one of the cafes stood a little house…putting on an apron, scrambling eggs for strangers you’d get to know for a handful of minutes. The tank is full, the tip’s on the counter. Two humans who will never see each other again. Or maybe they will…
About halfway between Albuquerque and Gallup, I exited onto Route 66 again, following the squiggly bumpy piece of black top a few miles to a bridge that reminded me of some crumbling pyramid of early Egypt. The pavement was covered with cracks and patchwork and sinkholes, out of which that grass and weeds grew. I slowly ascended the bridge. The guard rail was rusted through in some places. I got out at the peak of the bridge and looked around in all directions. Aside from an old burned out bar, only Planet Earth could be seen, the roar of the semi’s on I-40 soflty coming to me from afar. I descended the bridge, determined to ride this piece of The Mother Road all the way, wherever it took me. A little town with no traffic light, just a gas station that also sold little homemade pies along with a coke and a smile? But just a short drive from the bridge, the pavement was gone again. I turned back and rejoined the current of I-40.
It was a long quiet ride the rest of the way to Gallup. Semi’s, mountains, mesas and rolling hills dotted with dark green cedar trees. A hundred yards or so from the Interstate, an incredibly long freight train ran as fast as the Interstate traffic. It would follow a slow bend in the rails, along old 66, disappear, then come back several miles down the way, only to disappear again with the ghost of 66.
At Gallup, I followed 66 through downtown. To the right of the street were the train tracks. The same Burlington Northern/Santa Fe freighter that I’d seen off and on since Albuquerque was slowly lurching through town. To the left, was the quintessential 20th Century downtown. Brick storefronts with big panes of glass, bells on the door, handwritten advertisements. But the old businesses were gone, and atop every other store was a sign that read something like “Indian Trading Post and Cash Pawn.” The other stores housed cafes or nothing at all, were empty.
I parked the car and walked along the street. It was early afternoon, but the sun had already fell behind the buildings and the steady wind brought a chilling cold. A group of old Native American men walked in front of me, laughing, shoving each other like boys. One’s hat fell off during the hullaballoo, and another bent down to pick it up. When he finally straightened back up, he slammed the hat back on it’s owner. They hobbled around a corner where three Native American teens waited to cross the street. They had long hair, wore black, each held a skateboard. The sun was shining on the corner and when I got there I immediately warmed up. The kids went across the street, the old men walked the other way, chatting, laughing, limping. I continued along the street where all the stores had a hand written sign that read “Cash Only” on the door. Little Native American trinkets filled the display windows of the trading posts, but nobody was shopping. Inside each was a Native American man or woman waiting to the switch the sign on the door from “Open” to “Closed.”
A few minutes later, I was back in the car, riding Route 66 out of town. Highways, gas stations, motels, cafes and freight trains. This is my favorite scene in America. It is the world of my earliest memories. Analog cash registers, mechanical credit swipers on the slower Highway World, before the speedy online Interstate World. Leather booths in the cafe, garlic toast and iced tea…the waitress, the station attendent hotel clerk and you…lives intersecting out in the desert…personal histories discarded, a moment of connection with no past or future…but I was so young back then, maybe I only want that world to have existed.
As I passed through Holbrook, I listened to a born again Native American giving a sermon on the radio. “I was talking to a woman, the other day. She picked up a hitchhiker and she felt it was her Christian duty to bring The Message to this hitchhiker. ‘Do you know the story of Jesus Christ,’ she asked. And he leaned up to the seat and told her, ‘Yes, and ma’am, I am here to tell you He is here, already. And you are to get ready now.’ Did you hear that, my friends? Jesus is already here, on Earth. He has come in our lifetime, so we must get ready.”
Outside of Holbrook was the desert again, old mountains, mesas, patient tumbleweeds, stoic cedars. The tumbleweeds live and die so fast and the cedars live longer than humans. And the mountains and mesas tell me that whatever happens in my lifetime, even if humanity goes extinct, or the Earth is destoryed…that it will be no more than a little burp in The Universe. Out in the desert, it’s easy to hear The Universe tell you that time and space and beginnings and ends are simply beyond our little specie’s comprehension. It’s been the end of time forever,” The Universe tells me in the desert, “and it’s beginning forever. And there is only one time, no time. See? I told you it’s beyond your comprehension.” The Universe kept telling that kind of thing all the way to Flagstaff, or my own mind did. ”Or is your own mind The Universe? See? I told you it’s beyond…
I descended out of the high piny region around Flagstaff at sunset. The sun slipped behind a mountain and the western sky burst into a red glowing thing that slowly faded into pale amber. I grasped the steering wheel with both hands to navigate the sharp downward curves. The cab was dark – blue, floating instruments of the dash, blue numbers on the radio, but everything else was black. I couldn’t see my hands holding the wheel, or the rest of my body. I was only consciousness. The sun lowered and the sky faded and just before it turned to indigo stuff like deadlines, break-ups, jobs, bills, ambition and 5 year life-plans or any kind of life-direction at all became absolutely laughable and meaningless. Take it all, the pain, the joy…and love it all. Open your arms wide to the Whole Shebang of Life. It was easy to say yes to the request, then. But as the sky went completely black, my eyes grew heavy and I was suddenly hungry. Find a hotel, get the rental car back in time, pay rent, find work when I’m back, a girlfriend before I lose my hair…I was carnal once more, embedded in this world. The lustful glow of Las Vegas hovered in the northern night sky, 115 miles away. Gas stations ahead on the Interstate looked like lunar outposts. I checked into a Motel 6 at Needles. Then I went to the nearby Denny’s and sat like a tranquilized monkey at a window booth.
“Want any dessert?” the young waitress asked, after I finished my hamburger.
“I’ll fall asleep eating it.”
As she went to get my check, I stared out into dark California, unable to articulate a myriad of questions I had. The waitress gave me the check, I followed her to the counter and paid it, walked outside.
Yes, said the Universe. But I didn’t ask you any questions, I couldn’t find the questions, I responded. I know, replied The Universe, But the answer is only yes. See, I told you it’s beyond…
It was a fast drive through the Mojave desert the next morning. There was Old Route 66 again, coming and going on its wayward way to the Pacific Ocean. It was a different kind of road, it had to be built around mountains and cliffs, whereas the builders of Interstate America blasted through mountains, built bridges over cliffs. Route 66 goes up and down hills like a roller coaster in places, you had to drive slower to manage it. You can really see the desert when you go slow. The Interstate is flat with as few inclines as possible. It’s getting flatter, their always working on it and it’s always getting faster, no matter how much the desert begs to be witnessed.
I hopped on I-15 south at Barstow, motoring smoothly along lava rock beds and cacti that resembled characters from a Dr. Seuss book. An hour and a half later I merged onto I-10 to LA. From there it was start and stop. So many cars, horns and exhaust. I felt The Hurry and played The Game and soon I pulled the rental car into the rental place, in Hollywood. From there I walked down to the intersection of Vine and Sunset, to my bank to get money for rent. There, a man wearing clean business casual clothes stood in the middle of the intersection and joyfully spoke into his phone. He wore sunglasses and every now and then he’d do some kind of dance move. The cars passed by him from all four directions without pause. Satisfied that he did, indeed, exist, he slipped his phone in his satchel and walked away. I was back in The City.