Route 66 and the death of Americana

Driving gives me a lot of time to think, especially when we exclusively travel the backroads from A to B. We see things that we would have normally missed (just take a look at the destination posts from the blog). Sure, we still would have seen the National Parks, but we would have missed many of the state parks, the BLM land, the chance views and chance meetings with locals. And just to drive the point home, every once in a while we come to an impassable road and are forced onto the four lane madness of the US Interstate system. 

This picture is real. We are driving down Route 66, listening to Willie Nelson’s newest single (completely amazeballs, by the way) and I slam on the brakes. Actually, it was more like I leaned forward, downshifted, tapped the brakes and we coasted to a stop. But, drama! We screeched to a halt (true, because in the desert, the old bus squeaks and creaks and groans like a wooden frigate). Dirt had been piled across the road with a makeshift barbwire fence stuck in it. Our google maps showed it as a yellow line, meaning there was a slow down of some type. No shit. 

In this area, 66 is the only route besides I-40 which bulldozes its way in a much straighter fashion across the landscape. We decided to jump on the highway for the second time during the actual trip (not counting the ferrying trips for the bus motor, folks). The winds slammed against the bus, semis rode up on our bumper and screamed around us. People flipped their brights at us. Hulking billboards advertising accident and death and dismemberment insurance blotted out the vistas. In total, we were on the highway for about ten minutes—long enough to remind me how awful it is to be efficient. 

Because that really is at the heart of it. Highways exist for money. We can move more shit faster and we can cut down on our expenditures and increase our bottom line. Not to mention we can sell ad space on the clear blue sky and install all sorts of fast food options, which will really help out the medical industry in a few years. (Keep that number for death insurance, I guess.) It’s an absolute scam of epic proportions. Meanwhile, if you toddle down the abandon backroads of America, you stumble through town after town where mom and pop shops have plywood over the windows or seem to barely eek out an existence just three miles off the highway. It’s too much time for the highway traveler. Pay at the pump, get the Speedy rewards, merge back on the highway and white knuckle that wheel, baby. 

We think of the backroads like Route 66 as true Americana. If that is true, then the highways are the thing ripping out our guts, destroying what used to be the American dream. Because these hamlets with their shops didn’t just die. The people foreclosed and moved, they took jobs at Speedy and McDonald’s. They developed commutes driving on the very thing that killed their business. There came a day when they stopped making their own meat patties and held a public auction to sell their kitchen equipment, where they cut the losses on their business and their house and decided to take up a spot one quarter of mile off the Interstate because damn it, that’s where the money is. Not for them. They get minimum wage to thaw and fry cookie cutter burgers now. The profits are for the people who buy billboards, who send these semis barreling coast to coast, who find ways to cut corners and make an extra buck by offering less. In a word, efficiency. 

Efficiency is killing us. It makes good business sense, so maybe good business is killing us. Okay, maybe it isn’t killing us, but it does suck the life out of everything so no one can tell the difference between life and death. At least when we roll through a blighted little village with plywood over the windows, it looks like it was once alive. I can’t say that about any of the places we saw while out on the interstate. 

We developed commutes and suburbia because we allowed corporations to offer efficient shopping practices. One stop shopping. If you jump on the highway, find a parking spot, stand in line. Or wait—now you can spend your time online! Just jump on the highway and pull into a spot and load up your groceries (and yes, I realize this is a good option for some people because of health problems). 

When I was in Switzerland, I saw villages where people worked and lived and walked to work and thrived. Jobs of all types had benefits. The roads between the villages were two lanes and slow. The views were beautiful and uncluttered and the food was fresh. Perhaps the American dream has moved overseas.

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