ON ROUTE 66, NEW MEXICO – If the United States of America ever had the ultimate Main Street, that would be Route 66 – The Mother Road, as John Steinbeck coined it; the graphic illustration of the American Dream, Utopia finally achieved.
Mustang convertible, top down, the desert wind blowing in our face, the stereo spewing out legend after legend, sun to the left, moon to the right, larger than life cobalt skies, astonishing starry nights.
Route 66 was the 20th century equivalent (born in 1926) of the 19th century Santa Fe trail, which started in Missouri and colonized the West via Kansas and Colorado up to Santa Fe, New Mexico; 66, after starting in Grant Park, Chicago, ended up on Ocean Avenue, in Santa Monica, staring at the Pacific Ocean 2,400 miles, three time zones and eight states later.
As much as Mad Men – the best American TV has had to offer in ages – is retelling the history of the 1960s, 66 keeps retelling a perpetual trip to glory days past, way beyond a Steinbeck Grapes of Wrath script, with special emphasis on the non-stop traffic jam of the affluent post-war 1950s all the way to its sedimentation as the symbolic American West asphalt river.
Yet 66’s agony in fact started way back in 1954, when president Dwight Eisenhower, extremely impressed with the German autobahn, created the basis for the interstate highway system; 66 then became road kill for five different, efficient, monotonous interstates.
In America’s collective unconscious though, this whole business goes way beyond Kerouac’s On the Road, which was all about a fast car, the beckoning Pacific seashore and a woman at the end of the road. Route 66 is now classic American History, an Ode to Joy perpetually re-enacted in memory lane, with Beethoven replaced by the Shangri-Las.
Route 66 turned into a myth even before America became as generic as a supermarket shelf. Those were the pre-Walmart/mobile phone days when motels did not accept reservations, there were real barbers and real pharmacies, cinemas were temples and not sardine cans in multiplexes, everybody drank tap water and the summers were longer because of drive-in cinemas.
To hit 66 now – when the American Dream itself is just a memory, no matter how Barack Obama and Romney may digress about it – is the equivalent of a tour of the Crete labyrinth or the Mitt ruins of Persepolis. It’s like the eternal return of a pop Rosetta stone. The interstates gobbled 66 all up. The earth ate some stretches of the road alive. Some others simply disappeared in the middle of the desert.
Yet much more than in the Disneyfication of all things 66, it’s under the shade of a gigantic mesa kissed by the majestic skies of New Mexico that the Mother Road weaves its obstinate magic; the middle way for Dharma buns soaked on ghosts and dreams.
Those infinite skies
So the antidote to the billionaire orgy of negative ads spewed out by both the Obama and Romney campaigns – and their frenetic mad dash in both Ohio and Pennsylvania – may well be a drive on 66. It’s like singing a slow blues to a vanished America – that ghostly, dilapidated ring of neons, abandoned garages, carcasses of all kinds of vehicles and most of all diners who serve everything from a killer huevos rancheros to homemade cherry pie.
Navajo trading posts contemplating those interminable Union Pacific trains chugging along; the bowels of the earth in Technicolor at the Petrified Forest; and then Gallup – the indigenous Mecca, essentially a street parallel to the railroad tracks (the street is the old 66), crammed with pawn shops where many an unfortunate Navajo still leaves his precious turquoises for the cash to finance his next shot of whisky.
In my archeological tour of these living fossils, I couldn’t help becoming an electron up and down Central Avenue in Albuquerque where, in one of those diners, I learned from Armando – a tattooed Latino with a fabulous rockabilly haircut who welds muscle cars – that “I don’t get into politics and religion”; therefore, he doesn’t vote. For all the desperation of both campaigns in securing the much-vaunted “Latino vote”, Armando spells out a predominant young Latino feeling regarding the One-Party system; they never had them, and they already lost them.
Obama has put on quite a show dangling the promise of immigration reform. Romney for his part never fooled anyone because Latinos know he’s always been an immigration mullah. Still, a poll by Latino Decisions shows that Latinos all across the US support Obama by a whopping 73%, compared with Romney’s 21%. And this despite Democrats in the US Senate killing the Dream Act in 2010 that would allow undocumented students a path to legalize their situation.
Obama will easily carry New Mexico by at least nine points. It’s less an endorsement than a lesser-of-two-evils mindset – with the exception of magical, progressive Santa Fe, art capital of the US Southwest, the Western Shangri-La, bearing one of the largest concentrations of magnetic energy on earth, but still not immune to the crisis; homeless people and foreclosures abound.
It isn’t easy to find one’s path among a tsunami of healers, “philosophers”, religious leaders, clairvoyants, acupuncturists, reflexologists, skull realigners, aura readers, ayurvedic practitioners, Gurdjieff fanatics, multi-purpose Buddhists and art gallery gurus. Still, options abound. And cool nuclear physicists working at nearby Los Alamos – where the atom bomb was invented – never fail to commute to Santa Fe to dance salsa at El Farol.
It’s that old New Mexico magic. This is arguably America’s coolest – as in mellowest – state; when afflicted with the blues, from the existential to financial, Americans could do worse in terms of restarting the dream.
Reasons to live in New Mexico (there are hundreds) include the amazing open spaces and open roads, no hurricanes (just awesome thunderstorms), spectacular sunsets, a wealth of red rocks, no traffic jams, Southwest culture (all of it), the best Mexican food in the land, the scent of sagebrush after it rains (no pre-election rain though), Navajo jewelry (bought from the artists themselves, not galleries), nightly Indian dances, all those beautiful trains, and those starry skies that made D H Lawrence weep with joy (he had a ranch 20 miles north of Santa Fe). As for Santa Fe itself, whatever happens it won’t become a new Miami – as depicted in Tom Wolfe’s devastatingly funny new novel, Back to Blood.
Drenched in burgers, bourbon and blues – not to mention nostalgia – Route 66 may go on forever. But what if a particle of that original American Dream of yore still existed, under those infinite New Mexican skies?