The Mother Road

By David Glenn Cox

The Mother road is the stuff of which legends are made and yet, she’s real. Even if she weren’t real, it would be necessary to make her up. Every country or continent needs such a road, a mythical road which leads to a golden paradise. A road of dreams and mythology, where the poor and disheveled can make their way to the promised land and return prosperous and golden, wrapped in happy endings. Before the interstates and before super highways, it was the road across America. Before, the invention of the automobile, if you wanted to travel, you took the train or you walked.

Derelict house at Ragdoll on Route 66 California

Travel was unlikely and uncommon, travelers for the most part, were well healed, to be able to stay in hotels and eat in restaurants. Route 66 was established in 1926, but the signs weren’t erected until a year later. This road was itself was a sign of changing times, a sign of new things and a changing world. Route 66 was a highway across America and while we take that all quite casually today, in the 1920’s or 30’s it was as novel an idea as the latest i-phone. America was a rural nation of farms and small towns, where you were born was most likely, where you would stay.

1918 Case 10-18

Mechanization turned America upside down, farm boys dreamed as they’d always dreamed; only now, there were jobs available in factories far from home. The water pump and the tractor had changed farm life and these machines were themselves, built in factories by former farm workers. Built in Chicago or Omaha or Stillwater, Minnesota because transportation in this country was so rudimentary, it was easier to open multiple factories, than it was to ship heavy goods.

The World War had also changed American boys. Over a million young men had been overseas and how ya gonna keep em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree? Indeed, either trying to bury the nightmares of war or seeking dreams of the future, the answer was to be found down that road, either direction, made no difference. They’d been here and they wanted more. They didn’t want to live and die hoeing a small patch of Earth, the world was alive and these men wanted to experience it and to be a part of it. This was the roaring 20’s, filled with jobs, prosperity and excitement.

Like the generation before, she offered, someplace better, as anyplace was better than here. This is the road of Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck’s Joad family.

Tom Joad repaired a bad connecting rod along this road. The Joad’s buried Grand pa along this road and Woody Guthrie wrote about the California Highway Patrol turning back anyone without $50 in their pocket at the state line. This was a road of struggle, winding through small towns, transient camps and crooked cops. As the millions headed down this road, the merchants prospered, selling gas, food, water, fixing flats and business was good.

The Grapes of Wrath

For the traveler, this wasn’t today’s high speed interstate run. Top speed in a thirties vintage car was forty-five, miles per hour, no radio, no heater and no air conditioning.

Loaded with family and belongings, you’d be lucky to make 300 miles per day. From Chicago to California, meant a week to ten days, of road dust by day and hard ground at night, always with the ever present fear of not making it, of a breakdown and then what? Tom Joad said it best, “Don’t take no courage to do somethin, when you ain’t got no other choice.”

It was 1938, before all of Route 66 was finally paved. It’s hard to imagine, a federal highway, no more than a graded dirt road. It was a different America, but with Americans seeking out the same things, we still seek today. By the 1950’s the Interstate Highways system and modern autos with radio, heater, whitewalls and air conditioning, did her in.

Route 66. Santa Rosa. The Route 66 Restaurant.

No longer was travel a struggle or an ordeal, with limited access and high speed you could do 300 miles before lunch, but all you see is highway. On the mother road, you saw America, the pretty parts and the not so, pretty parts. When you’d arrived, you’d done something, you’d always remember. The story of the time you crossed a continent in an open car, not much different than crossing in a covered wagon, a generation or so before.

It is a page out of our history; it is this road which leads us from our past to the present.

This road which pioneered, truck stops, chain gas stations and food to go, also pioneered motor courts, camp grounds and travel associations. The effort is gone, along with the scenery, along with the experience of being someplace new. Today, it’s a blur; the rest stops are all the same in Omaha or Oakland, the same hamburger stands and gas stations. All choreographed and color co-coordinated, Portland Maine to Portland Oregon.

Just history now, duded up gas stations and commemorative plaques. Once, this was the mother road, Main Street USA, if you didn’t like where you were, it was the road out. It was the freedom road, across America. Better still, it was the freedom road through America.