This past weekend I drove from Saint Louis to Oklahoma City on the original Route 66 – “The Mother Road.” A friend of mine wanted to attend a meetup of Saab owners using the classic highway, so I road shotgun to provide company and observe what remains of the roadway that was the primary route between Chicago and Los Angeles from 1926 to 1960. In the end, I really wanted a lot of housepaint and a crew of painters.
Let me explain.
As you come out of Springfield. Missouri you eschew the popular I-44 and ignore the redirected U.S. Route 66, turning down some back roads to arrive at the real Route 66. This is the view from 1940, photographed this weekend:
I can only imagine that this was the view that your grandfather had as he made the classic journey Westward: cement concrete roads, barely two-lane, isolated services, generally unspoiled landscapes, the road wandering off into the promise of America. Also: gas for twelve cents a gallon! This is the Route 66 of the Nat King Cole song – a long and winding road that goes through a bunch of beautiful, thriving communities on the way to California. It goes through Saint Louie – Joplin, Missouri, Oklahoma City – criss-crossing through Galena, Kansas, Catoosa, Oklahoma and many other communities whose names are obscured to all but the locals.
In 2013, this road does indeed wander off into the promise of America, but that promise has been broken. When the Eisenhower Interstate System was completed in the 1960s, the endless flow of motorists opted for wider, faster roads that did not bother stopping for every little town. As information technology and biotech has advanced, centralized farming has either moved farming under giant corporate holding companies, or to new places all together, such as California and points west. Light manufacturing has gone to points far east. As such, the view of most of the small communities on Old Route 66, is more like this:
I’m going to spare you the photos of the endless array of trailers and makeshift houses along the way, linked only by the cracked and weed-ridden concrete of the old Mother Road, left to rot. This, too, is America in 2013, and if you extrapolate the trend into the future, it leads straight into a vision of dystopia.
My mind wandered to all of the various wars and bailouts that have consumed this nation’s blood and treasure. Since 2001 there have been those two wars in far off lands, followed by a decade of nation building. Later, after a senseless deregulation of the banking industry we sent endless rivers of printed cash flowing into the coffers of the banks whose recklessness nearly set the world ablaze. We guaranteed the survival of General Motors, AIG, Fannie and Freddie. The total cost for these policies: trillions of dollars.
All I want is some paint.
I see the men, women and children scraping around the remnants of these once-thriving American communities, and I wonder how they can keep their head up, walking by abandoned downtown building after burned out house after dilapidated mobile home park. Our national government jumps at the chance of keeping car companies and banks from suffering the consequences of their mismanagement, and meanwhile, vast swaths of the United States are left to rot. We pour out our treasury to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan, and turn a blind eye to the Heartland.
We could have, during this interminable series of bailouts, set aside one billion dollars for a paint job. Imagine the collective impact of repainting downtowns in bright fresh colors. Think of the people of these communities, once the backbone of our nation, told by the rest of us – you are not forgotten. Consider the difference in a young person between growing up in a place rotting off the bone versus one in a town that is still honored.
One billion dollars- that’s a fraction of what we spend on the drug war, interest on the debt, policing the hills of some country that Americans can’t identify on a map anyhow. Senators spend one billion dollars before you have had your morning coffee.
Imagine what it would mean to these people.
Imagine what it means to have pride.