I close my eyes. There is a stillness I am not used to. The heat from the sun washes over and around me, and it is so intense that I can almost taste it. I am far from anywhere, with a noiselessness that enrobes me. Then, I notice that there is more to listen to than I first thought; the rhythmic creak of a cricket, the lazy buzz of a curious fly, the crackle of dried grass barely moving in a feather-light wind, the sporadic hum of an occasional passing car, far from where I stand.
I open my eyes and take in my surroundings. The ground underfoot is red dust, peppered with tiny rocks and faded tyre-tracks from long-passed vehicles. I am on the edge of a vista of dried earth, painted by an unseen hand into hues of brown, orange, red, yellow, grey and green; fading into one another in a way that no artist could hope to recreate. The view continues for as far as I can see and beyond, and it is hard to imagine that anything exists outside of this spectacular expanse. I can see desert and dust, patches of faded flora crackling under its own aridity, the rapid, almost invisible movement of an unknown insect, and at the end of my perceivable world, a backdrop of mountains and hills, undulating and curving in sympathy with the earth below, rising up from the ground and reaching outstretched into the blue sky above, forming a visible connection between everything in sight.
I turn to look the other way; a wall of red rock, so vast it feels as though I can reach out and touch it, although I know the distance between us would take hours to traverse. A dust bowl in front with clouds of powder and grit puffing above the ground, clinging onto every breath, every draught of air that passes, in a desperate bid to dance above the ground, before falling and settling onto their path once more. If I narrow my eyes, I can make out the road, moving with the curve of the land, echoing the cambers, arching with the contours, emulating the terrain and flowing almost organically, as though the asphalt itself is rolling. It is not out of place, amongst the red-rock and the mountains; rather, it is the place.
This is The Mother Road; the apex, the pay-off for a million American dreamers. A path, borne from necessity to aid the dust-bowl pioneers heading desperately for their Western aspirations, becoming an iconic legend in its own lifetime. It grew organically, providing kitsch and crazy to the travellers that lived momentarily on its back. Coke bottles and bumper stickers, diners and root beer. The road trip mecca fulfilled its function and grew into a journey of hope, delight, comfort and iconic history. A moment in time, extending beyond its needs and symbolising the romance and industry of a nation of dreamers, long-haired hipsters and men riding steel horses.
And then living to see its own demise.
It was empty. No longer needed. Discarded and abandoned and left to fade into the earth. The proud structures and buildings becoming shells and facades, hiding a decay of gradually forgotten treasures. Saddles from horses removed and tossed onto fences and left in the burning sun for so long they dried into the wood, becoming part of the terrain; windows shut and barred, hiding shelves with dusty cola bottles, faded memorabilia, shields and pennants, no longer a celebration but an etiolated ghost of glories past. Buildings left to dry into the earth, the buzz of service and diners, cars and chatter, replaced by the buzzing of flies swirling into the sapless earth.
They stopped travelling on it, but it never stopped believing in itself. And, like a phoenix, rose from its ashes, and reinvented its own legend.
And here I stand now. Part of the rebirth of the road of promise. No longer for the workers and truckers and military movers, but for the bikers and travellers, visitors and dreamers. People with memories reliving their hey day, and those like me, making memories based on a lifetime of desiring to stand right here and right now.
I have read about this road, and the characters that have accompanied its lifespan. I have seen pictures of the icons and structures that have made it unique, and I have mapped its length. But until I came here, I had never breathed it in. I never knew that the land and the hope and the ghosts of a million dreams could exist and become something so tangible.
As I stand here, I smile. I have seen the red Burma-Shave signs; I have peered over the edge of a hole made by a fireball from space; I have leaned on the fibreglass jack rabbit; I have photographed water towers, trains, classic cars and teepees. I have marvelled at the edge of a forest made of calcified wood and a desert so beautiful that I cannot find the words to describe it. I have journeyed for hours along a road with nothing but itself to accompany me, and I have not been bored. I have seen bridges and forts, trading posts and plastic elks perching precariously on buttes above the ground. I have bought soda and sat in diners with black and white checked floors and bottomless coffees. I have danced to a live jazz band at 10 in the morning, and chatted to a lifesized doll who looked like Elvis Presley.
I have stood in the sun, listening to the crickets and getting dust on my feet, while a train with a hundred carriages trundled idly past me. I have walked in the footsteps of dreamers, and I have become a tiny, insignificant part of its history. But it has been big enough for me.
It might not mean much to many people, but it touched me in a way I didn’t think it would.
I am on the highway of hope, feeling very small in a land so big, but standing on the shoulders of giants.
I am humbled that I have driven on Route 66. As I open my eyes and head back onto the highway, I know that there will always be a little piece of my heart right here.