Scenes from the Open Road

America’s fabled Route 66 in black and white

Photo by Edward Keating


The song immediately springs to mind: "(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66." Like so many songs, its full title is longer than the couple of catchwords that identify it. But it’s also a speedy song, a finger-snapper, a real whistle-while-you-roll-along tune, and for those of us old enough to remember the eponymous TV show, we know it’s all about getting your kicks, because we had them. Past tense.


Route 66 was the Romantics' road, an optimistic road, the "Mother Road," as John Steinbeck called it in The Grapes of Wrath. It was going to stretch thousands of miles and provide travelers with unique places to eat and to spend the night as they made their journeys, their individual journeys that nevertheless took them to many of the same places, accomplishing something, or perhaps searching for the holy grail of relaxation. It was a road that had pride of place, and also a sense of humor: The neon signs you found there were illustrative, but many were also created to amuse. If Saturday morning cartoons appealed to the kids, the cowboys on bucking broncos and 10-foot-high hamburgers dripping neon-red ketchup, pointing to diners along Route 66, were there to make the grownups smile. The signs were either so understated they were plaintive ("vacancy"), or they were happily hyper; the leaping lizards and sky-high ladies whirling lassos described something that wasn't exactly true, but wasn't entirely false, either. The wonderlands they blinked at and pointed to were outdoor graphic novels before there were graphic novels: The talk and the visuals were interrelated; the world was telling its story and you—assuming you weren't too cool to converse—were telling yours.


At first glance, the photographs that appear in the following pages—taken by Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Edward Keating—seem pretty generic: a woman floating on a raft in a motel pool; an out-of-business gas station; the interior of a closed cafe. What do you think, though? Did the photographer get into that abandoned cafe by kicking the door open with his boot heel, and then simply close the door so the already ransacked tomb remained sealed, as discovered? How much time did he spend inside the ruined place?


Many of the photographs involve us as trespassers, alone with inanimate objects that served their purpose and are now junk, the sort of thing that won't make a reappearance on eBay under the heading "midcentury modern furniture." Inside the cafe shown on page 35, we look through the space to a whitewashed world that reveals no particularities. There's an exit (the door), a way to look outside (the windows), but inside the mostly empty space, we quickly lock eyes with the word "cafe," reading from the verso, realizing that if we were outside (and therefore beyond the space we are meant to contemplate), the word would read correctly, we could enter again, assuming—though now we know better—that the place would hold promise. We've already seen that desolate space, though—we’ve seen the flip side of the American Dream, and we know it’s ugly. Cafes are meant to be welcoming, to offer sustenance, to be clean, well-lighted places, but when this society is done with something, this society is done with something.


The woman floating at the Munger Moss Motel (pages 36-37) in Lebanon, Mo., is just having a pleasant moment, but, again, the objects in the picture tell a story about coming and going. She’s in limbo: Notice the van and the car in their stalemate outside the motel; notice the lounges facing forward, though the lone chair faces the other way, allowing someone to turn away from the pool, to turn his or her back on the expected, to see whatever’s there beyond the chainlink fence. The arrow on the motel sign points in, but—as with the cafe—our impulse is probably to look in the other direction, to the highway. That space remains filled with possibility, whereas this resting place holds nothing but the things it contains. The woman might almost be one of the objects, but she’s trying to break regimentation by moving on the diagonal, not-facing-forward/not-facing-out. Still, she's contained on her float, her float is contained in the pool, the pool area is contained inside a fence. We’re willing to accept all these things, if we have the chair, if we have the possibility of looking at what we’re not directed to look at. That way, we can escape in spirit.


My favorite photograph, on page 34, is of the abandoned gas station in Glenrio, Tex., with the brand name nearly worn away, yet easily filled in by our eye, the words "self serve" cut in half horizontally, though our eye also accommodates the rest of the words and makes them comprehensible. In fact, just bits and fragments, if identifiable enough, are all we need, and we fill in the rest. The structure looks like shelter, though, and indeed, there’s shade underneath, and one lone bird standing just on the edge, where shadow meets light. We know the bird is just stopping by, but in its moment of stillness, it directs our eye toward the desert that seems to stretch all the way to the horizon, as amorphous as the day outside the cafe window. The bird gives a sense of scale, but it also makes it seem as if something has stopped by that’s part of the natural world, not an outsider. When the bird moves, it will move quickly, as we cannot. Well, in a sense we can, but look at what our building and our ideas of usefulness and our certainty about the importance of the individual ("self serve") have come to, here on Route 66 in Texas.


The photographs are full of verticals and horizontals, of diagonals and echoing shapes that carry the eye from foreground to background and that form a metaphoric link between dissimilar things. The image of the Texas cross (page 34), for example, couldn’t make its point any clearer, but there’s an interesting irony: The shape of the cross is echoed in the intersecting lines of the road—a slightly off-kilter cross, and a fallen one, but a cross, nonetheless.


In the photograph on page 35, showing an abandoned motel, we are again on the inside—inside, where people who belong are located—looking out at another sign also missing letters, which can once again be easily supplied because we know what the blank spaces represent. (Notice, again, the pole that seems to fit under the sign: another cross, which also echoes the window from which we view the scene.)


As with the Glenrio gas station, several other photographs present a moment in time in which we have to fill in the blanks: to fill in the people who are absent, to expect that a car might drive into the picture frame, to imagine that lightning might be about to strike in a storm. This is not our world at moments of high drama; rather, it’s the world of a missed beat, the world that used to be, gradually disappearing because of wind and rust and the passage of time. For a while, words remain, or fragments of words, partial words. But there's another world that has nothing to do with language, and though what we have constructed on the land is naturally expressed through words (a motel, a gas station), we see in these photographs that words have their limits: Time and the elements gradually erase them, as if cleaning the blackboard at the end of the day. The information that has been conveyed becomes just a blur of white on black. It's not easy to find words to describe land that seems to stretch forever—land that doesn’t have a punch line. Route 66 is still there, but it’s like a dream from which we—as individuals, and as a society, as well—have awakened.


Wordsworth wrote: "All things live in us and we shall live / In all things surrounding us." Vanished spaces may also live in and through us, reminding us that we vanish as well, parts of memory falling away like the half-legible words of abandoned signs. We've had years in which to know Route 66—that's what it's called, that is the word and those are the numerals that identify it—but now we see that it, too, may have been something only passing through.


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