Old Roads

Posted on Thursday, June 16th, 2011 in Stories

As I travel this land I witness cities coming back to life. I see buildings of value with architectural merit and historic significance saved and recycled. I hear more and more voices speaking up for the built environment, for preservation, for honoring our history and culture. I listen to children and adults of all ages who truly care about saving the past, protecting what is left today, and who also are committed to fight the good fight in the future.

I am, of course like some of you, a helpless and chronic optimist. I see no cure or hope for that condition ever changing. And for that I am pleased.

Perhaps that explains in part why I travel ALL roads. But if there is a choice involved, I choose the old ones — the historic roads — every time.

I keep in mind the words from so long ago of the renowned English artist and poet William Blake:

“Improvement makes straight roads, but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of genius.

This country still has such roads — roads of genius.

To be sure, the land is also crisscrossed with no shortage of interstate highways and byways built to try to handle the constantly increasing glut of vehicles that crowd the lanes.

As I already told you, I drive ALL roads. So do all of you. We have no choice. Even I possess a Pike Pass to make my journeys more efficient when I traverse Oklahoma’s turnpike system.

Yet I also construct my daily life in such a way that as often as possible I shun the Pikes and superhighways and go to the winding two-lane bands of varicose concrete and asphalt. Some times I even seek the timeless trails of dirt and stone. I prefer traveling the roads of genius.

That requires not getting oneself in the position where you are forced to “make time” as some say. Like everyone I am seduced by all of the technology created to supposedly make our lives more efficient and expedient. But sometimes — sometimes — it is so good to choose an old path. Click off the cell phone, switch off the CD and the AC, roll down the windows, ease up on the gas and experience America before the nation became generic. Before the country was littered with gargantuan malls, slap dash franchises and chains that all came out of the same cookie cutter.

When you travel one of many remaining stretches of the Lincoln Highway — the Father Road — making its way through thirteen states from Times Square to the Golden Gate, you encounter a broad range of pure Americana.

When you find yourself on the Tamiami Trail with a belly full of stone crabs and sporting a fresh sunburn, you can become a Miccousouke Indian on the prowl for gators, a smuggler bringing in a load of contraband, an eight-year-old kid hoping Dad pauses at Everglades City so you can buy a carved coconut head.

When you rise and fall on the High Road to Taos in the Sangre de Cristos, you become part of an O’Keefe canvas as you pass through a litany of villages where people once uttered the language of Cervantes in this often puzzling land that time forgot.

And when you cruise Route 66 through eight states between Chicago and Santa Monica, you can transform yourself into anything or anyone you want to be — Billy the Kid, Woody Guthrie, Dorthea Lang, Tod and Buz, Ma Joad, Easy Rider, Lightning McQueen, Elvis.

Journeys down the historic roads are up close and personal. You are not as distant from the ecology of the land and from the people who live there, as you are when you drive an interstate highway. On the old roads you are physically closer and more connected to the land and the people. You use all your senses during the driving experience. Sometimes it is good and sometimes not so pleasant. You may see the woman in hair rollers mowing her lawn and smell the freshly cut grass, on the other hand you also pickup the aroma of fresh road kill. You may dine at a greasy spoon and come away with ptomaine or you may find a cafe serving a meatloaf platter worth dying for.

It can be a crapshoot. The old roads are never predictable. You find the good, the bad, and the ugly but come away with memories —both bitter and sweet — that enrich your life and stay with you forever.

Historic road treks promise the quintessential road trip for all those willing to steer clear of the predictable, the banal, and the humdrum. If, however, only the predictable will do and the notion of adventure and discovery bring on anxiety, then a historic road trip should be avoided at all costs.

These old roads are paths for travelers, not for tourists. There is a huge difference between the two. Tourists invariably stand out amongst the locals. You can tell if someone is a tourist with a single glance. They are the folks who when they go abroad always want to take America along for the ride. And when they travel in the United States, they still look and long for the familiar from their hometown. They flock to the franchise eateries and the chain motels because they know what to expect. They are not risk takers and will never take a chance, even if it could lead them to a memorable place or a person that they will never ever find again.

Tourists have a tendency to gawk at history and culture from afar. They do not wish to get too close. Also there is the time factor. Tourists are in a hurry, willing to fit in as much of the ordinary and predictable as possible as long as it is safe, cheap, and by all means comfortable. Interstate highways and turnpikes are their made-to-fit courses of choice.

Travelers on the other hand are more apt to enjoy cruising one of the historic highways. People who hanker for the hidden places off the well-beaten tourist path know that is the way to go. They are flexible, curious, and ready to discover new things and in so doing perhaps discover something new about themselves.