|The ruins of John’s Modern Cabins|
With the advent of digital photography the world has been inundated with the haunting images of empty cafes, gas stations, motels, and houses that line Route 66 from the metropolis on the shores of the inland sea that is Lake Michigan to the metropolis on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Just as penny post cards with images portraying the ruins of ancient Egypt once lured tourists to the sands of the Sahara with promises of mystery and wonder, the images of the ruins of Route 66 now lure travelers who seek the wonders of a lost civilization from the modern era.
Each of these fragile, fading edifices stand in mute testimony to the high cost of progress, and the speed with which the tide of progress swept across the 20th century. They are also monuments to irony as the progress that spawned Route 66, the progress that transformed the ruts of the Santa Fe Trail in towns like San Juan into a highway, and that gave rise to these once prosperous endeavors, is also the progress that rendered them obsolete and swept them from center stage.
Route 66, from its very inception, was always unique. Few things attest to this more than its popularity today, almost two decades after it officially ceased to exist, and the reverence given its ruins and empty places.
In part, this is resultant of the unwritten rule that states with time, virtue obscures faults, frailties, and shortcomings. The high school football star who dies much to young is never remembered for his hazing, his arrogance, or parties by the time the 20th reunion rolls around.
And in part the reverence is spawned by a morbid curiosity tinged with fear as these are the ruins of a lost civilization and that civilization is ours. Moreover, the progress that swept the world they were anchored to away with the speed of tsunami, is moving even faster now that a new century has dawned.
I treasure the quiet and empty places along Route 66. In them I find solace, and a reminder that dreams, aspirations, and grandiose plans are little more than a Mariposa Lilly that springs forth after an April rain in the desert only to be swept away by the harsh dry winds of May. These once vibrant places that are now so quiet I can hear my own heart beat never let me forget that gifts and talents are to be used to brighten the world if only for but a short time.
These empty places, especially amongst the ghosts along Route 66, also keep me grounded with the knowledge that I only have a supporting role in the grand epic we call life on planet earth. Who today remembers the exploits, the accomplishments, the loves, or the passion of Don Trinidad Romero today? His grand home, and the town of Romeroville in New Mexico that embraced it, are now less than historic footnotes and yet less than a century has passed since the Main Street of America funneled traffic through town.
Empty places of any time or place give me this grounding. But only in the empty places of Route 66 are the ghosts of the past familiar old friends, as they are the ghosts of my past.
If I stand quiet on a cold winters night among the ruins of a Whiting Brothers station in New Mexico, I can still here the clicking of the pump as it measured the gallons, and my dad telling me that we should be home for Christmas as there was less than five hundred miles to go.
On the gentle breeze that danced around the fading remnants of a desert trading post, I could hear the faint laughter of children set free from the confines of the sweltering, steaming old car, the exasperation of the father as he made a fruitless effort to restrain them with the promise of a cold bottle of pop, and the harassed mother as she made her contribution to the fruitless efforts of the father with fear laced admonishments about snakes played against the backdrop of a clanging bell as another car pulled to the pumps. And if I closed my eyes, and listened carefully, the voices became those of my dad, my sister, and my mother, the clean windswept desert air became tainted with the smell of an overheated Chevy, and in my minds eye we were young again, and Dad’s Chevy was a well worn used car, not an antique.
Empty places are magical places, for those who will take the time to listen. Empty places on Route 66 are magical places where memories light the darkness with the glow of garish neon, and the imagination transforms the empty, broken asphalt with its dust filled cracks into an endless stream of Hudson’s and Studebaker’s, Fords, and De Soto’s, Diamond Reo’s and Federals, rust colored jalopies and gleaming Packard’s.