- Route 66 Still Kicks: Driving America's Main Street by Rick Antonson. (Dundurn, 336 pages).
THE mustang rode across the Midwest, and its driver searched for America.
As Barack Obama and John McCain jousted for the United States' electorate, author Rick Antonson drove Route 66 in the hopes of finding the country's conscience.
In Route 66 Still Kicks, Antonson recounts the road's history between gas stations, motels, and the wisdom offered over cups of coffee by the unorthodox philosophers that only lucky travellers encounter.
Route 66 was Chicago's pipeline to Charlie Parker, Count Basie and the rest of the golden sounds coming from the Kansas City jazz scene in the 1930s and '40s. For migrant workers forced from their land in the days of the depression, it was the road to California, and hopefully to a job.
The faint residue of the journey taken by storytellers, workers, wanderers, and bootleggers still clings to the worn road and its dilapidated roadside attractions, and for Antonson, following that path was as close to time travel as he could get.
"You're driving through . . . an America that never had extravagance, maybe never sought it, and so the buildings didn't get demolished to make room for something more modern. They're still there," he says. "The face of America in the '40s and '50s, it's still physically there."
In The Grapes of Wrath, American author John Steinbeck describes the migrant workers as, "Refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert's slow northward invasion."
Steinbeck's prose and the songs of folk singer Woody Guthrie were part of Antonson's motivation to undertake the journey.
Asked about Woody Guthrie's influence on his own wanderlust, Antonson sings a few lines from the Guthrie song, "Oklahoma Hills."
"Now way down yonder in the Indian nation, a cowboy's life is my occupation," he half-sings, half-speaks, marveling at the song's power to weave its melody into his memory.
"Somewhere in my childhood I picked up that song and it resonated," Antonson says, discussing his ever-present urge to travel. "Guthrie's words have always beckoned, and I think they influenced me politically, too. I lean to the left politically."
As a means of ensuring a political balance on the road, Antonson was joined by his friend Peter Armstrong.
"He's kind of, needle-off the other end," Antonson says of Armstrong's political affiliations. "What doesn't come through in the book is that our trip was during the last U.S. election, it was fall of 2008, and of course we're going through Arizona and I'm wearing an Obama/Biden T-shirt."
Despite Armstrong's fears that Antonson's attire would lead them into a backroad brawl with a disgruntled republican, Antonson says they didn't run into any problems.
Antonson and Armstrong had travelled to Libya five years earlier and were sketching out another trip when Armstrong struck on the idea of driving Route 66.
"Peter gets quite fixated on a quest," Antonson explains. "We knew there was old Route 66 and we quickly found out it wasn't a straight drive, so he said, 'Let's find all the old parts.' So that gave us a quest that was deeper than just a road trip. . . . It meant getting stuck in the mud, it meant driving till 10 at night in the rain sometimes trying to find an old route just because it used to be Route 66, which when you think about it, it's a little crazy, but that became our shared bent."
As their Mustang collected miles and mud, Antonson took notes and the trip started turning into a book.
"You're listening to repeat songs, you're not having to think much other than when we got lost, which happened frequently. And because we were seeking places which often had road signs saying 'Not Advisable.'"
Part of the challenge for Antonson on the trip was easing into a rhythm best stomped in cowboy boots.
After seeing Armstrong return to the car with Country and Western Hits, Volume 2, Antonson quips: "Are there really enough country and western hits for two volumes?"
But as the car breezed through Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma, Antonson felt himself fall into the rhythm.
"If you put the rhythm of the road to music it would probably be C&W," he says. "The politics are country and western."
As he and Armstrong stopped in the type of diners and truck stops where the waitress calls you "Sugar," they began to feel at home, according to Antonson.
"You start to become a local. A movable local, but you're a local. When you're in Oklahoma, you're reading the Oklahoma newspaper, whatever the daily is," he says. "A bit of the news would be national, but much more of it would be about a bowling alley closing, or a new shop opening up. . . . That's the lens you look at America through, because they're not usually looking at the world, you're looking at America."
The "bend over backwards to make your day OK people" he met along the way gave Antonson a new perspective on ways the country had changed, and on ways it hadn't.
"I'm one of the ones that wasn't really expecting to be able to touch that sense of the 1950s America, which was never harmless, but in lore, has become that innocent moment where everything was OK in the U.S. It never was, but on parts of Route 66 you kind of feel like you really have dropped back in time to more innocence."
The journey also raised the spectre of the criminal warfare that formed the country and provided the basis for countless gangster movies.
"I was in the Banjo Palace down in Gastown, and I remember touching the bricks that were from the St. Valentine's Day massacre."
In one of the book's most intriguing bits of history, Antonson relates how, through an odd but understandable confluence of circumstances, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt wound up being chauffered to Congress in the back of a bulletproof V-16 Cadillac once owned by Al Capone.
The book also features an introduction to Dorothea Lange, a photographer who dedicated herself to chronicling the struggles of migrant workers.
"I think I fell in love with Dorothea Lange," he says. "There's maybe two pages on her in the book. I actually wrote what would be the equivalent of six or seven pages, I just got so intrigued."
The book also includes a sample chapter from To Timbuktu for a Haircut, a travel piece that has gained new relevance as Islamist militias are reportedly wresting control of northern Mali and destroying mosques and shrines of great historical significance.
"It just makes me cry inside," Antonson says. "The sect that's got control of Timbuktu now they've actually said they have a plan. They could raze all the of the shrines and the mosques by August. I was in one of the mosques."
Still in touch with Zak, Antonson's guide on the 2004 trip, he says he's receiving updates about the area's increasing volatility.
"He said the rebel forces are perhaps 70 km
from his village and they're actually wondering . . . should they be going to Burkina Faso?"
Antonson is amazed at the country's quick descent into violence.
"A year ago it would've been safe," he says. "The hope is that some of those can be transferred and gotten out of the country."
To Timbuktu for a Haircut is scheduled to be re-issued this spring.
"It begs for a new foreword and a fresh afterword to put everything in context, so I'll be working on that, but I just wish it wasn't the stuff I had to write about."
Route 66 Still Kicks is dedicated to Antonson's grandchildren, with the hope that Route 66 will be there when the time comes for them to try to understand the United States for themselves.
"It's not an America as lost as we might think it is," Antonson says, discussing the layers of complexity that form the country.
"America's not to be understood. It can be contemplated."