I left Maryville with a heavy heart. I caught a divided highway at St. Joseph, skirted Kansas City and caught Route-66 at Joplin with no difficulty. I did not feel like tracking back to Mansfield to see the Ozarks. I thought I could come back some other time; it never happened. I moved forward toward Tulsa and on toward Oklahoma City.
It is almost impossible to come to grips with the size of the land between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean unless one rides a horse, a wagon or an automobile; a train ride would not give the same freedom of movement and intimacy with the land. One of the original U.S. Highways, established in 1926, Route 66, became the most famous and romantic roads in America. It ran from Chicago through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, before ending at Los Angeles, covering a total of 2,448 miles.
The story of Route 66 starts over a century earlier when the young United States began to grow westward. The mountain men, in an effort to leave the settled east behind, opened up the unspoiled west to the westward expansion of a nation by their explorations. There were no established trails but the ones the mountain men blazed themselves as they followed the beaver along the traces left by the Native Americans. These old trails were generally all that existed for the wagon trains that followed shortly thereafter. The trails were general courses, where wagons would spread out over a wide area, following a single track only where terrain forced them.
With the gold rush of 1849, thousands of people sought routes to California. From trails such as the Santa Fe Trail and Beale’s Wagon Road across New Mexico and Arizona, a transportation corridor began to take shape. The railroads would follow this corridor a few years later further establishing routes west that would someday become a part of Route 66. The railroad had to follow the contours of the land, avoiding steep grades. The railroad also had to connect sources of water, as the steam engines of those days required substantial water at frequent intervals. As a result, the route was far easier and more gradual than earlier wagon roads had been. Many of the sidings and water stops became communities that would survive into the highway era.
With the emergence of the automobile, the government realized that something would have to be done about the poor road system in America. The Federal Government finally stepped in and made a concerted effort to bring some order and required the states to designate primary roads to be included in a national highway system. These roads would be designated U.S. highways. Cyrus Avery, a businessman from Oklahoma, now known to many as the father of Route 66, was charged with establishing what would become the U.S. Highway System. Avery became one of the strongest supporters of the Chicago to Los Angeles route, a route that he wanted to pass through his home state of Oklahoma.
When Avery took over Route-66 was basically a mishmash of roads, horse-tracks, and wagon paths strung together and paved to make it suitable for automobile traffic. Most of the time, it was a poorly-aligned two-lane highway, one lane in each direction, with no median strip. Every time the highway encountered a town, it meanders through that town – often forming its main street – stopping at all the traffic lights. Motorists, having driven at 55 mph, would find it difficult to adjust to the lower speed limits as they enter city limits and easily fall victim to the local traffic police waiting in ambush. Nevertheless, the forced change in the driving environment proved to be a welcome relief from the long and monotonous drive.
Driving on Route-66 was neither for the weak-hearted nor for the impatient. Overtaking a slowpoke ahead, on a two-lane highway, would often pose a challenge. To pass a car ahead, you have to wait until you get the right to pass, by way of a broken white line on your side of the road as well as a sign posted on the roadside. Then you have to make sure there is no traffic coming from the opposite direction. When these two conditions are satisfied, you can safely cross over to the opposing traffic lane, accelerate to overtake the car in front of you, traveling in the same direction as you, move sufficiently far ahead of it before merging back into your lane. For a safe execution of this maneuver, you need the implicit cooperation of two other drivers. The driver of the car you are passing should either maintain or slow down a bit – but not accelerate – to make it easier for you to overtake. Any driver coming from the opposing direction should be mindful of the potential danger of a head-on collision. This maneuver is relatively easy if the traffic is light in both directions and if there is only one car ahead of you to overtake.
Not all vehicles move fast. Farm vehicles, vehicles towing a trailer, a vehicle driven by an elderly person, or a vehicle driven by a timid driver move slowly. If a car falls behind these inherently slow vehicles, and cannot overtake the slow vehicle in a timely manner, another car would arrive and line up behind the second car. Soon a long platoon will be moving slowly behind the slowpoke at the head of the procession. In the Sixties, there were frequent discussions in magazines and TV shows on whom to blame for the platoon formation on highways like Route-66. Experts decided that the “fault”, if we may call it a fault, is the second diver’s in the procession, not the first. If the second driver in a platoon cannot or will not overtake the first driver, then it would be that much more difficult for the third driver to overtake two cars in front, and so on, ad infinitum.
Another memorable feature of American highways of the sixties are the billboards and roadside advertisements. Huge billboards dominated the highway robbing the travelers the opportunity to enjoy the countryside. Some of the road signs displaying essential information, such as road conditions and directions, were often overwhelmed by signs inviting travelers to stop by and see a three-headed snake, a five-legged cow or a mermaid were outright dangerous. The ridiculousness of these posters went so far that Wall Drug Company posted a sign saying, “Our store is only 827 miles ahead! Please stop by.” I thought there should be a law to prohibit street side billboards. On the car radio, I heard news reports on pending legislation to address this problem. Finally, on October 22, 1964, President Johnson signed the Highway Beautification Act that stipulated rules and regulations on advertising on highways. This is one example where unregulated laissez-faire climate did not lead to a public good until the government intervened and regulated.
Although I despised the tasteless commercials that formed an eyesore, one set of advertisements, from the Burma Shave Company, turned out to be an exception. Actually, I bumped into these Burma Shave commercials quite unexpectedly. As I was driving, I noticed a relatively small and innocuous board with the words, “Our part.” It made no sense and I just ignored it. After a mile, I saw a similar sized board, with the words, “to make your face.” This too made no sense, but this time I could not just ignore it. But I couldn’t do anything about it. I kept on driving. After another mile, I saw a third board – the same size, the same height, with the words – “a work of art.” My curiosity was aroused. Was there a message intended? “To make your face, A work of art”? I kept driving. After another mile, I found yet another board with the inscription, “Burma Shave!” What did the first board say? I could not tell how many boards I had driven past before they caught my attention. I had to drive several miles before I could find an exit. I exited, turned around, and went back East – sufficiently far – and turned West and started hunting for the missed boards. Finally, I found out that there was a message:
Everyday / We Do / Our Part / To Make Your Face / A Work of Art / Burma Shave!
After this discovery, I started anxiously looking for another set of boards. In my trip I found two more:
Substitutes / Can let you down/ Quicker / Than a / Strapless Gown / Burma-Shave!
This will never / Come to pass / A Back Seat / Driver / Out of Gas / Burma-Shave!
At my leisurely pace, I pushed on past Tulsa, toward Oklahoma City. Leaving the rolling hills behind, my car entered along stretches of highway passing through the virtually empty land. The scenery of a long, lonely highway, looking like a black strip of ribbon stretching up to the horizon over a featureless terrain was so compelling that it was etched in my brain. Years later, I was surprised and startled to see the same image re-played in front of my eyes while watching Rain Man starring Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise. Although the movie showed a billboard claiming the Big 8 Motel, in which Raymond and Charlie stayed, was ‘Amarillo’s Finest,’ in fact, it was shot in El Reno, OK.
This was not the first time Hollywood played such tricks on us. In The Graduate, Benjamin graduated from the University of California at Berkeley but the college scenes were shot at the University of Southern California. In fact, Uma, wearing a sari, appears in one of the long shots of the campus scene. Although the scene appears in the movie for less than a minute, the outdoor shooting unit camped out at USC for three days and they took several takes. During the long waiting periods, Uma and I found it convenient to perch ourselves on the rim of a dry fountain. Then, a young, short fellow, with that liberal-chic-academic look – faded jeans, a tweed corduroy jacket with well-worn elbow patches, no socks, no tie – walked in and sat right in between the two of us. With that dark hair and big nose, he could pass well for a graduate student – not quite a nerd because that word did not gain currency at that time. He tried to strike a conversation with Uma. Being new in the United States she was not quite comfortable in making small talk with men, she promptly stood up and walked toward me, saying in Telugu, ”this fellow is trying to make a pass at me.” Minutes later, the director of the movie shouted, “Dusty, we are ready. Now you go over there and walk casually toward the fountain. The rest of you stay where you are.” The short, large-nosed, corduroy jacket with elbow patches promptly jumped off his perch, walked to the far end of the walkway and came to us. Even at that time, it did not dawn on us that the fellow that Uma so promptly snubbed was none other than Dustin Hoffman. None of us had heard of him.
After El Reno, I drove past Texola and entered Texas. Had it not been for the sagebrush and the dust devils swirling around, serving as constant reminders that I was on terra firma, I would have compared the drive to sailing through a trackless, windy ocean. No wonder, someone has described this stretch of the journey as follows:
“The sun has riz
The sun has set
And here we is
In Texas yet!”
After Texola and Shamrock, I drove through a small village called McLean in Texas. I heard that a sleepy cotton field, two miles northeast of McLean held 3,000 German prisoners of war from 1943 to 1945. There was little trouble from the prisoners who were only too happy to be out of the battle zones and safe from injury. Actually, these prisoners were better off than those captured by the Soviet Union and sent to camps in Siberia.
Many local civilians worked at the prison camp as secretaries, nurses and in camp maintenance. Citizens were invited to attend movies and other programs held at the camp and some rationed supplies were sometimes contributed to town organizations. At times, prisoners were allowed to work in leased crews to help pick cotton or hoe weeds from crops. The community was closely involved with the camp, and many local citizens formed lasting friendships and relationships with some of the German prisoners.