food / travel

Route 66, Cruising The Most American Road Of Them All

Driving on a myth
Driving on a myth
Norbert Meiszies

KINGMAN — The road to Seligman, Arizona, carries a famous name — the roadside sign reads Historic Route 66. This is the right moment to slide the CD into the Harley-Davidson Electra Glide’s music player.

“Well, it winds from Chicago to L.A., more than 2,000 miles all the way. Get your kicks on Route 66,” goes expand=1] the song, blaring from the speakers over the noise of the road. The cliché has become reality, the dream come true for bikers and tourists traveling by van, bus or vintage car down what may be the most famous road on the planet.

Robert William “Bobby” Troup Jr. wrote “Get Your Kicks on Route 66” in 1946 as a tribute to the “Mother Road.” The refrain lists places along the way — among them St. Louis, Oklahoma City, Amarillo, Flagstaff, Kingman, and let’s not forget Winona — that today more or less sum up the history of Route 66.

Coming from Kingman, Arizona, you drive along one of the longest and best-maintained segments of the first transcontinental connection between East Coast and West Coast American cities. Interstate 40, which gets people to Flagstaff in a hurry, is far away. Back here you only find people with time — real fans — on the lookout for a genuine Route 66 experience and hidden memorabilia.

Like the Hackberry General Store. If you’re going too fast, you’ll pass it without noticing it. There are no signs, nothing to point to one of the major relics of Route 66 history. At first glance, the store looks like a shack — until you notice the huge glowing red sign in the shape of a flying horse on the roof and the shiny red 1956 Corvette parked out front and belonging to store owners Kerry and John Pritchard. The old Mobil gas pumps, the rusty Ford Model T, and countless old posters on sheet metal look exactly as they would have back in the day.

The road was once hot

What comes to mind is John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath about poor farmers, so-called Okies, fleeing on Route 66 from the sandstorms and drought of the Midwest, the dust bowls of Oklahoma and Texas, to work in the California fruit plantations that seemed to promise a better life. Another of these soldiers of fortune was Bobby Troup, who ended up in Los Angeles and went on to make a career in music.

The stretch of 2,448 miles (about 4,000 kilometers) between Chicago and Los Angeles has since become a clichéd symbol of freedom and independence for many adventurers and travelers. But what used to be the most important East-West link has long lost this status, having been replaced by interstates with multiple lanes that take travelers straight through the country in less time.

Since October 13, 1984, Interstate 40 has replaced the last 5.7 miles of the original Route 66 in Williams, Arizona. The old, curvy, one-lane 66 still exists (about 80% of it is still drivable), but much of it is hidden and unmarked. The longest contiguous segments are mainly located in the West, in Arizona and southern California.

Among those who didn’t let the Mother Road go was Bob Waldmire (1945-2009), a hippy from Illinois, who earned a living as a painter. Since the 1960s, he’d been traveling the highway in a Volkswagen bus selling postcards, stickers and pictures he’d painted of sights along the Mother Road. He happened on the rundown Hackberry General Store that had been built in 1934 just outside Hackberry, then a mining town. On Route 66, the store was a major hub for cattle transports and supplied travelers with gas and provisions. Both the town and the store lost their raison d’être after the interstate opened. Hackberry became a ghost town, and the store closed in 1978. When Waldmire re-opened it in 1992 as a Visitor Center, he was Hackberry’s only resident.

When the interstate killed culture

Most of the businesses, hotels, gas stations and diners that used to exist along Route 66 didn’t survive the change. They had to close, and have since been quietly falling into decrepitude. The Mother Road herself has suffered: Tufts of grass grow through cracks in the asphalt, while the wind and weather do the rest. Route 66 now survives because of the charm of disuse — and pretty well in some cases, such as New Mexico's 66 Diner in Albuquerque and the El Rancho Hotel in Gallup, both of which have achieved cult status.

But all that’s left of other places is pretty much the façade. Take Oatman in California, which became a ghost town in the 1970s. Located on one of the most beautiful segments of Route 66, this former gold diggers stronghold now attracts some 500,000 visitors a year, drawn by its Wild West Show and 66 souvenirs made in China. Thankfully, the drive over the Sitgreaves expand=1] Pass is rich enough in experiences to make up for the tourist circus.

Even Seligman, Arizona, which calls itself the birthplace of the 66 revival, is more reminiscent of a souvenir shop than a serious repository of Route 66 history. Those unforgettable moments when Juan Delgadillo (who died in 2004) and his brother Angel, who is going on 90, held travelers spellbound in their Snow Cap Drive-In eatery and legendary barbershop with their tales of the rise and fall of Route 66 will soon be a thing of the past. Many of the hotels and diners, having used up their nostalgia bonuses, have had to be completely renovated. There’s nobody to take up the cause, and the present keepers of Historic Route 66 are slowly dying out.

Ever fewer of the institutions from the days before the advent of mass tourism survive. Exceptions are the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, Arizona, and Roy's Cafe in the no-man’s-land of Amboy, California. And if John and Kerry Pritchard hadn’t by pure chance stopped off in Hackberry in 1998, the General Store might well no longer be in existence. Bob Waldmire hadn’t been able to agree with the authorities on the use of this public land, and moved back to Chicago after the Pritchards agreed to keep the General Store as a Route 66 museum.

“We actually never planned to buy the store,” says John Pritchard, the businessman from Washington. “We just wanted to help Bob repair the roof.” The Pritchards then changed the whole store back to the way it was in the 1940s and 1950s, restored the old gas pumps and decorated the place with items found along Route 66 that they’d been collecting for over 35 years.

A uniquely American road

But the General Store is no sterile museum: Route 66 comes alive for visitors who wander through checking out the old books, jukebox, photographs, cast-iron heating stove, memorabilia and T-shirts mixed in among traditional food store items and traveler necessities like cola, crackers and chewing gum.

The gas pump in front of a mom and pop store is as much a part of American life as wheat beer and veal sausage are to a German’s. “We were always hanging around the gas station,” Pritchard says of his relation to this arch-American institution. “That’s where the coolest cars and the prettiest girls were. We practically lived there. And now I’m back, so the circle closes.”

Whether some road other than Route 66 could have achieved this level of fame, the answer is clear. “No, on Route 66 anybody going from Chicago to Los Angeles sees everything that characterizes the United States of America,” Pritchard says. “He sees the big-city lights of Chicago and St. Louis, the huge expanse of the Midwest, Texas, cowboys and Indians, deserts, the California coasts. All on one road. Where else do you get that?”

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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