By Jake Strickler, Staff Writer
“These great roads are wonderful for moving goods but not for inspection of a countryside. You are bound to the wheel and your eyes to the car ahead and to the rear-view mirror for the car behind and the side mirror for the car or truck about to pass, and at the same time you must read all the signs for fear you may miss some instructions or orders. No roadside stands selling squash juice, no antique stores, no farm products or factory outlets. When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing.”
- John Steinbeck on interstate highways in Travels with Charley
John Steinbeck wrote these words in 1960 when, feeling estranged from the country and the people that he made his name writing about, he outfitted his pickup truck with a sleeping cabin in the flatbed, named the vehicle Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse, put his poodle Charley in the passenger seat, and set out on a tortuous 10,000-mile journey in search of the spirit of modern America. This trip coincided with the early developmental stages of the massive commercial Interstate Highway System, construction of which was spread over nearly 40 years to the tune of $425 billion. It spans almost 50,000 miles, about double the circumference of Earth. The intentions behind it were militaristic in origin, with the defense community wanting a network of straight, flat roads of standardized width over which troop carriers, tanks, and other like vehicles could be mobilized. But along with the postwar economic boom came a shifting of the factors of production from a range of small, local firms to concentrated and amalgamated national (and soon to be transnational) corporations. Resultantly, a secondary use for the highway system was discovered: the mass high-speed transport of goods and people across state lines, without the inconvenience of railroad timetables to adhere to. In short, the interstate highway system became synonymous with the concept of American freedom.
Steinbeck avoided these roads, except when necessity (such as a massive blizzard) forced him onto them. His reasoning for this was simple: happening concurrently with the rush to the interstate was a collective neglecting and dilapidation of the small townships and communities along the county roads of Middle America. These areas, he believed, were the last bastions of true Americana. Beginning after the end of World War Two was a mass American rural to urban migration, fueled by the very things which the highway system came to maintain and perpetuate: the rise of the corporation, the concentration of capital into urban centers, and the advent of cheap suburban housing. The numbered roads of the highway system became the capillaries and arteries of this country, providing lifeblood to those areas situated near them. Those locations too far off the beaten path were bypassed and cut off, stuck in a bygone time and doomed to slow death.
At the risk of sounding like a fussbudget, I believe that what was lost in the transaction was a great deal of the adventurous spirit that characterized early America as, for example, the colorful mom-and-pop inns were replaced by the postmodern, sanitized, rococo faux-refinery of Howard Johnsons; the kind of place that Henry Miller referred to as “the air-conditioned nightmare.” Wrote Steinbeck, “At intervals there are places of rest and recreation, food, fuel and oil, postcards, steam-table food, picnic tables, garbage cans all fresh and newly painted, rest rooms and lavatories so spotless, so incensed with deodorants and detergents that it takes a time to get your sense of smell back.” Uniformity became king, as the American consumer came to expect a McDonald’s hamburger to taste precisely the same, whether in Topeka or Tallahassee. Today we have seen this dynamic carried to its almost absurd logical conclusion, with brightly lit signs screaming at us no matter what part of the country we’re in to exit the highway and visit Walmart and Wendy’s, Target and TGI Fridays, Sav-On and the Sizzler. The comfort of one’s hometown can be found no matter where one ends up for the simple fact that American cities are no longer that different from one another. As Steinbeck concluded, this “is life at the peak of some kind of civilization.” Whether or not that civilization is a good one is up for individual determination.
Where I’d like to go with all of this is to posit that when one choses to travel roads that are to a certain degree untouched by this development (for, truly, it is not possible to escape it altogether), a sort of trip through the past can be achieved. One is able to see firsthand the ruins of communities that have been lost to modern progress and the rundown shabbiness of the ones still clinging to life. Boarded-up midcentury gas stations, old junked cars, abandoned or burnt out stores, churches with broken windows, tacky roadside attractions; all are there for those willing to wander from the prescribed route. The big country of the American Midwest is an ideal environment for this because, as one can see from taking a look at a map of interstate highways, this portion of the country is sparsely roaded, relative to the compacted density of the East. For those who have experienced little of America outside of metropolitan centers, such a trip can be as exotic and stimulating as foreign travel. Regional cuisine, customs, and dialects vary dramatically from state to state, and these elements are on display far more prominently outside of the standardizing influence of major commercial hubs.
These small towns also serve as collection points for weirdos and outsiders; the people who prefer isolation and contemplation to modern American hypercapitalism. I once sat at a bar outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming, talking to a long-distance trucker named Mike about his love of the open road and his disdain for the overcrowded complexity of big cities. On another trip, I stumbled upon a southern Colorado town called Crestone that is an extraordinarily well-preserved old hippie colony. While modern conveniences like television and internet have reached the town, it remains remarkably cut off: it is 45 minutes from any major road, is absent of any sort of chain business, and is a hotbed of Eastern religion, including a beautiful and ornate Tibetan Buddhist stupa that one is required to actually get out of their car and hike to in order to see. In the nearby San Luis Valley town of Monte Vista, I traded rounds at a bowling alley bar (the only business open after 8:00 p.m.) with a gentleman who told me about the time in the 1970s when he was parked with his high school sweetheart on Lover’s Lane up in the Sangre de Christo Mountains when a massive UFO with bright, shining lights came over the ridge a la Close Encounters of the Third Kind, spoiling the mood. The veracity of his story is not important to me, but the fact that he decided to tell it to me is. I cherish these memories because they were encounters with people and places that retain something of that old-time adventurous American spirit; they’re the dreamers and seekers, the people who aren’t satisfied with mainstream existence.
The state of Arizona is uniquely suited to this kind of exploration. As the last of the contiguous U.S. states to become incorporated into the union in 1912, it was, up until an economic boom fueled by the cattle, copper, and cotton industries (and later by retirement housing and financial speculation – the saga of Charles Keating, Vegas mobsters, and the Savings and Loan scandals of the early 1980s makes for fascinating reading), very much an unwanted no-man’s land. Desolate and with extreme heat unbearable until the advent of air conditioning, Arizona did not attract settlers in the way that Colorado, California, and Oregon did. As General William T. Sherman (of Sherman’s March to the Sea fame for all of you hip to your Civil War history) put it: “We had one war with Mexico to take Arizona, and we should have another to make her take it back.” It epitomized the Wild West, with Native Americans, mestizos, cattle bosses, robber barons, saloon operators, hired guns, and communist labor organizers all thrown together into the harsh landscape. Law and order were scarce, corruption and violence were rampant, and the names of towns like Tombstone and Yuma came to serve as lodestars for Western history buffs. Today, the overwhelming majority of the state’s population is concentrated into three main areas: the Flagstaff-Sedona-Prescott corridor, the Phoenix metro area (described by naturalist Edward Abbey as “the blob that’s eating Arizona”), and the city of Tucson. Outside of these areas are vast swaths of undeveloped land, much of which is owned by the U.S. military or apportioned for Native American reservations.
I’ve spent a lot of time exploring these areas over the past few months, and have found that much of the ruggedness and wildness of old Arizona still exists. In the process I’ve also become infatuated with the desolation, variety, and natural beauty of the state. Of course, it is necessary to jump on Interstate 17 to leave town, but once you’re out of the metro area, the road narrows, the cacti appear in multitudes, and the drive becomes solitary and pastoral. The elevation increases by a whopping 7,000 feet as you climb up the incline to the Colorado Plateau. The cars thin out, and a short drive from an off-ramp can put you quite literally in the middle of nowhere.
So, if I’ve convinced you to get out on the road, here are my recommendations: first, get a group of friends together. Next, put together a mix of old American music; I like to go for an assortment of classic country, blues, jazz, and rock & roll. This goes a long way toward setting the mood. Head north and get off the highway wherever inspiration strikes. I strongly recommend Arcosanti, a community of artists and environmental thinkers that was established in the 1950s with the intention of creating a place that can sustain itself in the extreme desert environment. People still reside here, growing their own food, collecting and storing water, and living with very little impact on the land around them. Take a tour and check out the unique buildings, many of which have survived since the city’s founding. Also recommended is Jerome. This city carved into the side of a mountain is an old mining community with a storied past, including violent labor strikes orchestrated by the communist-affiliated Industrial Workers of the World, and a house of ill repute operated by a woman who was romantically linked to jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton. Wander away from the groups of tourists and take a look at the beautifully preserved architecture.
If you’re ambitious enough to take on the Grand Canyon, head up that way. Even if you’ve been before, it’s virtually impossible to grow jaded about its majesty. On your way down Highway 180 toward Flagstaff, be sure to stop by Bedrock City, a Flintstones-themed amusement park built in the 1970s that is now totally dilapidated and creepy. Also, stop at some Native American craft markets. Talk to the people there about their lives and get a sense of the rich culture that predates conquest of the state by those of European ancestry. If you haven’t been before, walk around downtown Flagstaff and Sedona. Talk to the new-agers in the latter and learn about the mystical energy vortexes that they purport exist in a great number around the area. Do a short hike up to the top of a hill at sunset. For variety, head southwest and intercept Highway 60 through Wickenburg back toward Phoenix. Always pick the road less traveled by. It may be a while between gas stations, you may get lost and have to stop for directions, and your path may be devoid of modern conveniences like public restrooms, but with the stereo cranked up and your eyes focused forward on the open road, these simple risks become an integral part of the journey. Arizona is a place that was created by adventurers, for adventurers. So get out there and have some of your own.