Last summer, at our former house, we noticed something more and more: of all our neighbors, we were the only ones who spent any measurable amount of time outside.
Whether for grilling, or for playing on the swing set, or going for a simple walk around the block, our family was largely alone. We didn’t see some neighbors for weeks. Others only went outside to mow the lawn, or get in their car and leave. My wife and I would sit in the backyard, after putting the kids to bed, just to read and drink and watch the birds. Again: all alone, all by ourselves.
Granted, we lived in a rural neighborhood, and most country folks stick to themselves. But we couldn’t shake a thought: how weird that other people in our neighborhood weren’t enjoying the lovely Michigan summer. So far, it’s been the same story at our new house.
Maybe a lot has changed since I was a kid (“Go outside and play!” my mother would shout, and we did – all day long). There are a lot of new time suck options, from Netflix to Facebook, even in rural areas. Given that more people (especially children) are spending less time outside, my values probably differ from my nation’s.
On the other hand, it’s easy to fall into nature worship, and praise fresh air so much that you become annoying. I’ll admit that not everyone craves Thoreau’s “tonic of wilderness” like I do. We sent our son to a nature center for preschool, and he spent most of his school day outdoors in the woods. That’s not for everyone.
But, I do think that if you have a yard, you should spend time in it. If you live on a road, you should walk up and down it from time to time.
And if you’re a photographer, getting outside should be a part of your practice. Take your camera, grab your kids or pet, and go outside to see what the season has accomplished.
Last week was your first national political election. At just over a year old, you already participated in American democracy, even if it was not directly. And as you joined me in polling booth, I feel like we had high hopes.
I put you to bed last Tuesday night feeling both sad and grateful. Sad, because maybe you wouldn’t grow up having a woman president to look up to, but grateful that you’re growing up in an America that makes it decently safe and secure to live as a woman. You have more privileges than some, but less than others. You probably have more to worry about from non-political threats.
Historically, the good news is American does grow more tolerant as the years pass by. Blacks and Latinos, while still harried and threatened, are in a better situation than when your grandparents were born. Muslims may have more to worry about. The nation still mostly fights for women’s rights. Gay and lesbian and whatever couples can legally marry. Even the furries are gaining respect (maybe).
But I still worry about the environment we’ll leave you, both in terms of nature and politics. I worry about what art and music education will be like when you’re going to school. I worry about how your peers will be treated by people who are white and scared and stupid. I worry about the America you’ll grow up in. It’s survived a lot over these 200+ years, but you never know.
It’s obvious to say it, but your world will look very different than mine does. I hope it’s for the better, and I’m going to try like hell to make it better. I hope that there will be a woman elected president, and that you’ll get to vote for her. I hope I get to vote for her, too.
This last trip out west brought me back to a turning point in my life. More specifically, a simple pavement-and-paint road: Route 66.
Leaving the Kaibab Plateau on the north rim of the Grand Canyon, and crossing the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona, I entered New Mexico by way of I-40 and Gallup. The last time I was in Gallup was four years ago on a life-changing trip across country – the first of my great big adventures.
But I didn’t enter Gallup by Interstate; that was just the destination. Instead, I drove into Gallup like I did last time – by a smaller two-lane highway coming out of Arizona. Driving down Main Street, seeing the old Sante Fe Line railroad cars, being in Gallup brought back a lot of good memories.
So I thought, “What the heck? Why not?” I decided to hit the route again for old time’s sake. The only problem was that I came unprepared. No maps, no directions, no idea where, exactly, to jump on and start driving.
That’s the thing about Route 66: there are parts that remain in a straight line, but out west the road remains broken and jumps around in fits and starts. You don’t hop on and keep riding. You have to navigate the Mother Road, crossing the interstate, zipping down frontage roads, and then watch as the “Road Ends” sign signals a change of plans.
Doing the best I could, I tried it anyway. And let me tell you, it was great.
I flicked through my iPod playlists and hit “Play” on my Route 66 Mix. U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name,” Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere,” Boston’s “Foreplay Long Time,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart,” The Eagle’s “Take It Easy,” Chuck Berry’s version of “Route 66” – it’s hard not to get emotional when those songs start playing while I’m driving on the road they were organized for.
There was only one wrong turn the whole way from Gallup to Albuquerque. It’s like my brain snapped into place and my hands become automatic sextants, guiding the rental car down a defunct highway.
Even though, for many miles, the route runs alongside the Interstate, I found (then, as now) that the mind occupies a totally different space when driving on Route 66. On the highway, you pay attention to your destination and the car around you, speeding and passing and watching for exits. On the Route, you pay attention to the Route: the scenery, the little towns you pass, the way the road meanders around rock formations and railroad tracks. You think differently driving at 55 miles per hour.
Of course, for me, there was a lot to think about. I couldn’t help but remember what was going on with my life four years ago, and how it mirrored today. Same stress, same heartache, same need to hit the road. It was only appropriate that I returned to the road that had given me so much comfort and respite back then.
For some parts, it was like waking up out of the slumber I’ve been in – both sobering and exciting to realize that, here I was, back in the desert, on my own again. I looked out at the landscape and thought, “I’m back.”
And it was good to see sections of the Route I missed in 2006. For that section of western New Mexico, I had traveled a lot of path in the dark. I remember pulling out of Albuquerque at sunset, sneaking into the Acoma Pueblo at twighlight (long past closing hours), and crawling into Gallup at night to sleep in my car. When it’s dark in the desert, it’s dark. So I missed large sections of the Route.
This time, it was pretty cool to see the parts I did remember again. There’s a little section an hour or two west of Albuquerque that winds through sandstone cliffs, and “Route 66” is painted on the asphalt along the way. I’d forgotten about that section of road through the years, but driving through those formations brought everything back. It could be that last time I didn’t grab a picture. This time I did:
Most of all, it was tons of fun to drive. Changes in altitude, taking corners at 15 or 25 miles per hour – it makes steering the car along the road a true joy.
On the way back home, during my shotgun trip across Arizona back to Las Vegas, I picked up bits and pieces of the Route – mostly because that’s all that’s left in Arizona. There’s a long section, between Seligman and Kingman, that was my favorite driving experience the last time I was out there. Past Kingman, the Route heads toward the Black Mountains, on the border with California, and snakes through Sitgreaves Pass – practically a religious experience for a young man from mid Michigan.
So I went back to that place. It’s a 10 minute drive outside of Kingman to the entrance of the Pass, and last time those mountains loomed at me. I remember my palms sweating, getting nervous, for no good reason except I felt something ominous about those mountains. Turns out I was right, because a winding, narrow, sheer-cliffed road facing the setting sun in a desolate landscape will put the fear of God into you. That road changes things. It broadens your horizons, and teaches you a bit about the unpredictable nature of the world. Plus it’s a pretty fun drive.
Last time, I came down the other side of those mountains – changed, sweating – and pulled over in Oatman just to get my bearings. A pair of the locals, probably feeling sorry for me, invited me to dinner and told me about guys who sat at the entrance of the pass and got paid to drive out-of-towners through Sitgreaves. Many who didn’t have help died falling down those rocky cliffs.
This time, it was nice just to see it again, and remember the dread I felt approaching that mountain pass as the sun was setting in May 2006. I only went part-way up because I had a plane to catch, but I came back down with some new resolutions and fond memories of my younger self. It was worth the return trip.
Plus, while in Albuquerque, I took a day’s drive up to Sante Fe and caught an old section of the Route, dating from 1938, that I didn’t catch last time. The Route changed, and straightened, to include Albuquerque after 1939. What I did see in Sante Fe wasn’t all that impressive, though – mainly a long commercial section with three lanes each way and many, many stoplights. Really, I was glad to be done with it when I hopped back on south-bound I-25.
But no matter where I was, the world changed on Route 66. It could be part sentimentality and part psychological need, but my heart needed a little trip down one of the best memories of my life. A return voyage to a great adventure, if only in small sections.