You have to admire the nerve or foolishness of two pals who are so determined to travel old alignments of Route 66 that they get stuck not once, but twice, during their journey.
That’s what happens in Rick Antonson’s “Route 66 Still Kicks” (Skyhorse Publishing, paperback, 336 pages, illustrated, e-book available). Although this book is as freewheeling as you might expect, Antonson also weaves history and observations in a compelling way. It’s not just a baby-boomer version of “Fear & Loathing on Route 66.” It delves deeper.
Antonson and his buddy Peter decide to take on the Mother Road in October 2008 after a planned trip to Asia falls through. They rent a red Mustang in Chicago and head west after barely perusing the requisite Route 66 guidebooks. They formulate only a few rules — take turns driving, never order the same meal twice, play only music that’s been acquired on the road, and drive every old section of Route 66 they can.
They get lost. They get on each other’s nerves. They skip a number of landmarks because of disinterest. The duo’s problems as novice Route 66ers may spark some recognition from veteran roadies and their first Mother Road journeys.
Most memorably, the two get their Mustang hopelessly mired in the red Oklahoma mud on a primitive stretch of Route 66 near Bridgeport. They get stuck again in a flooded area in New Mexico. And the mud leads to repercussions when they drive the notorious Oatman Road in western Arizona around sunset.
But magic also happens. They experience a typically memorable conversation with Gary Turner at Gay Parita station near Halltown, Mo. They chat with three amiable gentlemen named Gene and one named Homer (I’m not making this up) at Jobe’s restaurant in El Reno, Okla.
And they travel miles and miles of gravel Route 66 near Los Lunas, N.M., without encountering another car. “We were never more alone, yet enchanted,” Antonson writes.
Antonson’s most impressive feat in “Route 66 Still Kicks” is how he incorporates history into the narrative. Even those familiar with the stories of Will Rogers, Cyrus Avery, Mickey Mantle, or Al Capone will find them rendered by Antonson in a fresh way.
And he keeps digging up obscure tidbits. For instance, did you know President Roosevelt rode in one of Capone’s old vehicles the day Congress declared war on Japan? Fearing assassination after Pearl Harbor, it was the only armored car the Secret Service could find on short notice.
Antonson also explains the often-overlooked Route 66 link to the Trail of Tears, and tells of a notorious double slaying that has scarred Depew, Okla., to this day.
And Antonson deserves credit for finding out, once and for all, whether Bobby Troup wrote additional song lyrics for “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66.”
As a well-traveled resident of Canada, Antonson provides interesting perspectives on Americans and their country. One such excerpt:
If, as the truck driver told me years ago, “You’ll never understand America until you’ve driven Route 66 — that’s old Route 66 — all the way,” is it a corollary that once you’ve driven this sliver of road, you do understand America? I think no — not fully — but you are given tantalizing hints, clues, and suggestions. Traveling Route 66 is not about understanding America; it is about contemplating America. This difference is vast. America is not to be understood.
And as the book drives near a satisfying end, Antonson observes:
The last morning of our drive, as I walked toward the motel office to square our bill, I stopped and saluted the road. I bowed to Route 66. It had taught me. America is more than the sum of its flaws; America, as seen via Route 66, is at once compound and intriguing; frustrating and invigorating; truthful and false. There was much more of America’s Main Street available to travel today than we had known about before our drive. We had been forced onto the interstate for only a few hundred miles of our journey. Amid it all, the route has kept its dignity as a destination, if not as a highway — over two thousand of the original highway’s 2,448 connected miles were still approachable, if not always drivable. It has avoided becoming merely an asterisk of tourism; it remains an exclamation mark of travel.
A couple of errors sneaked into Antonson’s book, including the Will Rogers Memorial and Museum being in Tulsa instead of the proper town of Claremore, Okla. (Antonson said in an email he’d write corrected text for future editions.)
But I wouldn’t let that dissuade you from reading “Route 66 Still Kicks.” It takes the pulse of the Main Street of America and gives even the most jaded roadie a lot to contemplate.
And buying the book serves a good cause — a portion of the author’s royalties will be donated to the National Historic Route 66 Federation.