LOS ANGELES — OK, so I wouldn't call this a savage journey to the heart of the American Dream. And it wasn't an excuse for all the exhausted cliches of parachute journalism — to stop in every faded truck stop along the Texas Panhandle to talk Mexican immigration with scruffy dudes in Make America Great Again hats, or hang out in a stainless-steel diner next to some shuttered steel mill, hard on a Mon Valley hillside.
There just wasn't time for any of that. This was an accidental Father's Day mission to help deliver the most valuable thing in my universe — my 22-year-old now-college-grad son — along with something that's rapidly depreciating in its value, a silver pine mica green 2007 Toyota Prius with more than 199,000 miles on it, to the City of Angels. And we had to get there no later than this Monday morning, so he could start his cool summer job, right on Sunset Boulevard.
It was the sprint of a lifetime, and the timing couldn't have been better. For one thing, I have a semi-new gig here — national opinion columnist for the Daily News, Inquirer and Philly.com — and what better way to start a dream job like this one than seeing pretty much the entire nation — albeit at 79 mph, and through the windshield-splattered entomology of every soft-shelled flying creature west of Rolla, Missouri.
But there was also something else. Our mad dash from the Hillary-loving western suburbs of Philly, across the scorched earth of the Oklahoma and Missouri Bible Belt, only to re-emerge on the patchouli-scented streets of Southern California, came at the very moment that political America seemed to be falling apart…again. We'd just thrown the last bag in the back of the Prius on Wednesday morning when my phone crackled with the news that a left-wing lunatic had gone hunting Republicans on a Virginia baseball field and nearly killed a U.S. congressman. You had to go back to the 1960s — or heck, maybe the 1860s — to find a moment when the national conversation was this loud, and this fraught with peril.
They always say that people need to stop talking and start listening — but I didn't even want to do that. For 79 hours, I wanted to roll up the window, turn off the radio — and just look, and occasionally think. Because I think you can learn a lot about America if you just shut up, and use your eyes.
As the mile markers flew past, my son and I saw an America that could bore you to tears with flat, fertile-brown sameness, only to stun with a burst of color and energy, like 15 miles from the Texas-New Mexico border when the road suddenly dips, the sky overhead explodes in infinite powder blue, and the earth below is dotted with blazing red rocks and green whisps of sagebrush. Our 2,700-mile odyssey managed to celebrate every Starbucks-soaked stereotype about American conformity. That is, until you reach the Texas flatlands to see they are dominated today not by oil rigs but by massive wind turbines sprouting like sunflowers into the far horizon, or when you see the rainbow flags celebrating gay pride up and down Massachusetts Avenue in Indianapolis, a stone throw from where our intolerant Vice President Mike Pence was very recently living in the governor's mansion.
And speaking of anti-Pence mini-rants, I'll tell you what it looks like America is not obsessed with: Politics. In fact, I saw one political sign — a giant Trump yard sign off I-44 in central Missouri – during the entire journey (two, if you count the sign just a couple of miles down the road from that one attacking Israel and "Jews" for "war crimes" in the 1967 attack on the USS Liberty). No, if you look — instead of listen -you'll see an America instead obsessed with finding its soul…and finding a job.
Starting on the outskirts of Columbus, Ohio, we saw a large "Christian superstore" at one exit and then an even larger "adult superstore" at the next one — America's crisis of moral conscience, waged at the cash register (interspersed with more than a few massive gun shops, for good measure). Whipping through Ohio, Indiana, and Southern Illinois, I must have also seen a dozen huge, windowless, brick boxy buildings — not the iconic rusty smokestacks of an early 20th Century steel mill, but bland widget factories constructed around the 1970s — with their sad empty parking lots and big "For Lease" signs by the side of the interstate.
With the good-paying blue-collar jobs that once resided in those boxes now gone, the race for new skills is on. For every shuttered factory, I saw two or three for-profit colleges, their neon signs beckoning from their anonymous office-park "campuses." In Waynesboro, Mo., the service road along I-44 starts with a high school that's practically dwarfed by its football stadium ("Home of the Tigers"), right next to the Waynesboro Career Center and a small community college, which is right next to the local hospital, the American middle-class economy in miniature. "They've got it covered from cradle to grave," my son remarked.
Gradually, though, the road reveals what has made America great, again and again and again: Our passion for re-invention. Like ancient Babylon, you can almost dig through the various layers of U.S. civilization, the old fading to ruin even as the new rises in the next strata — those windmills in North Texas powering the land of ExxonMobil, or the streets in Oklahoma City's semi-hip Bricktown that were all jackhammered and torn up, so that a capital of the car-crazed Sunbelt can spend $161 million to bring streetcars back to downtown.
Nowhere, though, is the struggle between past and present more palpable than along he vast lands between St. Louis and L.A. that were once the dominion of America's first great roadway, Route 66. Much of that old thoroughfare still stands, two lazy meandering lanes of faded black asphalt by the side of the speed-addicted interstates that superseded it, careening through aging towns like Shamrock, Texas, where long-shuttered ice cream stands and rusty old pickups decay at the side of the road, broken up by one of dozen "Route 66 Museums" or an occasional restored gem like the U-Drop Inn.
The nostalgia I have for Route 66 is deeply personal. In the 1920s, a young woman from west-central Missouri then named Arline Hammond — my grandmother — took the then-brand-new Route 66 west with her sister, headed for Los Angeles (sound familiar?), eager to flee the predictable routine of life on a farm. Passing tepees that weren't tacky gift shops but were still in fact occupied by Native Americans, she finally reached Southern California and stayed long enough to marry a "pump jockey" at one of the newfangled gas stations, who learned almost as soon as their honeymoon ended that he was dying of cancer. She returned to a Missouri a young widow, where she re-connected with a local boy named A.B. Bunch — the cosmic butterfly that led to me and my son in this hybrid Prius some 90 or so years later.
But the spirit of Route 66 never died in my family. Arline and A.B. drove their three kids, including my dad, to the West Coast and back for several summers at the dawn of the 1950s, sleeping in rickety roadside motels or just in their car by the side of some canyon when they couldn't find a room. In 1978, in a brown VW bus powered by Thin Lizzy and Bob Seeger on the radio, my parents took their three kids from New York to Wallywo…I mean, Disneyland, and the Grand Canyon and San Diego. This week, the torch was passed to a new generation.
But it was my grandparents' generation that did the re-invention thing the best. They were the ones who, in the 1950s, all got behind then-President Dwight Eisenhower and his bold scheme for the vast Interstate Highway System that subsumed Route 66, the Lincoln Highway and all the other old, cluttered roadways, a huge boost for American commerce, the modern dream that ultimately made it possible for us to drive from coast-to-coast in three-and-a-half days. In 2017, part of that vision lives on — in the massive freight trains, mostly large containers shipped from China and other Asian manufacturing centers, bound for all those "superstores" in the Heartland — coming at us the other way as we crossed the New Mexico and Arizona deserts.
In Terre Haute, Indiana, where we stayed the first night, our motel was a couple miles off the interstate, and apparently there had been a huge wreck and a detour coming the other direction on I-70. Darkness was descending, and here were literally hundreds of tractor-trailers — looks like we got us a convoy! — rolling down Highway 41…at about 2 miles per hour. It was a smoggy, slow-moving monument to one of America's last great remaining industries — and yet it was hard not to wonder how many of those traffic-snarled (and probably fuming) truckers are still going to have a job 10 or 15 years down the road. There are some 1.6 million working drivers — it's the No. 1 occupation in 29 states — and yet the next great wave of American re-invention may crush that entire job category.
Indeed, the most important news story to ping our phones during our Great American Road Trip had nothing to do with politics, at least not overtly. It was the report that e-commerce Godzilla Amazon is buying the Whole Foods grocery chain, creating a bricks-and-mortar outlet for Amazon's various schemes to streamline and automate the retail world — like truck driver, one of the few steady sources of working class jobs in the 21st Century — with its cashier-less stores and delivery drones. American re-invention these days seems to be all about creating profits, not jobs. No wonder there's a simmering cauldron of political anger, churning in those far-flung towns cut off by the interstates.
Finally, after 79 hours on the road and a few 2-star motels, I dropped my son off in Los Angeles. It was the end of our road trip, but it's his Millennial generation that also stands at a crossroads — yet another fresh start for America, this time for the benefit of all the people and not just high-tech billionaires? Or a steady slide into Roman-style ruin? Maybe it's my naive optimism, the ancient spirit of Route 66 that still courses through my veins…but somehow I'm betting on them.