My brother and I were on the hunt for Route 66, Steinbeck’s “Mother Road.” Our plan was to catch the old highway somewhere in Oklahoma and head west to California, jumping on and off as we visited all of “America’s Largest fill-in-the-blanks.” Our green Ford pickup was to be our time machine back to the “good ol’ days.” What we didn’t realize was that the ideal we were chasing was already dying. 


Completed in 1938, Route 66 wound its way through small town USA all the way from Chicago to Los Angeles. A symbol of post war freedom and independence, here and in the rest of the world, it caused the Midwest to blossom with Berma Shave billboards and kitschy roadside motels. These days, however, those roadside gems, even the road itself, are hard to find. Old Route 66 has been “decommissioned” and replaced by Interstate 40. These days, it rarely even appears on maps.


Our search for Route 66 took us about 50 miles north of I-40 into a town called Sepulpa, Oklahoma. We were certain that as we got closer we would feel the fuzzy nostalgia, find our kindred spirits, and join the parade of others getting their kicks. Instead, after traversing stretches of nothing, cursing our maps, we pulled over at a Phillips 66 station (of all places) to get some trustworthy local directions. The lady at the register responded with a confused stare. “Do you know anything about old highway 66?” she yelled to the guy stocking the beer cooler. “Why would you want to drive on such a beat up road? 40’s a lot faster.” And that was all.


After asking around in the parking lot, we finally found some German tourists, Route 66 fanatics, who directed us to drive a few miles south and turn right when we saw some old oil cans on the side of the road. What we found looked like an overgrown, double-width sidewalk, beautiful and sad, winding along past houses and farms. As it turns out, it is one of the only extant pieces of old 66.


How sad that the woman at the register, running a business only minutes from such a pure and poignant piece of American history, could have no knowledge of its location or even understanding of its meaning. How strange that in a small town in midwestern Oklahoma, it was a young European couple who shared our enthusiasm about the old, open road. Thrilled that we had seemingly discovered a secret passage, yet baffled by the local ignorance, we realized that Route 66 and many other landmarks of old America are quickly becoming extinct.

  There is undoubtedly a growing polarization in America, amplified in times of war, but especially during this Administration. There are liberals and conservatives, red states and blue states, but it seems our appreciation of our history, as well as our politics, divides us. There are those who are engaged and care, and those out of it and uninformed. My lady at the gas station was a perfect example of so many who lack an interest in the preservation of our society. With barely a nod to the past, we are letting taller buildings, more lanes, and faster freeways overgrow our country.


We have our own tragic examples of this trend here in New York City. Much of the architecture that helped shape the character of the Big Apple has been replaced with more practical and, frankly, boring buildings. The original Penn Station, built in 1910, was a sort of Grecian temple to travel. Like Route 66 in later years, this massively beautiful structure was a dramatic symbol of American growth, movement, and travel, but its grandeur was short-lived. After only 50 years, it was torn down to make room for I-40, otherwise known as Madison Square Garden.


Another example, brought to mind by Route 66’s gradual fade, is the changing face of New York City as a whole. As our City’s become cleaner and safer, the character of some neighborhoods has vanished. Consider old 42nd Street, the Victory Theater once advertising the best XXX Porn, the Apollo Theater hosting Fred Astaire. All of the seediness of this once gloriously gritty neighborhood has been transformed into a glossy, corporate tourist trap overrun with souvenir shops and The Lion King. Are we losing touch with the edge that made us cool in the first place?    

In New York City and Sepulpa our cultural foundation is fading further and further into background. It is imperative that we all make an effort to appreciate and conserve the landmarks of our young culture. How can we ever develop confidence in our cultural worth if every new generation tears down and forgets what we’re made of and erects something equally expendable in its place? How great can a country be whose most admired features are doomed to destruction in the face of another quick buck?


We move, especially in this city, at an astonishing rate. We need to get there faster, live a few floors higher, and cram in a few more people. Everything is bigger, better, and quicker than ever before. They might seem to be moving a little bit slower down south or out west, but they prefer the fast road, too, and are just as prepared as we are to scrap their history to lay down the new pavement. We should, wherever we find ourselves, remember that what we were is as relevant as what we are and will be. Figuratively and physically, just slow down as you drive by.



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