Contemplating Route 66 | Kim Nelson
When driving from Chicago to New Mexico, the roadkill changes. In the flat expanses of central Illinois, bloodied furry bodies of rabbits, squirrels, and raccoons meet their eternal rest on gravel shoulders. In Missouri, armadillos die with their legs in the air like cartoon characters. The grass along the median gets drier and rangier as we drive further south. In New Mexico, we drive past a crumpled road runner while tumbleweeds blow past like goodbye kisses. Outside my passenger window, the sky opens up into an infinite stretch of blue. I start to see historic road signs memorializing the Trail of Tears. On Route 66, we drive through ghost towns consisting of a few dilapidated, long-ago abandoned buildings. Their windows are smashed out, their walls coated in spray paint graffiti, a rainbow of artificial neon color popping against the wash of brown earth. I remember bits and pieces of The Grapes of Wrath. I begin to feel the gravity of these places and this road, the Mother Road. What a long, strange, often bloody, often heartbreaking history this country has, so much of it is concentrated along this route. I envision this place during another era, back when bison migrated across the plains before being slaughtered to the point of near extinction. People migrated this way, some of them running towards something, some of them running away from something. By force, or by choice. For survival, or for adventure. At some point, we all begin retracing those routes in wood-paneled station wagons, then ever-expanding RVs, then DIY conversion vans.
I wanted to celebrate my fortieth birthday with an epic road trip, just me and my husband Kurt. We officially ring in my entry into a new decade with Lone Star beers in a zombie-themed bar in Amarillo. I load up the jukebox with Hole and the female bartender headbangs in approval. The next morning, we’re back on the road, headed to the next state. We veer off Route 66 and drive into the corner of southwest New Mexico. We slow roll the van past giant green alien statues as tall as a Dunkin Donuts, and a McDonald’s with a flying saucer-shaped playground. At Carlsbad Cavern, we descend down a series of switchback paths into a gaping black hole in the earth and I can’t help but feel like we’re crawling into the yawning belly of the Exogorth from Empire Strikes Back. At the surface, it’s a blistering, sundrenched 95 degrees outside, but as we hike deeper into the cavern, the air grows cool and clammy and I tug my fleece jacket on. We walk 1,000 meters below ground, and things get strange. Limestone stalactites loom above our hands like chandeliers made out of alien parts. Stalagmites jut upwards from the ground, like the fingers of demons trying to escape from Hell. We’re far enough inside that if the generator blew out, we’d be enveloped in true pitch darkness, too deep within the cave for the tiniest ray of sunlight to find us. There’s a hole called the Bottomless Pit, and I’m too afraid to peer into its depths, its blackness incomprehensible. This looks like a place where primeval monsters still exist, where they emerge from darkened chambers and snatch up tourists who are never seen again. 250 million years ago, this place was an inland sea, and I start to wonder what if time passes differently down here and we reemerge into a whole new era? Once I asked Kurt what he thought we experience after we die, and he replied “Nothing. Just like what we experience before we’re born,” and the thought kept me awake for hours into the night. Sometimes nothing feels more terrifying and bleak than anything else.
We spend a night at a health spa in a small town near the southern border named after a game show, Truth or Consequences. The spa sits on the banks of the Rio Grande, and its hot springs are laden with healing minerals. I slip my body into 113 degree Fahrenheit water, waiting to be renewed. The pool area displays multiple signs that say “This is a ‘Whisper Only’ Zone.” At night, thousands of tiny green lights are projected across the river and dance on the landscape like tiny fairies. The room at the spa is the most expensive stay of our trip. Most other nights, we either park at campsites or squat on dispersed land. The previous night, we slept in a national forest and found a hunk of animal fur and some cleaned bones near our site. At the spa, Kurt naps in a hammock next to a luxury dog bed. I watch him from my spot in one of the hot spring pools, while other guests whisper into each other’s ears. Our wedding anniversary also falls during this trip; we’ve covered a lot of miles together. I let him sleep in peace beneath a balsa wood pergola.
In a town called Soccoro, 27 82-foot tall vertical antenna dishes create a formation across a swatch of land where they read the radio waves of the galaxy. The dishes sit in the middle of nowhere, surrounded only by a few squat, beige, nondescript government buildings and a few confused cows. Before we can take the self-guided tour, we watch a decades-old information video narrated by Jodie Foster, star of the film Contact. We are told to turn off our cell phones, and then we walk outside, amongst the scrabble of rocks and dirt, sun-dried crabgrass, and towering white dishes over 5 stories tall. We won’t see a building that tall until we reach Albuquerque. I take a photo of one antennae while it listens to the sounds of the universe, and I feel miniscule. After the tour, we drive to Pie Town, pop. 186. We sit in a tiny cafe and eat green chili stew. An elderly couple we recognize from the tour enter the cafe, and the waitress asks them if they visited the observatory. “Why, are we glowing?” asks the elderly woman, before realizing that her Visitor sticker still clings to her fuzzy sweater. That night, we camp near the state’s western border under a multitude of stars, and I wonder what the universe is saying.
The road into Chaco Canyon is 20 miles of unpaved dirt and gravel that washes out in a rainstorm. It takes us about an hour to make it to the canyon on a clear, sunny day. The van rattles so badly over the rough road, I’m afraid we will literally shake to pieces before we get there. In Chaco Canyon, there is a petroglyph of a supernova painted on the side of a red clay rock. Scientists believe the painting may depict the explosion of the Crab Nebula in the year 1054 AD. Imagine witnessing something like that. Imagine recreating it, carving it into a rock wall, and that image lasting nearly a thousand years to be viewed by future civilizations. I stand in front of petroglyphs of horses and think of the ancient ground beneath my boots, the red clay rocks in front of a blue sky that have looked exactly like this for countless previous generations, and I feel very much like a visitor. My roots feel shallow. I crave the feeling of an elemental sense of belonging to a place, of knowing that my ancestors traversed the same ground and saw the same red rocks and patch of blue sky. My parents were born on opposite sides of the planet, and traversed space and time until the night they met at a party in Chicago--a moment that seemed improbable when they were born on different continents, but became more and more possible as they grew up and lived their lives until their paths put them in the same room on the same night. Every day, we have the ability to either expand or contract our personal universe. These are the kinds of things I think about in this place.
The ghost town of Glenrio straddles the border of New Mexico and Texas. It’s considered a casualty of I-40, the interstate that replaced Route 66 as the main American byway, swerving tourism away. It feels eerie and haunting to peek into the ruins of rundown gas stations and motels, long abandoned and semi-reabsorbed into the landscape as weeds run rampant. Just west of Amarillo, we stop at Cadillac Ranch. The sky is gray, rain clouds hovering and threatening. We walk around the art installation that is 10 Cadillacs buried nose first into the dirt. A shrine made of junk, the arrangement of its rusted parts transcends it into something worth visiting. Several aerosol cans lay in the mud, inviting us to leave our own mark on this roadside attraction. In the fresh mud, someone recently painted the words “I was here.”
After nearly two weeks of being on the road, I’m still not tired of driving. When we point the van in the direction of Chicago, it feels bittersweet. The road appeases my need to be constantly moving. I crave that feeling of hurtling west, watching the yellow highway dots turn into dashes. I know that in a few weeks after settling back in at home, I’ll become homesick for this trip, this road. What I don’t know is that one year later, a worldwide pandemic will halt all of our movement. I don’t yet know that these small roadside local businesses already endangered by chain stores and development will be forced to close their doors indefinitely, maybe forever. We’ve seen enough ghost towns to understand how this happens. I sit shotgun, my passenger side arm tanned from the New Mexico sun, still blissfully unaware of how fleeting this moment is. Our present experience can quickly become history.
We head east, homeward bound, watching the sun set in the rearview mirror.
Kim Nelson (she/her) is a writer/voracious reader/outdoor cat who lives in Chicago, Illinois. She finds inspiration in music, pop culture, ghost stories, road trips, superheroes, mythology, woodland creatures, and karaoke bars. For more, please visit kimberlymilanelson.com.