Route 66, Mariska Hargitay, and Joe Kenda: Reflections on the Death of the Great American Road Trip

IMG_3956Driving across the USA is an exhilarating adventure.  There is no better way to rekindle the love of this country than to experience it via epic road trip.  The best parts of the adventure, are of course, in the offbeat places you come to stay.  Many of those-Tucumcari,NM,  Holbrook, AZ, Amarillo, TX–reference Route 66, the more romantic two lane highway that once was the trail of many a cross-country traveller.  To drive I 40 and parts of the old Route 66 is to become, for a brief moment, young again and hopeful that there is a future shining brightly for all who keep the faith.  The dusty motel parking lots and neon lights of Tucumcari, NM are symbols that are rendered nearly sacred by the passage out of vogue of the great American Road Trip. On our roads, we saw a few older retired couples, truckers, business folk, and for most, it seemed that the earnestly run motels were mere way stations on the way to more exciting landscapes.  A closer look reveals that it is within these vintage motels that the essence of our Americanism is most fully expressed.

A memorable stop for us was in Tucumcari.  The motel was pet friendly and run by sincere young owners who had just recently purchased the place.  They ran a welcoming stopping place lodged between the roar of I 40 and the less noisy neon stretch of 66 through town.  It was here that I read about the Skinwalker legend online.  It was here that I felt a presence as real as the wind–some mystery just out beyond the roads that was older than mankind.  It was here that I began to smell the unique perfume of the American desert, a frightening, alluring, and potent incense.  Here I huddled over take-out Chinese watching re-runs of SVU–that ever-present serial that is my TV equivalent of “comfort food.”  There were deep and meaningful dreams dancing in my head that night.

Another “sincere” roadside stop was eastbound on I 40–Holbrook, AZ offered a clean room and welcoming hosts.  There were no mysterious presences here, but it was quiet in the way only the desert can be quiet.  Here, I indulged in re-runs of Joe Kenda, TV’s “Homicide Hunter.”  We take our comfort where we can find it when we travel.

In both NM and AZ, the hotel managers were hopeful and eager new entrepreneurs.  I was moved by their courageous entry into the world of roadside accommodations.  I wondered about the future of such places in the next breath.

In our society, it seems that the long road trip has gone out of fashion. People in 2018 just want to GET to their destination.  They want to take quick selfies by the Arch de Triumph or the Grand Canyon or wherever, and then move on to the next thing.  The idea of plodding down the road and taking in the beautiful wildness of the North American continent is just not what young people are interested in anymore.  Out here on the road–whether it is I 40 or Route 66, there is only yourself, your traveling companions, the sound of the road, and the unfolding narrative of a nation blessed with the most beautiful natural wonders in the world.  How can such a slow study of landscape compare to international flight and virtual experiences?  After all, road travel is iffy, chancy, dirty, sometimes dangerous, and always in defiance of expectations.    Hotels and motels can be sketchy; tires can blow on raging highways.  It is much safer to just let yourself be picked up at point A and moved to point B.  Safer, perhaps, and cleaner, but I mourn for the old dusty pathways as we pass by uncounted derelict gas and gos along the fantastic interstate.  Things can get messy on the road, but there is always night in a comfortable and often-times inviting little motel and the presence of Mariska or Joe on the boob tube to comfort us as our psyches reel from all the new sights and sounds we have beheld. So, you may ask, how is this experience a distillation of what it is to be an American?  Well, it is as simple as the road itself.

I 40, Route 66, and other great byways into American natural areas are living embodiments of the civic spirit of the American People in the era of the automobile.  In post-WWII American society, the road was symbolic of our hard-won freedoms.  “Go west, young man!” was a saying.  Go west and come back east and go back again–this land is your land, my land, etc…. People rejoiced in the National Parks.  Now, when we visit the Grand Canyon, you have to fight and jostle through throngs of tourists taking selfies with their backs turned to the awe-inspiring wonder.  Travel has become not a slow and thoughtful meditation, but a race to see who can see and do the most and post it online.  I guess that is why I can to love our nightly stops at various and sundry “humble” motels, for in the Tucumcaris and Holbrooks of America, there is a shadow memory of a time long gone when the greatness of our people was not measured by our cruelty towards each other and the world, but in the expansiveness of our sense of adventure.  In America, anyone can hit the road and be a part of this magnificent land we call our homeland.

As our adventures grow closer to an end, I find myself grateful for cold water and clean sheets, hot showers and the kindness of strangers.  I feel a sense of comfort that I can watch Joe Kenda in the middle of the Texas scrubland and eat local Mexican food and then hit the highway tomorrow for another experience of my beloved country.  I hope all the hotel owners are successful and that the present state of affairs will be remedied by a renaissance of young people who long for real experiences in imperfect places.  If we can learn to appreciate the humble, then we will see again the grand, the GREAT.  If we are a nation of people who respond to the Grand Canyon by taking selfies, we are in need of a revival. It is time to embrace the road and the wonder and the magic of America.  It is time we start loving and respecting each other as Americans.  It is time for a Great American Road Trip to end all road trips.  Get out and see your country and look into the eyes of different folks.  It will be scary and sometimes messy; not everyone is nice out there!  At times, you will long for home and rue your decision to drive.  At other times, you will begin to remember that we are all the same–WE ARE ALL THE SAME.

Tomorrow I will eat a waffle from a waffle machine with total strangers.  Tonight I am watching Kenda.  This land is my land.


Gina Funk




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