There are places where the broken bones of this country stick up from the soil, where shadows of old wounds and past victories are still laid bare for all to see. These are the places where you can feel America’s soul. I believe Memphis to be one of those places. I believe the forgotten towns of Route 66 to be as well.
“30 year old loser.” The words echoed in my mind.
You’ve seen this place before, but maybe you didn’t realize it. The cheesy teepees and smiling, classic cars from the world of Disney, Pixar and Randy Newman are real. However, on the real Route 66, nobody is coming to save the town. Rust-Eze is simply rusty. In the parking lot, a suffering Hudson Hornet clings to a glossy nameplate: “Doc,” it says.
A handful of tourists still travel this road…enough to keep the Wigwam Motel booked for the night, but every year their numbers dwindle.
Still, the bones here are real. You can see the cars and feel the love they used to have, imagine the excitement of families bustling in-and-out of their doors and windows, hear the buzz of electric neon flashing “no vacancy.”
20 minutes down the old highway, fragments of the Petrified Forest lay sprawling on the Earth’s crust. These bones are far older than the road, the United States and even mankind. Here, trees that breathed before the dawn of the dinosaurs are immortalized in stone, their organic material replaced eons ago by mineral.
A river once flowed in this desert. The trees grew on its banks and thrived until they ultimately met their doom in its waters. Centuries later, dinosaurs would walk among their already petrified ruins. Many millions of years after that, I would do the same.
I would meet a familiar face near their tomb.
We sat together, the bird and I. At first, I thought it was wounded as it hobbled towards me in the parking lot. But the bird never flinched when I came closer. It allowed me to sit, almost seeming to show me where to go—to the top of the hill overlooking the Painted Desert. The bird in its black, feathered coat; me, in a matching black rain jacket, watched the storms roll in.
“30 year old loser.” Really? Had it come to this?
The words lodged in my head a few days ago somewhere in Nevada. I probably deserved them, but that didn’t change their fate. I thought about them for a while with the bird. I got mad, I got wise, and then I got the point—it doesn’t matter. In this land of broken bones, bruises and scrapes are a minor thing. The rusty Hudson is still here. The crumbling forest, too. Their wounds are the products of life and time.
The scars of glory and defeat that line Route 66 make it what it is. If the road was flawless, if it was perfect, it would be a Disney film. Heck, that version was a Disney film.
But the real world isn’t made by Disney. In the real world, this road will crackle and crumble until it is merely a ghost. The real world has cuts and scrapes and heart and grit and grind, and it takes a while to accumulate all of those things. Maybe in my case, it takes close to 30 years.
Scars are what make Route 66 special. They are what make Memphis special. They’re why my favorite hometown bar is slightly haunted and absolutely falling apart.
Back in town, I toss the grey-haired lady $32.00. “We don’t get much trouble with cars and stuff,” she said. “Me and the guy across the street used to be bikers.”
I nodded, took the key and gladly ducked out of the rain and into the hotel room. Aside from a flatscreen t.v., nothing seems to have changed here since the 50’s. “Mind if I give you a double bed?” The woman had asked. “That way you’re not next door to the hacking guy.”
“That’d be great,” I laughed.
Tonight, I’m checked into the Holbrook Inn. I’ve never slept in a cheaper hotel, but I’ve certainly slept in worse. The enchiladas are in my belly. The old Hudson and its teepee are next door. The bird is somewhere back in the desert, and I think I’ve finally learned something big on this trip:
America has cities and highways without blemishes. It has people of that mode, too. But none of them are real. That’s why the places and people that aren’t perfect are so special—they have bones.
Bones, especially the broken ones, are what make the world real.
In the end, it doesn’t matter if we are winners or losers or humans or crows. It doesn’t matter if we are 20 or 30 or 60 or 80. Rusty bones, petrified bones, real bones are the only things that seem to last.
It’s okay that they break over time.