Thursday, May 24, 2012

Facing forward, glancing back

Our first evening together, Dan Rice asked the riders who had traveled Route 66 before to try to summarize Route 66, in a word or a phrase. No one could.

Of course, Dan knew it was hard or impossible and this was definitely his point. Route 66 is not about one thing. The route itself has become an icon in popular culture, but a road is still just a way to get from one place to another. In Silicon Valley, we call that an "enabling technology ". It has no significance of its own. Any significance comes from what people choose to do with it.

About halfway through the trip, Rudy decided to give it a shot anyway. For him, the Route 66 experience was the decline of rural America. So many people view Route 66 through the lens of nostalgia. And one thing I like about what he said is, it's anti-nostalgia. Anyone who has ridden a bike the entire width of Los Angeles can tell you that urban life in 2012 is pretty crazy. I don't know whether urban life or rural life is winning right now in America. Anyway, his observation seemed worth a quote.

On a bicycle, the perspective of the rider is always facing one direction: forward. It's been quite helpful at times, to be forced to face forward. It's the direction of travel. To keep moving forward you learn to  filter out everything else.

When you dip into the past, it can get tricky. Route 66 took me back to an era I didn't experience, the era of my grandparents and parents. Traditional gender roles. No jobs for women. No laws against domestic violence. Segregation was legal. Cars lacked basic safety features, like seatbelts. Nuclear bombs (tested out here in the desert). Nuclear energy. The era of dams on rivers (like the Colorado).

Simpler is not always better. Life was slower, no Internet. If you could live a slower, saner pace of life without the Internet, would you go for it? No? Yet with all the text and images about Route 66, the Internet is missing something.

The heart of the experience is feeling the road under your feet. Push your quads up toward the Arizona Divide, coast down the hills. Sprint away from dogs in Laguna Pueblo. Slide around in sand on the abandoned tracks. Sneeze with the spring pollen, catch your shorts on barbed wire, wonder whether that is in fact a mesquite tree along a river bank. Fix a flat on the side of the road. Notice for the first time the red dirt of New Mexico.

In some ways, on a bike tour, the greatest luxury of all is the glance backwards, the way that you've come. 


  1. It's food for thought, for sure. I heard something sort of similar (to Rudy's idea) on the radio this morning, about the decline of the American Dream. Or belief in it, at any rate - that it's getting to the point where the only ones who believe that hard work will guarantee success are the ones to whom that's happened. (Rather than the ones hoping it will.) Made me consider what I think about the idea, too.

  2. Yeah, on Route 66 I was thinking about the extreme contrast between two American cultural memes: One, the tradition of staying close to the land and having farmer values (like a strong work ethic, responsibility, strong community relationships, self-sufficiency, ability to produce material wealth). Let's call that one the Connected Producer.

    Then two, the desire for instant gratification and material stuff. WalMart, interstate freeways, the desire to bypass rural roots, the ability to reinvent oneself away from family and community ties. Get there, fast. That's the Disconnected Consumer.

    Two seems to be winning right now in America, but I'm not sure we've thought the whole thing through. A lot of what's good and unique about American culture comes from One.