John Steinbeck devoted a full chapter of his epic roadtrip, The Grapes of Wrath, to Route 66. Five words of that chapter — three words, really — captured everyone’s imagination. Three words.
“66 is the mother road,” wrote Steinbeck. Poetry. Evocation.
The Mother Road is all nurture and fertility, warmth and love. She wraps us in her arms, pulls us to her bosom, wipes away the fears along with the tears. And to this image we steadfastly cling with the surprising grip of a baby’s tiny hand. Book titles, maps and souvenir knick-knacks. “The Mother Road” battles “The Main Street of America” for billing as official nickname.
But Steinbeck didn’t stop with those three words, “the mother road.” He had something else to add. Still poetic, but this time provocative rather than evocative. The full sentence reads,
The Road of Flight.
This is the image of 66 Steinbeck depicts in chapter 12 of The Grapes of Wrath. The road of flight. The only avenue of escape and the primary obstacle to salvation. They flee not only the dust bowl but every flat tire and breakdown, every shyster along the road bent on exploiting them-they are fleeing every mile put behind them. They flee until they run out of road or until they run out of money; they flee until there’s no where or no how left to flee.
That other image, the oft-quoted one, the mother road, this image appears fleetingly at the close of the chapter. It’s the courage, the terrible faith. The mother’s courage, the mother’s terrible faith. The same courage that lets Ma bear up and hide her lethal tar’dness, the same faith that has her brow-beatin’ Pa for even thinking of turning away a hungry mouth just because food is scarce.
66 is just a highway. It has no faith, no courage. It’s not your mother. Traversing 66 in an overloaded jalopy on dwindling supplies-66 was a test. In a more recent sense, the mother of all tests. If you can get over those mountains and across that desert with your humanity intact, if you can run the gauntlet of con-men and misfortune with respect for others and a sense of doing what’s right instead of what’s necessary (or, a decade later, what’s fun) then you have Kerouac’s dearly sought pearl in your hands. You didn’t find it. It was not offered up as a prize for conquering two thousand miles of highway. You possessed it all along.
Her eyes grew thoughtful and soft. “A little,” she said. “Only it ain’t like scared so much. I’m jus’ a settin’ here waitin’. When somepin happens that I got to do somepin-I’ll do it.”
“Ain’t you thinkin’ what’s it gonna be like when we get there? Ain’t you scared it won’t be nice like we thought?”
“No,” she said quickly. “No, I ain’t. You can’t do that. I can’t do that. It’s too much livin’ too many lives. Up ahead a thousand lives we might live, but when it comes, it’ll on’y be one. If I go ahead on all of ’em, it’s too much. You got to live ahead ’cause you’re so young, but — it’s jus’ the road goin’ by for me. An’ it’s jus’ how soon they gonna wanta eat some more pork bones.” Her face tight- ened. “That’s all I can do. I can’t do no more. All the rest’d get upset if I done any more’n that. They all depen’ on me jus’ thinkin’ about that.”
The Grapes of Wrath
Between Adrian and Vega
Texas, United States of America
Taken during travels, 1997