ROAD TO NOWHERE: Why Route 66 shows America is broken

 

Route 66 is the crumbling, disappearing, yet enchanting road that tells the story of a nation on the brink of the most important election in modern American history.

"It's been realigned many times and no one is really sure of what the classic Route 66 looks like any more," says tragic Ian Bowen, who runs a gift shop on Santa Monica Pier, California, dedicated to the fabled road at one of its official end points.

Because there are at least two official end points in LA. Maybe more.

And that is the point of this election: No-one can tell you where it is going, or quite where it will end.

News Corporation travelled the world's most famous road and took a look at the heart of America. Like the road itself, the nation is cracked and potholed and littered with failed ventures along the way.

A sign marks the beginning of Route 66 in Chicago, Illinois, USA. Picture: Angus Mordant for News Corp Australia
A sign marks the beginning of Route 66 in Chicago, Illinois, USA. Picture: Angus Mordant for News Corp Australia

 

The beginning: Chicago

Today is Sweets Day in Chicago, a Hallmark holiday in the Midwest when you give chocolates and roses to your best gal. Route 66 begins here, in the stately garden district on Monroe Harbor, the start of a 2,400 mile (4,000km) journey from the often bleak northeast to the sunny west coast which has been named the Mother Road and the Main Street of America.

A boat passes under a bridge in downtown Chicago, Illinois, USA. Picture: Angus Mordant for News Corp Australia
A boat passes under a bridge in downtown Chicago, Illinois, USA. Picture: Angus Mordant for News Corp Australia

And in a pattern being seen around the nation where 32 million people have already cast their ballot, voters are turning out in the Windy City like never before.

At Kelly High School, an early voting centre in the down and dirty suburbs where election official Frank Perez is overseeing one of the busiest polling places in the city, there is a steady stream of people turning up to take part in American Democracy.

A ripped American flag flies above a Chicago Flag in the River West neighbourhood of Chicago, Illinois, USA. Picture: Angus Mordant for News Corp Australia
A ripped American flag flies above a Chicago Flag in the River West neighbourhood of Chicago, Illinois, USA. Picture: Angus Mordant for News Corp Australia

He says people here usually don't bother voting because it is such a Democratic stronghold that they feel their vote doesn't really make a difference.

But this year it feels different.

"They are saying we are one of the busiest polling places in the city," Mr Perez said.

"Before we opened up the doors, we had about 50 people standing outside. This is real good, there have been a lot of people coming, that's a good thing, that they're here, early voting, 300 to 400 a day.

Francisco ‘Frank’ Perez, 33, poses for a portrait in the Kelly High School which is being used as an early voting location in Chicago, Illinois. Picture: Angus Mordant for News Corp Australia
Francisco ‘Frank’ Perez, 33, poses for a portrait in the Kelly High School which is being used as an early voting location in Chicago, Illinois. Picture: Angus Mordant for News Corp Australia

"It's real hard to get Chicagoans to vote. It's real hard. They don't seem to care. It is what it is, whoever is chosen, that's what it's gonna be.

"They feel that their vote doesn't count. Then when they're voted in, they don't do anything they said they would do to help out. It's hard to get people to come out and vote. People feel, our vote don't count. But who knows? There is a lot of people voting."

 

People cast early votes for the Presidential election in the Kelly High School in Chicago, Illinois, USA. Picture: Angus Mordant for News Corp Australia
People cast early votes for the Presidential election in the Kelly High School in Chicago, Illinois, USA. Picture: Angus Mordant for News Corp Australia

 

 

Heading south and west

"Nice clean rooms," the signs say outside motel rooms all along Route 66.

"Sparkling clean bathrooms!" scream billboards advertising gas stations all along the way.

It gets kinds weird when you wash your hands in a men's room at a road stop in Joplin, Missouri, and you realise the printed out handwashing instructions have a Victorian Government logo. Yep, Victoria Australia, Lockdown Dan Land.

Handwashing guidelines found in a toilet in Missouri with the Victorian Government logo. Picture: Nathan Vass
Handwashing guidelines found in a toilet in Missouri with the Victorian Government logo. Picture: Nathan Vass

"Why is there a handwashing sign in there with an Australian government logo?" I ask the friendly guy stacking the potato chip shelves.

"A what?" I try again.

He tilts his head.

"Well, I guess that's where it came from."

Yep. Good point, can't argue with that.

It's the magic of Route 66.

A sculpture made out of hubcaps along Route 66 in Springfield, Missouri. Picture: Angus Mordant for News Corp Australia
A sculpture made out of hubcaps along Route 66 in Springfield, Missouri. Picture: Angus Mordant for News Corp Australia

In Springfield Missouri, a much more humble Springfield than the grand version in Illinois, Casper's diner has been serving the community for 111 years.

Waitress Marcie Brown runs the joint with a loving hand as she serves college students Farah Burgess and Tristynn Clark.

"You girls enjoy, now," she says.

Marcie believes Donald Trump will win the election. But like so many others, she's not sure what will happen next.

"I hope things settle down. But I'm not sure they will. We just need to look after each other."

Cook Mike Spahr, 36, waitress Marcie Brown and another cook Ben Jenkins inside Caspers diner in Springfield, Missouri. Picture: Angus Mordant for News Corp Australia
Cook Mike Spahr, 36, waitress Marcie Brown and another cook Ben Jenkins inside Caspers diner in Springfield, Missouri. Picture: Angus Mordant for News Corp Australia

Howard Fuller, 70, is another American who shows genuine passion for Trump, unlike anything you can find along Route 66 for Joe Biden.

He drives out onto an overpass in Lebanon Missouri and parks his pick-up for two hours a day with a massive Trump flag flying from the back.

Then he hangs his legs over the side of the overpass and waves at the rushing traffic on the interstate below, laughing as they beep their horns in support.

"My parents raised me right," he replies when asked why he is such a fervent Republican.

"I've got 16 grandchildren and 17 great grandchildren. So I've got to try to get things right for them now."

Howard Fuller, 70, spends two hours a day on a highway overpass in Lebanon, Missouri, encouraging people to vote for Trump. Picture: Angus Mordant for News Corp Australia
Howard Fuller, 70, spends two hours a day on a highway overpass in Lebanon, Missouri, encouraging people to vote for Trump. Picture: Angus Mordant for News Corp Australia

Crystal Combs is a 25-year-old waitress in the neat little town of Chandler, Missouri.

This sunny, smiley, bright young woman cannot vote because, she says, "I'm a felon".

"But it's an election between a giant turd and a douche bag anyway," she laughs, indicating she would vote for Trump.

Asked what she thinks about Mr Trump's reported behaviour towards women, she replies: "All men are going to be like that anyway. All men treat women bad. It's not right, but it's not just Trump."

Crystal Combs, 25, a waitress at the Boom-A-Rang Diner in Chandler, Oklahoma. Picture: Angus Mordant for News Corp Australia
Crystal Combs, 25, a waitress at the Boom-A-Rang Diner in Chandler, Oklahoma. Picture: Angus Mordant for News Corp Australia

Further west at Stroud, Oklahoma, is Rock Café, one of the most famous and enduring stops along the Mother Road.

The owner is Dawn Welch who was the inspiration for the character Sally Carrera in the Pixar movie Cars and renowned as one of the biggest boosters of Route 66.

 

A homemade sign reading
A homemade sign reading "Welcome to Conway, Where everybody loves Trump" is seen alongside Route 66 in Conway, Missouri, USA. Picture: Angus Mordant for News Corp Australia

 

The Big Piney River flows through Devils Elbow, Missouri, USA. Picture: Angus Mordant for News Corp Australia
The Big Piney River flows through Devils Elbow, Missouri, USA. Picture: Angus Mordant for News Corp Australia

 

Welch says her business has held up surprisingly well in the COVID era, which has seen so many tourism-related businesses crumble.

"When Americans could no longer fly out of the country to vacation, it brought in a whole new demographic for us," Welch explains.

An abandoned old car near Route 66 in Devils Elbow, Missouri, USA. Picture: Angus Mordant for News Corp Australia
An abandoned old car near Route 66 in Devils Elbow, Missouri, USA. Picture: Angus Mordant for News Corp Australia

"A wealthier group of Americans - the upper middle class, wealthy Americans - who would usually holiday in Europe or the Caribbean are now doing Route 66.

"These people would normally see the imperfections of Route 66, but now they are getting it, they aren't looking for perfection. It's like when they go to Paris, nothing works, right? But in Paris, that's cool. And I think that's what they are falling in love with here now."

 

Dawn Welch the owner of Rock Cafe in Stroud, Oklahoma. Picture: Angus Mordant for News Corp Australia
Dawn Welch the owner of Rock Cafe in Stroud, Oklahoma. Picture: Angus Mordant for News Corp Australia

 

Welch said Route 66, a road lined with grain silos, water towers and billboards advertising lawyers specialising in lung cancer, hotel injuries and Me Too claims, continues to get support from surprising segments.

"You know, we are still getting lots of Japanese visitors," she said.

A mock-up of an old style wild west town called Uranus is a popular tourist attraction along Route 66 in, Missouri. Picture: Angus Mordant for News Corp Australia
A mock-up of an old style wild west town called Uranus is a popular tourist attraction along Route 66 in, Missouri. Picture: Angus Mordant for News Corp Australia

"They're turning up in hazmat suits and taking photos and buying souvenirs.

"There are also Disney execs driving around incognito with their families."

When it comes to politics, Welch is less forthcoming.

Signage for Uranus, a popular tourist attraction along Route 66 in, Missouri. Picture: Angus Mordant for News Corp Australia
Signage for Uranus, a popular tourist attraction along Route 66 in, Missouri. Picture: Angus Mordant for News Corp Australia

"I can't tell you how I will vote or I would have to kill you!" she jokes.

"I don't like either of them. It's just going to be a mess whichever way it goes. To be honest, I have no earthly idea how this will all go down."

This is not an uncommon sentiment along the Mother Road. No-one seems to be sure of what is going to happen on November 3, let alone beyond that.

Signage against Donald Trump is seen alongside Route 66 in Conway, Missouri, USA. Picture: Angus Mordant for News Corp Australia
Signage against Donald Trump is seen alongside Route 66 in Conway, Missouri, USA. Picture: Angus Mordant for News Corp Australia

And many people are struggling to love either candidate.

"I will vote for Joe Biden because he is the lesser of two evils, that's what this country give us," says salesman Zack Cimino, a separated dad moving to Ohio from California to be close to his daughter.

We stumble across each other in the burnt out ruins of a roadside diner and hotel in New Mexico, both of us wielding cameras to capture the scene.

Zach Cimino inspects an abandoned buildings along Rte 66 in New Mexico, USA. Picture: Nathan Vass for News Corp Australia
Zach Cimino inspects an abandoned buildings along Rte 66 in New Mexico, USA. Picture: Nathan Vass for News Corp Australia

 

He is also holding a knife, more like a sword, as he picks his way through the rubble.

"Oh, this? I don't have a gun. Just in case I got blindsided by tweakers," he explains.

"You're not a serial killer, are you?"

I assure him I am just a journalist and he relaxes.

"I do think there is going to be unrest in this country after the election, regardless of who wins," he continues, looking at his knife-sword uncertainly.

"A lot of people will be unhappy on both sides."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tucumcari, the town that screams Route 66

A few miles down the road is the town of Tucumcari, perhaps one of the most iconic stops along the way.

Neon, rust, great Mexican food and a history of billboards lining Route 66 declaring: "Tucumcari Tonight! 2000 hotel rooms!"

If you're going to lie, you may as well lie big. Route 66 has a great sense of humour.

The road into town is lined with abandoned homes and buildings, a reminder of the impact of the multi-lane highways which replaced the Mother Road in the 1980s.

Palomino motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico, USA. Picture: Nathan Vass for News Corp Australia
Palomino motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico, USA. Picture: Nathan Vass for News Corp Australia

In a telling sign of the times, these towns are choosing to leave these decaying edifices where they stand rather than tear them down.

"Most of those small towns simply don't have the money available to tear them down," says Ron Warwick, editor of route66news.com.

Blue Swallow motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico, USA. Picture: Nathan Vass for News Corp Australia
Blue Swallow motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico, USA. Picture: Nathan Vass for News Corp Australia

"Funny enough, decay is part of the whole Route 66 story. A lot of Europeans love those ruins, they see it as the true story of Route 66."

He said early voter turnout in Quay County was at an all-time high, with 1000 people lining up to have their say on the first day.

Signs cover the wall of a diner in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA. Picture: Nathan Vass for News Corp Australia
Signs cover the wall of a diner in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA. Picture: Nathan Vass for News Corp Australia

"It blew past the record," Warwick said. "This is such a fraught election. I'm an unaffiliated voter so I don't really have a dog in this fight.

"But with two largely unpopular figures going up against each other, anything can happen."

One of the best Mexican joints along the Mother Road is Tucumcari's La Cita Sombrero, where manager Yogi Martinez is immortalised in a mural on the outside walls of the restaurant.

Yogi Martinez, manager La Cita Sombrero restaurant, Tucumcari, New Mexico, USA. Picture: Nathan Vass for News Corp Australia
Yogi Martinez, manager La Cita Sombrero restaurant, Tucumcari, New Mexico, USA. Picture: Nathan Vass for News Corp Australia

"That's me," she smiles.

"We wanted to do something different to keep people interested. Business is still okay, but there are not so many tourists now.

"I am voting for Trump. I am pro-life and that is important to me. Also he is the only one who has made promises and gone and done everything he said he would do.

"What is important is that we have someone who will stand up for us and not turn us into a socialist country. Biden just wants to control everyone and that will just lead to trouble."

Signs cover the wall of a building along Route 66 in, New Mexico, USA. Picture: Nathan Vass for News Corp Australia
Signs cover the wall of a building along Route 66 in, New Mexico, USA. Picture: Nathan Vass for News Corp Australia

Originally published as Why Route 66 shows America is broken


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