A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The California Road Trip, Part IV

route 66 roadtrip
photo credit: Joshua Franzos

There's been a lot of talk about the American Dream lately. Many people are saying that the American Dream is dead. One person specifically is saying we should Make America Great Again.

Make. America. Great. Again.


That would imply America was great at another point that is not now. That would imply that a certain political campaign wants to go backwards in time. Reload America from a previously stored version of itself. To back-up. To repeat the past.

So, I ask. At what point did America stop being great? Just before same sex marriage (2015)? Just before facebook (2004)? Just before the steel mills collapsed (1980)? Just  before the civil rights act (1964)?  Before women could vote (1920)? Before slavery was abolished (1865)? Before the second amendment (1791)? At what point in history will this desired renaissance stem from? Just so we're all clear.

fear and loathing
photo credit: Joshua Franzos

On a national level, I find an American reboot to be a terrifying prospect. On a personal level, I find it perfectly natural to want to experience something one more time. It happens to me ALL the time. The good ole days means something different to each of us. But reminiscing about the good old days and actually going back to the good old days are two separate things. 

We're America, for crying out loud. We take setbacks on the chin. We adapt. We change. We innovate and we've finally grown enough as a country that we're finally starting to consider and plan for the future. We press forward, not back. 

photo credit: Joshua Franzos
photo credit: Joshua Franzos

photo credit: Joshua Franzos
America - Land of the free, home of the brave. We declared that each person has certain unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Ideals that started out so lofty and pure, you could pull them out of the starry sky and set them on your mantel. But somewhere down the line in our capitalist society, our notions of happiness and freedom attached themselves to things. Guns and cars come to mind. I never want to talk about guns, so let's talk cars. 

photo credit: Joshua Franzos

America and cars. In 1910 the number of registered vehicles in our fair country was around half a million. By 1920, there were nearly ten million registered vehicles. There was a need and a desire to see and get across the country. Getting from Chicago to Los Angeles was a hairy ride on a jangled mess of dirt roads and it would no longer do. In 1926, the two lane cross country highway known as route 66 was born. It was, as Steinbeck described it, the mother road. Also at this point in history, not-so-great things were happening. The stock market crash and the ensuing Great Depression for one. Then there was the dustbowl in the Great Plains --farming mistakes, prolonged drought and massive wind storms blew away the entire layer of top soil leaving farms and farmers devastated. It was a dark time (literally as the dust storms carried the top soil as far as New York). Enter California, the golden, shining state of new beginnings. Starting with the gold rush, California became a legend unto itself. It was the dream land of fast wealth (gold rush) and instant fame (baby Hollywood). By some accounts, the California Dream was what inspired the American Dream and by the thirties, route 66 became the country's main pulsing travel artery as desperate people looking for work fled the dust bowl. They drove toward the dream, only to find that California was no better off than the rest of the country.

pirate boots
photo credit: Joshua Franzos

But the mother road. The main street of America. Even though the entire country was in economic jambles, opportunity sprang on Route 66. Mom and Pop businesses rose up to meet the needs of the weary traveler. In 1932, The Saturday Evening Post ran an advertisement, encouraging its readers to take 66 west to Los Angeles in order to see the 1932 Summer Olympics. By 1938, route 66 was the first completely paved highway in America. Despite the Great Depression, it was a prosperous time for the small towns along the highway. Route 66 business owners took pride in their creative roadside attractions, trading posts, service stations, diners and motor hotels. Businesses often went over the top, to entice people off the road, think tall, tall statues of Paul Bunyan, think teepee shaped motels and concrete dinosaurs you can walk in. The genesis of fast food occurred on 66 with the introduction of the drive-thru. Route 66 was a teeming, vital microcosm of Americana until Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act in 1956. By this time, the number of registered vehicles had swollen to 65 million; the need and time for an interconnected super highway system had come. It started by widening roads from two to four (or more) lanes and when route 66 couldn't withstand the new infrastructure, the road got diverted away to the new super highways with only on and off ramps. 70 mph. Time is money. Tick Tock. You don't stop. Progress. Moving forward. Brisk travel on route 66 dropped off for the newer, quicker, safer highways and many of these quirky af roadside attractions went out of business. By 1984 route 66 was decommissioned entirely, but not from the memory of so many Americans. Sections of route 66 were obliterated, or renamed.  But there are sections of route 66 that still exist, and occasionally, you can still find one of those painted route 66 shields on the road, if you're lucky. You can also still find many of those iconic roadside attractions. I encourage you to do so soon.
route 66 road shield
photo credit: Joshua Franzos

My father spoke fondly of route 66. His parents drove them across the country on it. Chicago to Santa Monica. That fifties road culture had a cumulative effect upon him and he handed it down to me. I too, wanted that innocent American experience. To feel the freedom of the open road, the joy of sinking my teeth into a hamburger at a family owned greasy spoon, to stop and see a giant blue whale in Oklahoma, just because. Car travel and owning a family business, that was my father's version of the American Dream. Before he died, he was going to open an art gallery/coffee shop in a very small Michigan town. My parents had purchased the storefront and we'd live above it, that was the plan.  Then he died, shortly before my 17th birthday, days before we were slated to move. I got a glimpse of his dream: having your family around you and everyone pitching into the business, making art on the side. God, it sounds romantic as hell. I know now it never would've worked, and I'm glad my father got to die at the cusp of an exciting new venture rather than the back end of a failure. But I always wonder how my life would've been different had he lived and we'd tried anyway. Would we hate each other? Would I be so miserable that I'd lash out at our customers? Would I have even gone to college? Would I be on my fourth marriage in a small town or would I have the barrel of gun pressed to the back of my throat? Writers are blessed (or cursed) with the ability to graphically envision life trajectories. We can fill in the blanks, make connections, like a worth-her-salt fortune teller. When I watch a tv show, I often know what the characters are going to say next. Often I say it. My husband gets spooked.
photo credit: Joshua Franzos

Labor Day is nearly upon us. Labor Day is not the end of summer nor the hearkening of a kick-ass mattress sale. It was a day of rest, acknowledging the contributions made by workers to our great country. Yes, great. The American Dream was a collective vision of upward mobility for the entire country, somewhere down the line it reverted back to the California Dream, quick wealth, instant fame, and lots of property and personal belongings. The ready-to-wear American Dream is 2.5 kids, nice cars, a white picket house in the suburbs, a vacation home and for some, a gun or twenty, over the mantel. In my twenties, I thought that the material goods version of the American Dream was the way. If I could just get X, I will finally be happy. Nope. There is no One Size Fits All dream. It's a bespoke creation, one part you, one part the people you want to share this amazing journey filled with agony and ecstasy with. 
photo credit: Joshua Franzos

I've been going  back and back and back and back to California, for research. for pleasure. for reminiscing. for insight into myself, into others and into the nature of American business that started with a family. I've experienced restaurants and hotels and motels that my parents went to. Characterful places that still exist even in the face of corporate homogenization. I've been trying to pinpoint that American essence of success at each an every place. I've also wondered why most others have failed. If you tuned in for part III, I've also witnessed a gasping business death rattle before the brink of oblivion. Even with hard work, there's no guarantee. Everything is harder than we think. We won't always succeed. But that doesn't mean the American Dream is dead, it may be fractured across the country like route 66, but it's still there if you look for it. Roads lead where they do, then sometimes they don't lead there anymore. It takes a humble spirit and loads of resilience to overcome obstacles. It's easier to blame it on bad luck and wish for the past than to roll up your sleeves and figure out how to make it work. But people will always wish to reconnect with the good old days anyways. It happens in life, it happens in literature. Art mimics life.

"I wouldn't ask too much of her," I ventured. "You can't repeat the past."

"Can't repeat the past?" he cried incredulously. "Why of course you can!"

He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.

"I'm going to fix everything just the way it was before," he said, nodding determinedly. "She'll see."

He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was.
Poor misguided Gatsby, ended up face down in a swimming pool. Poor disillusioned Nick Carraway, ended up in a asylum. Clearly F. Scott Fitzgerald gave us a cautionary tale in The Great Gatsby. You can't repeat the past. I still find myself homesick for California, but I know through my travels that it will never be what it once was to me because it was really about the people that were there with me. I'm 3 1/2 chapters out from finishing thethe rough draft of ff my book. I'm I'm drawing some serious parallels between this post and the realizations my main character is about to arrive at. Someday you'll see. But for me, my travels in California have conjured up buried memories and caused me to ruminate on what could've been, much like Harry Potter's preoccupation with the Mirror of Erised where he spent countless hours gazing at his (dead) parents. Someone very wise once stopped and told him, "It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live. Remember that." I will. So whether, Pittsburgh, or Wisconsin, Washington, Michigan, New York or fair, fair beloved California, or wherever I have lived or will live, my dear husband, Home is Wherever I'm With You.

So then, are we as a country, to roll up our sleeves and embrace the future and see what a female leader can do for our country? Or are we to beat on, boats against the current,  borne back ceaselessly into the past? 
photo credit: Joshua Franzos

What I Wore:
Sunnies: Ray-Ban 
Crop top: Forever 21 
Moto jeans: H&M 
Scarf: Past season, Urban Outfitters

Your Bosom Friend in Pittsburgh,

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