Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Where does Route 66 End? Redux

A recent post, Where does Route 66 end? Does it matter?, garnered no comments but still managed to inspire two folks working closely with the Route 66 community to backchannel me in other ways, one via Facebook and one via personal email. Both expressed concern about the overly negative implications raised by my remarks on the erection of an "End of the Road" sign at Santa Monica Pier, some distance from the "official" Route 66 terminus. Their messages reminded me that this marker makes a significant contribution to the experiences of travelers seeking a symbolic conclusion to their cross-country journeys.

I've responded to their messages individually, but I'm not entirely sure my efforts to contextualize my observations have been terribly useful. So I thought I'd slightly edit one of those responses and offer it here to receive further feedback.

Like many travelers of the Mother Road, I've found myself underwhelmed by the lack of formal "stopping point" at the end of the journey, other than an historically-correct site on a map. So like everyone else, I've made my way to the pier and taken all the standard pictures without knowing for sure that "this is the place." I therefore agree that a sign announcing "End of the Road" is a grand idea for orienting travelers to some shared experience of arrival.

My response to this idea, therefore, really isn't a critique but rather a suggestion that as we make use of such amenities we also consider the implications of our increasingly common efforts to "improve" places and experiences beyond physical and/or historical reality. In other words, we should explore whether we risk losing some sense of "authenticity" when we reshape places, people, and things to accommodate tourist desire.

At the same time, I am rightly reminded that Route 66 has always reshaped itself for practical purposes. It is not an abstractly "pure" thing, but is rather a vibrant, changing environment of human beings making do with changing times. Choosing "this" terminus over "that" terminus is ultimately self-defeating when talking about Route 66 because its history is filled with so many narratives. Choosing any particular one offers partial truth at best.

My writing, which includes an essay on this topic due to appear in Critical Studies in Media Communication, merely tries to explore the poles of authenticity and performance on Route 66, relating practices that evoke "the real" to performances that suggest "the ideal." I am drawn to environments like Route 66 for deeply personal reasons, of course. And my experiences on the Mother Road are always shaped by practicality first and theory distantly behind. Read my Waffle House essay and you'll get some sense of what I mean. Still, I also cannot help but wonder, as academics often do, about the complex meanings that compete under the surface of the ubiquitous highway shield.

Conveying a mixture of authenticity and performance, Route 66 resides somewhere in the middle of these poles, always tantalizingly in between.

(Photograph by Andrew Wood)

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