Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Missouri Route 66 Simulacrum

A couple years ago, I wrote a Critical Studies in Media Communication essay called "Two roads diverge: Route 66, 'Route 66,' and the mediation of American ruin." The piece examines the increasingly simulacral nature of Route 66 as many of its boosters and purveyors are forced to include recent media fantasies (such Tow Mater boom trucks, complete with cartoon eyes, from the movie Cars) alongside or atop the original roadbed to attract tourist dollars. [Here's the original article - and here's a synopsis I wrote for Communication Currents.]

A key theme from this essay concerns the role of conflation, as designers gather together a broad range of icons, typically from geographically distant locales, to convey the sense of the whole road in one place. Examples include a couple alignments turned into walking paths, which allow visitors to imagine themselves driving all 2,400 miles within a few minutes, and the Route 66 Casino near Albuquerque, "a neon-lit world of shops, restaurants, and signs thematically linked to a conflated version of the Mother Road set within a giant climate-controlled enclosure" (p. 76). Safely contained, artfully crafted, these simulacra convey the pleasures of Route 66 in a tourist- (and camera-) friendly package.

Since publishing my CSMC essay, I'd read that the Missouri Department of Transportation has opened a Route 66-themed rest stop and information area along I-44 (mile marker 111). The new MDOT rest stop, unveiled in 2009, attempts a similar feat as the Donley County Eastbound Safety Rest Area in Texas, which opened in 2003, by offering a chance for motorists to participate in Route 66 simulacra (or at least walk their dogs and take a bathroom break) without getting off the interstate. During my recent three-week solo trip, I naturally had to see the Missouri version for myself [these pictures come from the eastbound stop]. And while I arrived with my typically critical mindset, I must admit: it's kind of cool.

There's a jaunty welcome sign, an information desk, and an opportunity for visitors to rest in covered picnic areas built to resemble a garage, a diner, a motel, and even Floyd's Barber Shop. It's goofy fun. Yet these very same motorists may not know that the welcome sign is patterned after the Monger Moss motel, a beloved Mother Road mainstay whose towering sign glows at night - just a few miles away in Lebanon, MO. Similarly, visitors may have no idea that Floyd's Barber Shop resides in Andy Griffith's "Mayberry," not on Route 66. In short, they may confuse this "Route 66" for the real thing. And they may not care to learn the difference.

So, should travelers be harangued with some sort of nostalgic guilt for failing to drive the pokey, bumpy old roadbed when the interstate carves its more efficient course through the country? No, of course not. I'm glad that the Missouri DOT built a Route 66-themed fantasy instead of another bland and forgettable rest stop. The signage and structures are artificial, but Route 66 has always relied on that kind of hokum. And let's not forget, visitors can pick up pamphlets and advice at the information desk. They may yet be inspired to drive the "highway that's the best" one day. Yeah, Missouri's got a swell new/old rest stop. It's cheesy and fun, just like any Route 66 tourist trap ought to be. My only regret: I visited during the day. Turns out, the new welcome sign lights up at night!

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