Painting ©2018 John Clark III
After eight days following Route 66 from its start in downtown Chicago, through the state of Illinois, into Missouri, across a corner of southeast Kansas, through Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, and into New Mexico, I'm becoming more and more convinced that this historic highway is America's Pilgrimage.
There are a number of ancient expeditions around the world, including pilgrimages to the Holy Land in the Middle East, pilgrimages to Rome and the Vatican in Italy, and the 500-mile Camino de Santiago in Spain -- which I have experienced twice, the first time in 2011 and then again in 2013.
I truly think now, more than halfway through my journey across the country on the famed Mother Road, that this is our historic pilgrimage. Not in the same religious or spiritual sense, of course, as the others, and the trip is accomplished by means of driving rather than walking, but there are a number of similarities.
There is vast history along Route 66, the same way there is incredible history along the Camino de Santiago, the only other pilgrimage I know anything about. Not nearly as much history, but some pretty cool history, nonetheless.
As I travel Route 66, I've used a guidebook to navigate, the same way I did on the Camino. The directions are confusing at times, and once in a while, you get lost -- or at least think you may be lost; may have taken a wrong turn. Sometimes, your gut -- your instincts -- tell you that you're heading the wrong way, and you retrace your "steps," and find your way again. Sometimes, just as you're starting to seriously wonder if you've made a mistake, a sign appears along the path and lets you know that all is well.
The route passes through tiny towns that once were thriving, back in the old days when Route 66 was the featured route for folks headed west. Now, many of those towns are dying off, or trying desperately to hang on. Same thing on the Camino, a network of small towns and villages, with people scraping together a living.
Just like on the Camino, for the most part, everyone you meet on Route 66 -- both locals and fellow travelers -- are warm and friendly, willing to sit and talk for a while with some knucklehead from Texas (me) who tells them he is writing a book. There were several of those today, including Sal Lucero, a New Mexico native proud of his heritage and still working to preserve the history of Route 66 in tiny Moriarty, about 40 miles east of Albuquerque.
Lucero has lived for more than 40 years along Route 66 in Moriarty, beside the now-defunct Whiting Brothers service station -- which he operated for 20 years -- and the historic Sunset Motel.
The station hasn't pumped gasoline since 2003, but he keeps it open as an historical site.
"Let me tell you something, when I took over this station, it was (busy) 24/7. You had to wait on line both sides of the road to get service.
"I quit selling gas in '03. You know why? They wanted new pumps; they wanted new gas tanks. They just won't leave you alone. I had an above-ground tank that was not leaking, but every day -- two or three times a week -- they were coming in here, bothering me. So finally, I said to heck with it. I stopped selling gas.
"I like to keep it open, because it's a historical place, you know. What would I do at home? My wife, she's gone. That's her, right there," he said, pointing to a large portrait of him and his wife, Inez, who died a little over a year ago at age 75. They were married 54 years.
Lucero -- father of three, grandfather of four and great-grandfather of one with another on the way -- would not admit to his own age, saying with a smile: "I'm as old as my little finger, sir. I don't talk about age. I'm up there, my man; I'm up there."
With that, Lucero stood up and abruptly cut off the interview. He and some friends were working on some tires when I arrived, and he wanted to get back to work. He shook my hand and wished me well, told me to enjoy Route 66, which is most assuredly not a problem. I'm situated right now in Grants, N.M., about 78 miles west of Albuquerque, at the old Sands Motel, a familiar stop along old Route 66.
It's one of those old roadside motels that doesn't look like much from the outside, but is neat and clean and perfectly acceptable for an old(er) dude traveling by himself along ol' Route 66.
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