AMERICA’S MAIN STREET

A Mother’s Road

Alta Editor at Large Mary Melton searches for a deeper connection with her autistic son—and with a divided country—on a 15-day journey along Route 66.

Happy face. Proud face. Surprised face. Sad face.

I spot him practicing expressions in the rearview mirror. He’s watching himself, and I’m watching him. It’s a rare moment—usually his eyes are fixed on the passing terrain. Today, the landscape is unceasing midwestern farmland, ripe and verdant, the air thick with humidity and crackling with cicadas.

Like many children with autism, Isaac doesn’t easily “read” faces, doesn’t necessarily grasp what someone might be saying through a raised eyebrow or a furrowed forehead. For the last few days, my husband, Ed, and I have been playing facial reaction games with our 11-year-old son over breakfast. Glancing now at his exaggerated smiles and big-lipped pouts, I’m gauging how much he’s caught on. Then the radio breaks out the opening line of “Whiskey River” and he yells “Willie!” from the back seat. The joy that spreads across his face is unpracticed and entirely his own.

We’ve got a big drive in front of us—128 miles until our next motel, a nine-foot-wide “sidewalk highway” to traverse and a 1925 tin-ceilinged grocery store to visit, two state lines to cross and half a box of Gorilla Munch still to consume. “Isaac, what are you thinking about?” I ask as we pass a tractor scudding across a dry field. “I’m just busy looking outside, Mom,” he says, and I know he’s in his sweet spot: ahead, an open road—Route 66, the most mythic of them all.

EMILY UNDERWOOD
“WHERE DOES IT GO FROM HERE?”
Mapping it out

It’s been a few summers since the three of us flew to Chicago to drive Route 66—all 2,448 miles of it—back home to Los Angeles. The adventure was Isaac’s idea. He has a photographic memory for maps, is a gifted navigator, and is obsessed with where roads begin and end. Several months before our trip, we’d begun a weekend habit of driving L.A.’s longest streets in their entirety: 42 miles of Sepulveda Boulevard, say, or the 24-mile span of San Fernando Road. I was at the wheel, but Isaac was in command, logging the routes and pointing out the changing styles of streetlights and traffic signals and other roadside minutiae I’d never noticed. These exploits connected me to his interests and provided us with a common language; they also changed the way I saw the city. I grew up in Los Angeles and know it well, but driving its most epic thoroughfares with Isaac as my copilot showed me how often I’d treated roads as a means to get from one place to another, not as stories unto themselves.

One Saturday we were exploring Foothill Boulevard, which unrolls over 60 miles, starting at the L.A. Aqueduct in the northwest corner of the county and then paralleling the San Gabriel mountain range. A mile or so before Foothill ends at San Bernardino’s city limits, we were blocked from completing the drive when police abruptly diverted traffic. Undeterred, Isaac asked: Where does it go from here?

Where did it go from there? I knew that Foothill is part of the final stretch of fabled Route 66, which originates in Chicago, but I was unsure how much was intact or replaced by interstates between here and there. I was as curious as Isaac. While our family has traveled the United States on Amtrak, we’d never taken a cross-country road trip. So I told Isaac we’d find out where it went that summer. Little did I recognize the commitment required to fulfill his wish and how it would widen my own coastal-oriented lens: that we’d experience the state of the States at a pivotal moment in our history. The trip would also attach me to my boy as irrefutably as a line connects two dots on a map.

My mother’s side of the family took the steam engine route to Los Angeles from Chicago four generations ago. In the age of robber barons, Route 66 wasn’t yet an option. “America’s Highway,” or, as John Steinbeck more poetically put it, “the Mother Road,” first emerged in 1926 as a two-lane affair. During the Great Depression, in the largest migration in U.S. history, hundreds of thousands of desperate farmers from the Dust Bowl traveled it to Southern California, the golden land of opportunity. (The most famous family was fictional: the Joads, from Steinbeck’s great American novel, The Grapes of Wrath.) When those migrants arrived, too many discovered that opportunity meant picking fruit and being treated like “Okie” pariahs. In the ’40s, Route 66 gave Nat King Cole a smash hit. Beatniks charted its path on vision quests, followed by VW-driving flower children on long strange trips a decade after. The rise of interstates led to Route 66’s decommissioning in 1985, and many Americans believe what’s left are ramshackle bits and bobs. In fact, more than 85 percent of it remains navigable today. I promised Isaac that we’d cover every inch.

Wilmington, IllinoisMARY MELTON
Wilmington, Illinois
“CAN YOU EAT PIECES OF ICE FROM THE SKY?”
Meandering the Midwest

Potential Route 66 road hazards: flash floods, axle-chewing potholes, grease-laden diners. To mitigate the last, we salvage a junked Styrofoam cooler at the O’Hare Airport rental car kiosk to stock with healthy-ish vittles for our two-week journey into the heart of the West. The SUV we reserved isn’t available, so we settle for a dark gray Mazda 5 microvan that’s humble yet ready to party. Barely an hour out of Chicago, we blow our culinary goals with fat-dripping burgers and chocolate malts from the Polk-a-Dot Drive-In, where Elvis and Betty Boop fight for thematic supremacy.

Heading east to west and north to south, Route 66 starts at the corner of East Adams Street and Michigan Avenue—across from the Art Institute of Chicago and in front of a Panda Express (a chain born on the road’s opposite end, in Los Angeles). Illinois, like other states the route traverses, has shown no compunction in capitalizing on 66’s iconic status, with mini museums devoted to everything from Pontiacs to Superman to Jesse James, as well as ersatz 1950s diners (founded in the 1980s) with amazing-tasting-yet-awful-for-ya helpings of grilled cheese and pork chops and coconut cream pie that are prime grist for a cardiologist’s worst nightmares. Road markers remind travelers that they’re on a historic route; they appear so often across Illinois that they inspire our first car game: Who can spot the next one? Upon finding a sign, Isaac sings: “Historic Rooooooooooooute 66!,” which provides a steady soundtrack to our trip.

There are roads that bypass and roads that connect. People make choices every day that determine which road they’re on: Do you want to shirk this new responsibility at work, or do you want to seize it? Do you want to avoid this difficult conversation with your partner, or do you want to face it? Do you want to roll up your window to the homeless person at the off-ramp, or do you want to reach out? Upon our leaving Chicago, it became clear that we’d be traveling the road that connects. The farther we drove, the more apparent it became how much of America is on the bypass.

We follow a meticulously researched book, The EZ66 Guide, that keeps us on as much of the original road as possible: that could be a steel truss bridge or a muddy, narrow tunnel under a rail crossing. In the ’30s and ’40s, many of Route 66’s two lanes gave way to four-lane blacktops, or later, to frontage roads that run alongside zooming highways. Every effort to get us where we’re going faster has made it easier to skip what’s most beautiful, to abandon the provincial, particular, and just plain weird for an endless parade of golden arches and Target bull’s-eyes—to cross the country without ever experiencing the country.

These shortcuts enable us not just to skip towns, but also to skip life. I call it on-the-ground flyover; stick to the interstate and you sacrifice roadside attractions like the Gemini Giant, a 30-foot-tall fiberglass overachiever in a space helmet who cradles a small rocket ship, or the Bunyan Giant, a 19-foot-high lumberjack who holds a hot dog instead of a log, and a dozen or so other gargantuan creations Isaac stands beneath in awe. No corn dogs at the Cozy Dog Drive-In or frozen custard at Ted Drewes—just two of countless delicacies we devour. No option to notice, let alone pull over and assist, a turtle as it crosses a one-and-a-half-mile portion of brick-paved 66 outside of Springfield, Illinois. (We resist the temptation to place our hard-shelled friend in the back seat for a sunnier life in Los Angeles.)

Right before crossing the Mississippi River into Missouri, we encounter a jumble of streets—right turn here, left there, stop sign once, twice, three times go—that constitute Route 66 through East St. Louis. The blighted city has the highest murder rate of any in the United States. To imagine we were nudging a turtle into a cornfield a few hours ago. East St. Louis is a gateway to a string of neglected main streets we will rumble along from here to the Southwest, to the parts of the country the coasts rarely hear from, to a side of America I acknowledge that Isaac knows little about—like too many of us.

As parents, we’d long believed—hoped, at least—that we traveled the road that connects with Isaac. We’ve indulged his passions: music, travel, even miniature golf. Whatever he’s loved, we’ve gone all in. His autism can shield him from hard truths; we’re uncertain at times how deeply he grasps serious situations. But now, staring at the boarded-up storefronts and decaying homes of East St. Louis, I question: Have we used his autism to shield him? Have we underestimated his ability to process difficult feelings? Have we slipped onto a bypass and forgotten that he’s maturing and forming opinions of his own?

The next morning, he silently addresses my last question. There’s a cute girl in our hotel restaurant who’s set her eyes on my wavy-haired blond boy, and I notice him sneaking peeks at her—when not drenching his French toast in maple syrup. It’s the first time I’ve seen an unspoken interaction, which is not to say it’s his first interaction. My eyes are more open to what’s transpiring right in front of me.

Deeper into Missouri, the afternoon sky turns sinister and we discuss weather patterns. “Are there going to be tornadoes?” Isaac asks as the wind picks up. We talk about the awful twister that ripped through Joplin, which we will soon be passing, a few years earlier. Hail begins to hammer the roof of our Mazda, and Isaac wonders if we could eat the stones. After a short show, a streak of baby blue unzips across the sky; before long, a cobalt dusk falls, offering a cinematic backdrop to the neon sign flickering on its welcome to our next roadside motel.

Galena, KansasMARY MELTON
Galena, Kansas
“IT’S PEACEFUL WITHOUT THE MUSIC.”
The South beckons

If you drive Route 66 and sense This is vaguely familiar, you’ve probably seen Cars. It wasn’t just Isaac’s obsession with roads that sparked this trip. Like a couple of million other kids, he adores the Pixar film set in fictional Radiator Springs, a town like many we’re visiting that was cut off by the interstate and left to fend for itself. The film’s creators owe as great a debt to Route 66 as Steinbeck does, basing much of Cars’ aesthetic and story line on the road, having researched the people and places that populate it to inform the movie.

Isaac is on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. Though verbal and engaged, he remains challenged by social interactions and reading comprehension. He knows how to read, but as with decoding facial expressions, he struggles to parse what the bigger picture reveals when words are stitched together to tell a story. Cars tells a simple story, and Isaac related to it: Lightning McQueen comes to town and learns the value of friendship by driving the road less taken.

That stormy night in Missouri, Isaac plays fill-er-up with the antique gas pumps at the Wagon Wheel Motel, an obvious inspiration for the Wheel Well Motel in the film. In Galena, Kansas—Route 66 cuts through 13 miles of the state—he hops into the front seat of the beat-up tow truck that inspired Tow Mater. Later, in Adrian, Texas, we meet Fran Houser, the woman behind the saucy 1957 Motorama Showcar–cum–café owner in the movie. “Wait, you’re Flo?!?” Isaac asks Fran, who douses him with southern sugar and autographs a postcard at Sunflower Station, the tchotchke store she runs next to the Midpoint Cafe. She used to own the Midpoint—that’s where the Cars team found her—and we pick up on some frisson between her and the new owner over who lays claim to its “Ugly Pie” recipes.

Kids can find a lot of Pixar-grade goodness on 66, just as tourists from around the world can feast on hearty helpings of nostalgia. But the road doesn’t permit total escapism. Travelers will also find billboards in the rolling hills of Missouri that address the addictions that have decimated the state, which is the meth-producing capital of America. You can find tiny weighing scales for sale at mini-marts, fit for Walter White’s lab in Breaking Bad. You can find abandoned drive-in theaters and forlorn motels and bedraggled cafés—more common sights than those revived spots pimping Betty Boop and tabletop jukeboxes. When we see our first Confederate flag, waving from a pole in a pickup bed, I think, We’re not in Kansas anymore. Then I realize, Actually, we are in Kansas.

At Isaac’s request, we’ve reined in music and news on the road. We roll into towns as the sun fades, with our windows down, listening instead to humidity press out of the air like the slow hiss from a leaking raft. But in the evenings, after we’ve unpacked and showered and plotted the next day’s course, we turn on the TV for headlines.

Each night, we watch the emergence of Donald Trump, realtor–reality star, as a contender in the 2016 presidential election. The first Republican debate is airing the evening we check in at the Campbell Hotel in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Ed watches with the local Democratic club, which is hosting a viewing at the hotel. Isaac and I hit up the Campbell’s bar-lounge. Angry face, contemptuous face: Isaac practices his expressions to mimic those of Trump. Say what you will, there’s no mistaking what those expressions mean. I look around the bar and contemplate how we got here as a country. Route 66 has provided clues: people are hurting out here. The empty storefronts, the abandoned streets, the servers whose smiles betray meth-inflicted tooth decay. If Trump’s message of grievance and revenge can take hold here—You’ve been screwed, America, and I am your savior—then I can see how this movie will end.

The next day, we bear witness to a horrific outcome of extremist ideology. The Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum honors the 168 victims of the federal building bombing in 1995. A chair for each loss fills the space where the building once stood; the 19 small ones that speak for every child resonate with Isaac. “Why did kids die, Mom?” he asks. “The man who did this hated the government,” I say. I’ve never seen Isaac intentionally be mean to anyone—he’s a kind soul who doesn’t register the concept of hate. We hear an ambulance in the distance. “That siren could mean it’s sad for the people who were killed,” he says.

Texas is a jolt. Once we’re over the state line, the terrain turns to arid open range, flat vistas broken by windmills fanning hot across the Panhandle. The Big Texan restaurant in Amarillo is famous for its Steak Challenge. All that’s required is to scarf down a shrimp cocktail, baked potato, salad, roll, butter, and 72-ounce steak in one hour—and your $72 meal is on them. We sit next to affable brothers on a road trip of their own. One of them enters the competition along with a Frenchman; they both take seats at the table onstage, and the gorging begins. “Go! Go! Go!” Isaac cheers them. The Frenchman cuts his steak with slow finesse; savoring one morsel at a time between sips of red wine, he might as well be at a Left Bank brasserie. An hour passes, and neither contestant makes a dent—the only winners, we learn, don’t chew their food; they just shovel it in and swallow.

Tucumcari, New MexicoMARY MELTON
Tucumcari, New Mexico
“IT LOOKS LIKE A PAINTING.”
Savoring the Southwest

We first spotted the Impossibly Attractive European Couple at the President Lincoln Hotel in Springfield, Illinois. They’ve been popping up ever since—here they are ordering choco–peanut butter pie at the trip’s official halfway mark, the Midpoint Cafe in Texas; tomorrow the young and sprightly duo, tanned and fit in their snug bathing suits, will be jumping from a cliff into the frigid waters of the 81-foot-deep Blue Hole in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, waiting their turns with Ed and a grandma who is goaded on by her kids (and Isaac: “Go, go, go!”) to take the plunge.

We’ve shared the highway with retirees in RVs who invite glimpses into their rigs. We’ve chatted with repeat Route 66 enthusiasts in convertibles who provide can’t-miss tips. We’ve pulled over for Harley hog bike clubs, who flash peace signs when passing. But mostly we’ve encountered foreign accents on the road—Route 66 proprietors estimate that 40 percent of their clientele come from Europe. The signatures of Holtrops from Norway and Paganellis from Italy fill the guest books. For them, Route 66 is an America that never fully existed, except in a zany form; they search for high camp, and the road delivers in those painted old Cadillacs that sprout from the desert floor and concrete tepees that sell turquoise jewelry and overnight accommodations. Where the Southwest delivers most is in the bluffs and buttes and mesas whose palettes shift with every movement of the sun.

It’s not easy luring Isaac away from the Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico—the quaint motor court and its towering neon fowl have been seducing passersby since 1940. His bed, a “Pullman Sleeper,” is a single mattress that disappears Houdini-like into a wood chest. In town we pass an outhouse with a sign that reads: “Obama’s Presidential Library.” Today’s destination is Santa Fe; pre-1937, Route 66 looped through the historic city, before Highway 40 slashed the distance between here and Albuquerque. Storm clouds gather as we ascend the mountain; the higher we climb, the faster the temperature falls, from 90 degrees to 60 in minutes. A blinding downpour forces us to pull off the road. “The mud running down the mountain looks like a chocolate fountain!” Isaac shouts over the din as sludge seeps onto the highway. We wait for the rain to pass before continuing on—parents shaken, Isaac chill.

It’s been days since I’ve eaten anything that I’d deem nutritious. I feel every bit the bougie coastal lout that I am when I see Kaune’s Neighborhood Market in Santa Fe, which sells organic produce, and rush in to load avocados and rice milk into our janky cooler. Sinking my teeth into jerk chicken and spice-rubbed salmon from the African-Caribbean Jambo Café that night, I swear I will never again take for granted the freshness of California-grown fruits and vegetables and the diversity of L.A. cuisine.

As much as I hope Isaac is absorbing the road’s lush scenery, I appreciate his honesty when he says, “Mom, I have two things to concentrate on: train tracks and power lines.” The more I know him, the more I admire how he can speak without a filter. There’s a movement in the autism community to view our kids as having differences, not deficiencies. The closer I come to seeing the world through my son’s eyes, the more I believe that he has an evolved way of approaching life: no BS, no guilt, no artifice or calculation. Social interactions may be hard, his penchant for repeating himself may push my patience at times, but his road always connects to something fundamental.

The “only train tracks and power lines, please” refrain changes, however, when we hit the first natural wonder along this section of the drive: the Painted Desert in Arizona. “It looks like a painting!” Isaac says when we drop into the color-saturated scene. Next it’s Petrified Forest National Park (so ancient!), then Meteor Crater (so eerie!), then a side trip after leaving Winslow, Arizona (not before standing on the corner), to show him the Grand Canyon, which I haven’t seen since I was a kid. “It’s a really, really big hole,” I say, hoping to find value in the undersell. We walk to the lookout. He takes a deep breath and lets out one word: “Wow.”

We’ve fallen into a lovely rhythm on the road, each of us playing a role in the unpacking and repacking ritual. Our Mazda has been embraced as a fourth member of the family (Isaac is taken by its sliding door). When we reach our nightly destination, it’s Isaac’s job to find a cart and unload the treasures we’ve accumulated, which he rolls through the lobby: a bellhop in flip-flops who’s still waiting for his voice to change. He’s gaining more confidence in his independence; I feel like he’s grown an inch at each new stop.

An upside-downside of airport-free travel is no baggage limit; you unearth something you like at the local thrift store, you throw it in the car! We add to the stash in Seligman, Arizona, home to the legendarily kitschy Delgadillo’s Snow Cap Drive-In and, next to it, Angel & Vilma’s, the most robust gift shop on the route. It’s a long and lulling passage from there through blips of places with names like Peach Springs (“a tiny town, that was like a second long,” Isaac says) and Truxton and Hackberry until we arrive at the Hill Top Motel in Kingman. We snap to our unpacking routine but soon realize there’s something amiss.

Amarillo, TexasMARY MELTON
Amarillo, Texas
“THIS PLACE IS ICKY.”
California or bust

Each day a different bed, a different ice machine, a different (or indifferent) waffle maker at the breakfast buffet. Isaac was so keen to arrive at a motel one night that he cried (“I feel water in my eyes”) when we delayed checking in to visit a curio shop before it closed. Planning this trip involved locking down rooms in 14 hotels over 14 nights; though I sometimes wing it on the road, too many classic places on 66 are booked early (thank you, E.U.), so I reserved ahead and did a fine job. We hadn’t hit a dud yet. Some places knocked us out (the old-money marble lobby of the art deco Colcord in Oklahoma City, say, or the tile floors and kilim rugs of La Posada Hotel in Winslow). I’d reserved a cabin near Kingman but changed course last minute when we were arriving late into town. My guidebook recommended the Hill Top (“a vintage motel with great neon”).

Not a good sign, no pun intended: the neon is dark. Equally distressing (and worse, toxic) is the inch of green muck that constitutes the pool. Still, it’s late and we’re tired. We open the door to our $58.70 room and figure, How bad can it be?

Bad.

The room is filthy. The carpet is damp where the heater is oozing. The air smells stale and moldy. Isaac halts unpacking to study a large, prehistoric bug crawling nonchalantly across the bedspread, then declares: “This place is icky.” We return the key and find a Ramada with a Route 66 theme (Isaac calls it the Rah-ma-da, like Ramadan without the n, which Ed and I adopt). Compared with the last place, it feels like a Four Seasons. I google the Hill Top to see how my guidebook steered us so wrong. The sinister vibe wasn’t in our heads: Timothy McVeigh holed up there for days before heading to Oklahoma City and committing mass murder.

We eat dinner, then watch a Trump rally on TV, after which Ed is ill; years later, Isaac still likes to say, “Trump makes Dad throw up.”

Recovered and restored the next morning, with California finally in our sight lines, we make the steep, treacherous, twisty, yet totally-worth-it haul to Oatman, Arizona, a gold-mining town high in the mountains where wild burros saunter down the sidewalks posing for selfies with tourists who stop for buffalo burgers and beer. Today is my birthday, and I spend it dazed by the resilience of those who tackled this road before us. Navigating the narrow switchbacks out, I imagine the Dust Bowl refugees in their jalopies and no AC, laden down by their earthly possessions, hoping the brakes would hold, with no certain future to greet them. They also had California in their sight lines. Did it live up to the hype?

The road sure doesn’t. Depending on what state you’re driving through, the upkeep of Route 66 varies wildly. We cross the Colorado River into California, and the pavement goes from navigable to near disintegration. The Mazda jostles over massive cracks in the asphalt; at times, we’re redirected to the interstate to avoid washouts. The conditions are harsh. It’s the Mojave Desert, after all; the temperature gauge on our dash registers 108 degrees at 3 p.m.

The parched environment is the first sign we’re closer to home. “Let’s think about places that are in a drought,” Isaac suggests as the bone-dry topography rolls by. We stop at Roy’s Motel and Café in Amboy, with its colossal sign, where even the door handles sizzle to the touch. The low desert is otherworldly and unrelenting, I’ll give it that—crazy stuff must go down after sunset. Isaac is back in his California comfort zone, following the freight trains that pace 66 on their tracks, correcting me when I question a navigational direction: “Dude, seriously? The 40 has to make a big turn because it has to go to Barstow.”

It’s a 200-mile grind between Needles and Cajon Pass, where we are forced onto Interstate 15 and hit our first traffic jam in two weeks—another indicator that we are closing in on L.A.

En route to their final destination of Santa Monica, the author (far right), her husband, Ed, and their son, Isaac, stop at the Bagdad Cafe. Located in the Mojave Desert, it was the filming location for the 1987 German film of the same name.MARY MELTON
En route to their final destination of Santa Monica, the author (far right), her husband, Ed, and their son, Isaac, stop at the Bagdad Cafe. Located in the Mojave Desert, it was the filming location for the 1987 German film of the same name.
“YOU READY TO GET BACK TO YOUR SUBARU?”
Pondering the Pacific

Our last day of driving: I wake up inside a tepee decorated like a 1980s ashram. Kumar Patel, at the time the manager of the Wigwam Motel in Rialto (which looks an awful lot like the Cozy Cone Motel in Cars), regales us with his own tales of 66. “We’re like family,” he says of his fellow proprietors along the 2,500-mile road. His parents bought the Wigwam in 2003, and he’s taken it up a notch, adding delightful gift shop knickknacks (the ceramic tepee Christmas tree ornaments are a standout). He shares some roadside gossip and wants to know: How is Fran holding up in Texas? (Just fine—our spidey sense was correct; there’s a tussle over pie recipes.) Were the corn dogs up to par at the Cozy Dog Drive-In? (A 10 for texture, you bet.) Can he take our picture jumping in front of the tepees? (What do you think?)

The Wigwam is on Foothill Boulevard—near where we stopped, in the opposite direction, a few months back when Isaac asked what lay in front of us. On our way to our final destination today of Santa Monica, we’ll be within a few miles of our own house. As we drive Foothill, before 66 gets tangled in downtown L.A., familiar territory takes on unfamiliar shadings: the neon signs have a new gravitas; the significance of where this road leads feels more potent and palpable. I’m filtering home as a tourist, not a local. “You ready to get back to your Subaru?” Isaac asks excitedly as we pass near our home. He’s a completist, and the hard-fought goalpost is near. Mom isn’t ready to kick the ball over.

We make a pit stop at a CVS in West Hollywood—no Elvis bathroom or Betty Boop oven mitts here. At a red light on Santa Monica Boulevard, I gaze out the passenger window. “Oh my God,” I say to Ed, looking at a guy behind the wheel of a white Range Rover. “We’re driving next to Al Pacino.” The last time I saw him was yesterday, on a Scarface poster in an Oatman restaurant. The star of The Godfather is on the Mother Road.

Route 66 trails off in Santa Monica at the lackluster intersection of Lincoln and Olympic Boulevards, near the 1959 Penguin coffee shop that’s been remade into a retro-inspired Mel’s Drive-In. Most drivers symbolically terminate the trip instead at the more scenic Santa Monica Pier, a few blocks away, where a canny gift shop owner has mounted an “End of the Trail” sign. We park the Mazda near the pier. I fumble for change to feed the meter, and we finish our journey on foot. We’ve reached the edge of the continent. This is where it ends.

Nearly 2,500 miles, 15 days, eight states. Standing on the pier, with the glistening Pacific under our feet, we put our arms around one another in a circle to acknowledge the moment. We’re surrounded by summer Sunday beachgoers and kids on skateboards and tourists—everyone having taken their own path to reach this spot. We took the road that connects. It doesn’t just connect the three of us. It doesn’t just connect proprietors like Patel at the Wigwam to Fran at Sunflower Station. It doesn’t just connect Rust Belt retirees to nostalgia-seeking Swedes. It connects all of us. We can’t move forward as a country until we can find a common road to travel, to learn about one another. We don’t need rhetoric. We need Route 66.

“I can’t believe we did the whole thing!” Isaac says, breaking me out of my introspection. I’m balancing the delirium of a runner who just finished a marathon with the pride of a parent who fulfilled her kid’s wish. We answered his question: Where does it go from here? Gazing at his grinning face, though, I realize that it was never about the destination. He’s already planning his next expedition. It’s about just looking outside, Mom, and taking pleasure in the moments that get you there.

Twilight is nigh, and it’s time to drop off the Mazda 5 at the rental car office. It’s been a faithful friend that kept us safe on this mother’s road, no mishaps or breakdowns, and I am grateful. It took some abuse and will forever be home to Gorilla Munch dust and a small but significant piece of my heart. Isaac looks at me with intent. “Mom, you’re sad,” he says, doing an expert job of reading me.

Sad face. Surprised face. Proud face. Happy face.

Mary Melton is Alta’s editor at large. She is the former editor in chief of Los Angeles magazine.

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