May 24, 2019–When I walked into the La Quinta Museum one day recently the place was abuzz over an unlikely topic. Staff members too young to remember Woodstock were chatting excitedly about the Hog Farm–a 1960s commune founded by peace activist and clown Wavy Gravy.
It turns out Hog Farmer Andy Romanoff, a living embodiment of the Summer of Love, had just visited the museum. Along with hitchhiking and living on a bus, his counterculture credentials include a deep acquaintance with the road-trip-as-ritual. He first traveled Route 66 as an 18-year-old and returned recently to photograph the historic road.
The La Quinta Museum exhibit opening May 28-September 14, 2019–Route 66, Road Trip–includes 18 of Romanoff’s photos. In his essay and photos that follows, the Los Angeles writer and photographer explores the road that “goes ever, ever on” (as Bilbo said) in the dreams of hobbits and hippies everywhere.
Mother Road: Glimpses of Route 66 by Andy Romanoff
Route 66, the Mother Road, runs alongside highway 40 as it crosses the country east to west. In the sixties, 66 was the road I traveled on back and forth between Chicago and LA, making my way by car, bus, and thumb. It was two lanes of asphalt, making its way through miles of farmland interrupted by the occasional sleepy town, then endless hours droning across the desert spaces with an occasional glimpse of old west culture. Finally, it crawled up the mountains to Oatman before coasting down to the Colorado River and the palm tree’d wonders of California.
The first time I made the journey I was eighteen, traveling with two other guys in a beat-up old car filled with all our things. The trip was sweaty hot, shivering cold, scary new and totally amazing. I can still conjure up the feeling of that ride, driving on forever, seeing it all afresh through rolled down windows. Four days and nights of slow progress, two thousand miles of road, a journey of sights and sounds, adventures and discovery.
Recently, I drove from LA to Santa Fe with longtime pal Bob Harvey. We traveled on US 40 but got off often to see the bones of old 66. We stopped where we liked and enjoyed our time on the road, listening to old music and eating the great bad road food of small-town cafes. I made pictures to help me understand what I was seeing.
Here are pictures then, and a few tiny stories, of things we saw along the beloved highway. Moments we glimpsed in Barstow and Needles, Williams and Holbrook, snapshots of life along the road that connects them all together, The Mother Road.
I waited to make this picture. I’d already shot a version without the people when I saw these guys coming my way. I stood there in the street, patient. When they entered the frame I raised my camera and started shooting, click, click, click, one … two … three frames, the shutter noise loud enough in the quiet afternoon. They heard it and then one of the guys started running like an animal that’s been spooked. He never looked, never acknowledged my presence, just trotted away till he was out of sight.
A little further down the road, we came to Needles, pulled in by the railroad tracks, and came to rest at the Fred Harvey station, a traveler’s destination for a hundred years. In the hot Needles afternoon, the weight of the sun rested on my body like the lead blanket in a radiologists’ suite, heavy and calming.
The Chamber of Commerce building has seen better times. It could use some stucco, and a coat of paint and god knows what else but I didn’t find out because it was closed. I don’t blame them, the chamber people. Needles is empty in the hot afternoon. People hide in their darkened houses, reading or watching TV till the sun goes down. There’s no reason to sit here in this office waiting while nothing happens.
The desert sun cuts sharp shadows, reveals the geometry of the architecture. The murals on the brick surfaces remind me of Egyptian pyramids, the old sign of the long-closed store reveals the time gone by, it all adds up.
The museum was closed, and that’s too bad because I always find things that delight me when I visit places like this. There is history everywhere, the small history of everyday people. We have plenty of stories and memorabilia about the famous and the big events that shape our lives. But maybe we could use a few more stories about the rest of us.
The Meteor City trading post sits just off of the highway, abandoned and alone. It takes an act of will to pull off the road here, get out of the car, and wander around. At first, it feels like maybe you’re in a movie where unexpected and unpleasant things are going to happen. Then, after a while, when no one comes around the corner with a gun and a crazy smile its forlorn and empty nature takes over, and it’s okay just to be here. I take pictures and wonder who wrote the words on the walls, and I imagine there are local kids who gather here sometimes on Friday nights to drink beer and hang out.
The residue we leave behind fascinates me — our incessant, overwhelming need to make marks on things.
Who lived out here miles from anything else? Whoever they were, I count three satellite dishes perched amongst their wreckage, evidence of their desire to remain connected to the world outside.
At one time the people here had plenty of connection. There were travelers on the road that passed just outside their door, and the travelers stopped here to buy or browse or pee.
But then Route 66 was supplanted by limited access 40, and the travelers drove by just a hundred feet away, but now imprisoned by the fences of the interstate.
Even now, if you look towards the road, you can see them sailing by at eighty miles an hour, faces fixed for their destinations. They’re hypnotized by the new road, and there’s no way they’re ever going to stop here.
It must have been tough to close this place up though; I’m sure there were lots of memories they had to leave behind. I wonder who the last one was, the one who turned off the lights and locked the door.
The car is filled with random stuff, suitcases, plastic bags, a styrofoam cooler, scraps of paper. The accumulation rises well above the window line. The driver is reduced, he sits alone in his tiny cockpit absorbed in his conversation and the road ahead. I wonder if he’s headed towards home or away, happy to be returning to a life he loves or desolate and empty as he drives someplace new to start again.
Just outside of Holbrook, we came to this rest stop and shopping opportunity. I buy two pairs of Hawk, Night & Day Sunglasses for $11.99, and three bags of Planters Heated Peanuts for 99 cents.
The laws of supply and demand are always working which leads me to suspect there’s a lot of Peanuts and sunglasses around Holbrook.
Here are two travelers walking on the surface of the moon. They have appeared out of nowhere, the only things moving in this vast, still place. The air carries the scent of rocks and dust, and we are reduced to our real size, our tiny selves in the middle of this gigantic landscape and the instant of endless time we are living in.
To read the complete essay, see Andy Romanoff’s Medium page Stories I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You: https://medium.com/@andyromanoff See more of his photographs here: https://andyromanoff.zenfolio.com/
Route 66, Road Trip is on view at the La Quinta Museum May 28-September 14, 2019. The exhibit includes 18 of Andy Romanoff’s photographs along with displays exploring the cultural and artistic influence of the historic route. The opening reception is June 13, 2019, 5-7 pm. https://www.facebook.com/LaQuintaMuseum/