Monday, May 1, 2017

The Mother Road

©All photos unless otherwise noted by Daniel Lee Perea. 

I'm sitting in a motel room that dates back to the late 30s. There's a period bakelite rotary phone on the nightstand that looks as though it may ring at any moment with a Raymond Chandler mystery plot on the other end. (It even still works. So I'm told.) I'm merely one of countless thousands that have stayed in The Blue Swallow Motel on their quest to chase a slice of Americana. It is a well-preserved piece of history along Route 66.

I spoke to the proprietor, a man with a background in the corporate world, and asked what brought him to the remote desert vistas of Tucumcari, New Mexico. We spoke a few feet from the gleaming curves of the '51 Pontiac Chieftain that stays parked beneath the beautifully glowing, world-famous neon sign. He answered "I couldn't go back to another white collar office job. I just couldn't do it. My wife and I stayed here on a road trip, and it happened to be up for sale, and we decided to just go for it!"

This is the sentiment of many a budding entrepreneur. The day you can no longer continue working for someone else and feel compelled to chase your own dream. 

Many times, I've criss-crossed the country along Route 66 (officially discontinued in 1986, and paved over by I-40 in the modern era, thanks to President Dwight D. Eisenhower.)  "The Mother Road." "Main Street of America." It's both a literal and symbolic pathway to economic opportunity. From the earliest agricultural settlers, miners, and cowpunchers who moved west in a bid to control their own destiny, to the destitute hoards chronicled in "The Grapes of Wrath" to the beat generation who pounded out poetry while they were "On The Road," to the paranoid "Fear and Loathing" of Hunter S. Thompson; Route 66 is a literary constant and primary touchstone of American culture.

On my trips out west, I like to muse and wax poetic about the nature of the American Dream. Like Hunter S. Thompson, I was chasing it for a while, not entirely sure what I was looking for. Is it in the sun-baked antique automobiles, gleaming in the sun off the highway? Is it in the trashy, run-down trailers and little league baseball fields that frame and contrast the the kitschy Route 66 Museum in Elk City, Oklahoma?

Is it in the old west ghost town of Cuervo? The ruins of Arizona ranches? In the meek hovels of maverick desert rats who find the company of humankind so incompatible, they move as far away from urban civilization as possible to be one with the wide-open sky and sprawling vistas of solitute? Perhaps some combination all of the above? What IS the American Dream? How does one define it?

Eventually in Las Vegas, at a pizza event, I found what was (at at least for me) AN answer if not THE answer. Reconnecting with a certain Persian acquaintance in the cavernous Las Vegas Convention Center as he demonstrated his innovative pizza equipment wares, it struck me. Here was a guy who grew up in a war-torn nation completely ripped apart by the questionable foreign policy of western powers. At some younger age, he managed to escape his battle-ravaged homeland and make it to America. Working his way up through the ranks of pizzerias, he hit upon a market niche or two, made a leap of faith and developed a company and some technological inventions that would fill some needs in the pizza industry. He built an entire company out of it, and became a jobs creator, while partnering with others to create innovative products. 

In short, he crossed the seas to come to the Land of Opportunity and seize his own bit of it. Self-determination and opportunity. That's been the American story for as long as there has been an America. It's the immigrant story in an immigrant nation. The stories I find in the pizza world are often exactly this story. And despite the Italian origins of the dish, there is, on a fundamental level, nothing more American than pizza; and the folks who make up the industry. What starts somewhere else comes chasing opportunity on a journey to melt in the pot here; and in the process, transform America into something more than the sum of its parts.

Is that the answer to "What is the American Dream?" Perhaps not to everyone. But it's enough for me.


Photo: Brian Hernandez

Now, a bit further down the road and a bit of a detour off Route 66, my colleague Brian and I are standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon. We stare down into the vast, gaping maw of the crevasse. It is almost beyond comprehension. The size is so titanic, it's difficult for the brain to even process what you're looking at. I've experienced this sensation exactly one other time: when I was looking at the gargantuan interior of St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City.

The Grand Canyon is one of the most cherished national treasures and landmarks of America - to the point of being almost synonymous with Americana. The irony being that is has been here for MILLIONS of years before Amerigo Vespucci (another Italian connection) ever even thought about setting foot on a boat of any sort. The Grand Canyon is beyond any nationality. It predates us by millennia and will outlive any of us by more.  It makes one feel as small as they do when staring into the starry night sky in an area far from city lights. Small. Where the infinite meets the infinitesimal.

Route 66 has come and to some extent gone. Humans will come and go, and one day be extinct or perhaps replaced by another species. By staring into the ageless canyon, one is reminded that they are but a very tiny link in an extraordinarily long chain.  And so we press on. Down the road a bit further to see where it will take us. One mile at a time, perhaps better understanding with each stop and detour that there is never TRULY a destination. Only waypoints. So enjoy the ride while you can.

Sometimes you bend, sometimes you stand
Sometimes you turn your back to the wind
There's a world outside every darkened door
Where the blues won't haunt you anymore
Where the brave are free and lovers soar
Come ride with me to the distant shore
Life is a highway; I want to ride it all night long
- Tom Cochrane
©All photos unless otherwise noted by Daniel Lee Perea. 


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