Route 66 Revisited — Part 1

By Keith Smiley
We’re on our way to Yosemite for a few days, so to keep the blog fresh, I’ve split my post about driving out to California into four parts. One part will go up each day between Monday and Thursday.

In the dash across the country, I got a bit of a late start: Brad, Ed and Elliott took two weeks to make the trip and still showed up on Martha’s doorstep here in California a day before I even left Lexington.

When I locked up my apartment on a Saturday after cramming camera gear and camping supplies into my car, I only knew that my first stop would be to visit a friend in northern Alabama and my last stop would be Ventura, California. The middle of the trip — a 2,000-mile middle for those of you following along on your globes at home — was TBA.

Five days later, I was taking wrong turns in Ventura County to round out my trip, relieved to see trees again after a few hundred miles of driving through the Mojave Desert. As I stood in Martha’s kitchen, recalling some stories from my drive, I realized just how distinct my road trip was from the other guys’. The four of us started in the same city and ended up under the same roof on the other side of the Continental Divide, but our routes had little else in common.

For readers — I’m assuming we have readers — that are in a hurry, I’ll go ahead and provide a visual summary of my solo road trip across the country.


There you go. Mostly-nondescript land, four-lane interstate, a semi or two, and the steering wheel; not pictured is the constant stream of music and NPR from CDs and an iPod. Together, they were my best friends for 2,500 miles.

Contrary to rumor, I didn’t leave two weeks later than the others because it took me an extremely long time to pack. In actuality, I had a wedding to attend. My friend, fellow photographer, and Kernel alum Jonathan Palmer got married at the end of May and returned from his honeymoon about the time I was leaving Lexington. Just as I did when I drove to Denver last year, I decided to start my trip with a short visit to see Jonathan in Decatur, Alabama, where he’s a staff photographer for a small daily newspaper.

Decatur is less than an hour from the Bankhead National Forest, which is massive, mostly untouched, and the home of the oldest tree in Alabama. On Sunday, Jonathan, his wife and I headed to the forest for the six-mile hike to the old poplar. Much of the trail was unmaintained and meandering; it often split with one fork dead-ending because a tree had obstructed the old path and someone had simply cut a new, narrow trail around it. Once we found the tree, it was… a largish tree. Surprise!

That’s me on the left. I was reasonably hydrated at this point, and I assume the tree was, too.


The oldest tree in Alabama is also where the three of us ran out of water. We at least had good maps with us and picked a different route for the return to the car, one that was less difficult and only about four miles long. But with hardly any shade and absolutely no water while hiking in the hottest part of the day, it was not a quick and easy four miles. I think I’m still drinking extra water to compensate for that dehydration.

I took a couple of souvenirs from the forest: blisters, because of idiotic sock choice on my part, and skinned knees, which I thought would make me cool like Brad and Ed. The logical next step would be rest up in Alabama on Monday and start my travels in earnest Tuesday. But the lure of the American West is still strong; I can only guess it’s the same lure that originally drew settlers to the frontier.

I wanted to go West again, and I had the — certainly irrational — feeling that if I didn’t start driving west, I’d never make it, as if every day spent east of the Mississippi River was a wasted day. So Monday afternoon, I repacked my car, said goodbye to Jonathan, and took US-72 to Memphis, Tenn., where I picked up I-40, the interstate that would take me through five states before entering California. In the process, much of it would cross, parallel or even overlay the centerline of Route 66 — the highway that opened California to the rest of the nation.

The rusted shell of an old car — I think it’s a Ford Model A but I’m not quite sure — bolted to the ground in Arizona. The telephone poles in the background carry no wires; they’re a remnant of Route 66 and ran parallel to the road in its day. If the picture was bigger, you could make out a few cars in the background on Interstate 40, which at this point is basically built on top of the old highway.


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