I’m Done!

So here it is, my record of my journey across our great nation on one of our most historic roads. I don’t know what the final product of this project will be just yet. But I am thankful I was able to bring you all along the Road with me! Thank you all for your support and interest in my travels!

-Meagan

A Better LA

This summer would have been drastically different if I had not gotten an internship with the non-profit A Better LA. This is the reason I left the comfort of my dear Charlottesville, Virginia and embarked on my trip out West.

Because I love this charity and am incredibly proud of the work we are doing, I have to brag about it a little before I wrap this whole blog up.

A Better LA is a non-profit devoted to ending the senseless gang violence present in the street and neighborhoods of Los Angeles. We work specifically in gang intervention/prevention, youth development, and community outreach.

This summer, our target area is the community of West Athens/Westmont. For all of you who are not familiar with Los Angeles, West Athens is the town right next to Compton and directly below Inglewood. And here I am, the little Southern white girl, marching into these communities every week. But I love it! The people I have met are amazing! Their stories are truly inspiring. Our organization is different in that almost all of our intervention workers are former gang members themselves. They understand the community and can gain the respect of the people living there in a way I, as an outsider, never could. Talking to them, listening to what they have to say, has been an incredible opportunity for me. So many people have this impression of South Central Los Angeles as a total war-zone. What they don’t see are the people who truly care about their community and who work tirelessly every day to ensure that their youth are given the opportunity to follow their dreams.

I don’t spend every day in the field. In fact, most of my days are spent in our Downtown LA office building. But the days I love most are the days I get to interact with the people we are trying to help.

I could talk for days about what we do! Instead, I’ll just post the link to our site so you can check it all out for yourself!

http://abetterla.org/

A few of my favorite pictures from along the way that never made it into posts:

But they are begging to be seen!

Chicago:

St. Louis:

Grand Canyon:

Aquarius Mountains

(It’s very small, but there’s an American flag out at the edge of the rocks):

And my personal favorite:

Sunset on 66, driving through Arizona

Reflections

After I finished my travels down Route 66, I waited patiently for my earth-shattering revelations about life, America, and well, anything else people have earth-shattering revelations about after completing a journey such as mine.

But none came.

Instead, things seemed to slowly drip into my subconscious mind and only once they had become a part of my everyday life and activities was I truly aware of what I learned on the Mother Road.

First off, my natural independence has evolved into a more mature version of itself. Some call this “the Spirit of Adventure.” An American notion if there ever was one. I don’t know exactly how to describe this change within myself. All I can say is that I have always loved to explore things. I have always had the burning desire to travel the world and see everyone and everything in it. And now, I know I can do that. I know it’s ok if I take a wrong turn or get a little lost (I still prefer to call it wandering!).

During the school year when I just need to get away from classes and track and drama, I go for car rides. Sometimes with others. Sometimes alone. But, even on these rides, I’ve always stayed to tried and true routes. Not that there’s anything wrong with finding a peaceful place that you can go to when you need (in my case, Old Silver Beach down on the Cape). In fact, that’s usually one of the first things I do when I get to a new place- find somewhere to make my own. Everyone needs their comfort place. In L.A. that place for me is Malibu Lagoon Beach or the Grove mall, depending on the day.

But, I’ve also grown more adventurous, learned to push boundaries- maybe drive the wrong way on a one-way street or explore the many Los Angeles neighborhoods, talk to the people I meet along the way. One interesting character who lives on my street is an older gentleman (I think). He always has on make-up though and I really think he might be a transvestite. He’s very friendly though, always says hi! I look forward to seeing him on my runs through the neighborhood. Actually, people here are generally quite nice. Surprising, since we’re in a city. But most of them will say hello. It’s in the neighborhoods that you make friends.

Along with the independence has come a growing self-reliance.

Emerson and Thoreau would be so proud!

Unfortunately I had to move out of my first apartment rather unexpectedly. The place was a mess, the girls were a bit cold, and I was unhappy from the beginning. But I thought I could stick it out for six weeks. I mean, I was getting so good at just going out at night to explore, after all! But then an exterminator found an infestation of bed bugs in our apartment, explaining the mysterious bites I had been getting for a few days. That was the last straw for me! I was out within an hour! I’ll admit, it was a huge adrenaline rush! Moving out so fast, not knowing where I would be for the night, not knowing how long it would take me to find new housing. A drastic measure I might never have taken had it not been for my experience driving 66. But the Road taught me that sometimes you have to take chances. There isn’t always a sign to point you on your way. You learn to just follow your heart and trust that things will work out.

And work out they did. It was a bit of a rough weekend for me. My uncle had died earlier that week and now I was homeless. But I got lucky that I have friends in the area, one of whom very generously offered me a place to sleep for Friday night. The next day I was back in the courtyard of my office Downtown, stealing their wireless internet, trying to find a new place to live. I made phone calls, I placed ads, and I found a wonderful new place to live! I have to say though, that whole experience was an interesting study of American culture. Only one girl replied to my post- the girl I am currently living with. All the rest of my replies came from single men ranging in age from 20 to about 45. All living alone…you see where this is going? One guy went so far as to send me a picture of his naked torso with the offer of free rent in exchange for sexual favors. I thought about ignoring it. But decided it would be more fun to reply. I simply told him he’s a pig and I have better abs than he does anyways. All right…maybe I my response was a little more strongly worded than that…But it put him in his place! I never heard back from him. Sad, I kind of would have liked to continue to give him a piece of my mind on that issue…

I’ve learned that I can travel thousands of miles by myself in a rinky-dink car and make it out alive. Wow. Some days I still don’t believe that I actually did that!

And what have I learned about America? A lot of things.

For one, we are a people who demand our voices be heard.

Everyone has a story to tell and everyone is clamoring to tell it. Everyone has an opinion about something. We are a people of causes and moral battles. However, we are also a people who are incredibly bad at listening. We all want to be heard, but we are unwilling to listen to anyone else if they do not agree with us! What a shame. We could accomplish so much if we would stop being so darn combative!

We’re so dramatic, us Americans! We really are. Listen to any talk radio. Especially the radio shows in the Midwest and Southwest. The country is going to Hell in a handbasket and there’s nothing we can do to change anything. Maybe the reason I’m always in such a rush and have no patience with my own life is because I’ve been raised on radio and TV that makes such a big deal of small matters. It’s always either do or die. We have no patience with our lives, no ability to see the big picture if the details don’t follow our beliefs.

Second, despite the stereotypes about Americans and what I’ve discovered about how stubbornly we stick to our ideals, I truly believe we are a nation of good people.

Take the day I was stranded on the side of the road with a flat tire. Sure, most people drove by. But one man stopped. One man reached out to me and made sure I was ok. And it was the same everywhere I went. A waitress at one of the restaurants I stopped in took an interest in me, the lone traveler. She chatted with me, made sure I got everything I needed, asked me about my trip. Take the people you will meet in national parks- the Grand Canyon most especially. Everyone is taking everyone else’s pictures, asking them about their trip, helping someone climb up a steep slope, pointing out good viewpoints. Take the cowboy I met in Texas, the one who owned the horse motel. He could easily have chased me off. But he took the time to give me a tour of the place, answer all my questions. Yes, I know there are crazy people living in this country, the news reminds us of that every day. And my own discomfort at the hotel in Oklahoma is proof enough of that for me! But in general, Americans are good people, I believe. I’ve had enough helping hands and friendly faces along the way to say that.

I’ve been having a hard time writing this post. I’ll get something written, save it, look at it later, decide I hate it, erase, start over…it’s been a painful process. How can I possibly wrap up this trip?

I’ve had a few rough weeks here in L.A. You know what you learn when you go through weeks when it feels like nothing you do is the right thing? You learn to just be honest with yourself and trust what your heart is telling you.  (Although, sometimes it helps if you use a little brain power too) I have been trying to make my last post on 66 into some grand philosophy on life and America. But I have no grand philosophy for you. What is that quintessential American quality? I can’t say for sure. I expected it to smack me in the face, I think. I mean, isn’t that what is supposed to happen when you embark on a trip such as mine? Shouldn’t I have found all those answers to the great questions of life while I was out there in the desert?

All I can truly say is that the United States is an amazing country. Our coasts are separated by over 3,000 miles and countless regional differences. But we all have a dream. The so-called American Dream may just be a pipe dream. So many people in America work so incredibly hard for years and years. And still, they will never achieve “greatness.” There is only space for a few of us at the top. But, we all still dream. We dream for ourselves. We dream for our children. We dream for our children’s children.

We have high moral standards. As much as people talk about how this country is going down the tubes, the reaction to the BP oil spill shows that we do still have a collective heart. The fact that we have and continue to hold the government accountable, regardless of what party we support, shows that we still believe in Democracy the way the Founding Fathers envisioned it- as a way to serve the people.

America is known for it’s big cities. Cities are the portals to our nation for immigrants, and the portals to success for people looking to make it big in the world. But the heart of America, I believe, is in our smaller communities. Places where everyone knows everyone. Places where people work hard. And play hard. People care about each other in these communities. This is true even in the urban neighborhoods of South Los Angeles. In a country as large as America, it is comforting to have a home base. A place to love and be proud of. Gary Robinson, a Raymond Crip Original-turned-gang intervention worker is as proud of his West Athens community and the changes they’ve seen as I am of my small redneck Virginia town of Crozet. In an age where people seem to be more and more separated from each other, it will be the home-town pride that can connect us. It is something we can all understand.

And Americans all still dream, even those people who never make it more than 30 miles from their birthplace. People I talked to along the way were fascinated by my project. They all wanted to know what I had seen, what I would do out West. Call it a road trip. Call it a pilgrimmage. Call it sheer insanity. The coming-of-age journey still captures the American psyche. We love to tell stories. And to hear them. We love tales of travelers. We still believe in “getting out” and “finding yourself” on the road. Most Americans will never make a trip such as mine. But they will read about it. They will look at photographs of it. They will watch movies about it. They will sing songs and write poems about it. In their own imaginations, they too will traverse the Road.

We are an amazing nation. The first colonists from England hit Virginia’s shores a mere 403 years ago. And look at what we have done in such a short time! Sure, we have our problems. I could never pretend everything was perfect. But, compared to so many other places in the world, we are doing just fine! We are a nation of immigrants. Even the Native Americans had to cross that land barrier to get here. We are a nation of natural wonders. The Grand Canyon, the Appalachians, the cliffs of the Pacific Northwest…and everything in between.

So what are Americans? What ties us all together? We are caring, loving, a little cheesy at times, cynical at others, intense, laid back, irrational, passionate. We are Bruce Springsteen and a summer night. We are a New England cottage. We are Redwood and Sequoia trees. We are Miami, Las Vegas, and the Kentucky Derby. We are soulfood! We are laughter and family.

There is no other country in the world like us.

We are the nation of the Mustang Horse. That wild spirit that Ford attributes to his cars and that is so often attributed to the American people as a whole. Untamed. Unique. Tough. Stubborn. Wise. Beautiful.

This is America. This is what I have found.

The Homestretch

So here I was, the last day of my travels on Route 66.

Let me tell you, I was so relieved! As much fun as all of this had been, I was ready to be done with driving and I was more than ready to have some real human interaction again! It gets lonely out there on the Road.

Route 66 seems to do it’s best not to take a the straight path from Arizona to Los Angeles. Instead, it winds up and down in the Mojave desert. A little frustrating since I really just wanted to be done. For a split second I considered scrapping the last part of my drive and just making a bee-line for Interstate 40 and my final destination. But what would the sense in that be? I’d come so far, after all. I knew if I didn’t finish on 66 I would be kicking myself all summer. And besides, I have my faithful readers who have followed along through so much. I couldn’t let you all down like that!

It is truly a test though. To drive alone on a winding road through the Mojave. Very lonely. Half the time I was quite literally the only car on the road for miles on end. The road is cracked and dry. The landscape is all desert. Relatively unchanging once you are a decent distance away from the mountains.

The last 300 miles.

Here we go!

I think everyone has this image of California as a bustling, urban state. I know I did. Yeah. Not at all what you experience in the Mojave. The towns are beyond small. They are a few trailer homes parked around a motel. Maybe a pool somewhere. And desert. Miles and miles of unbroken desert. And the Road.

I wish I had more exciting stories for you about this last part of my trip. But there was just nothing out there. Every once in a while, a car would fly past me (Despite the temptation to speed, I knew I would miss so much of the landscape if I drove faster than the speed limit of 55, so I was actually good for once!) A new rock formation would pop up once an hour or so. But mostly, it was just desert, and a few small oases of human activity. But even in these towns, things were eerily quiet. The heat keeps people inside. And so they stayed locked in their air conditioned homes as I tentatively drove through, windows still stubbornly rolled down, gospel station playing on my radio (During this whole trip I developed a fascination with these conservative radio shows. Interesting view on life).

Life picks up again as soon as you get closer to Los Angeles. The towns get bigger. The landscape gets more dramatic as the mountains surrounding L.A. begin to appear. Everything just starts to move a little faster in general. The desert dust gets shaken off and is replaced with a little more of that glitzy city feel. This is still about 2 hours outside of my final destination. But it was a relief to be out of the monotony of the Mojave. My impatience to make it to Santa Monica was beginning to take over my trip.

And make it I did. I have to confess, I cheated once I got into the Greater Los Angeles area. Traffic was terrible on the town streets. I made it to Rancho Cucamonga, and then I skirted onto the freeways. Still bad traffic, but at least no stop lights. I tried my best to stay with the route of 66. I drove through San Bernardino and past Hollywood. I saw the Capital Records building. All pretty cool stuff. And finally, I was on the gridlocked freeway 10 on the way to Santa Monica Pier. Lovely. So close. And yet, so far.

But, eventually I did get to Santa Monica. It was a little chilly, disappointing after being in the desert all day and looking forward to just sitting on a sunny beach. But hey, take what you can get, I guess. I parked my car somewhere around 17th street and walked down to the Pier. Finally done. What a relief! I had to stand there and just soak it all in for a few moments.

My relief was interrupted by some obnoxious teenage boy yelling at me to “take a picture of me, I’m famous!” That snapped me back to the reality that the sun was getting lower and I was still not at my final destination for the night. So, I began my walk back. I didn’t realize how far I had stroled until I began walking again. 17th street was a ways away! However, I was joined by a drunk, greasy, skateboarding divorcé who provided me with some company. I got his whole life story. Over and over again. Apparently his wife was his best friend. But she left him, or they got divorced and then she left him…not quite sure, he wasn’t the clearest person in the world. He told me how he skateboarded from Bakersfield to Santa Monica, 200 miles by his estimation. He was shocked when I was not more impressed with his feat. I was really too tired to care at that point. I was also a little disgusted at his repeated attempts to sound polite while asking me if I wanted to spend the night with him. No sir, I do not. Thankfully, 17th street eventually came and I was able to turn off the road and away from my new “friend.” Who thinks my name is Caroline. Hah.

As much as I was simply done with driving at this point, I had about another 30 minutes to go to reach my friend’s apartment in Woodland Hills, where I would be staying the night. You would think this would be the most relaxing part of my drive, right? The last stretch. Knowing I will be done in just a bit. Well…66 seems to always have a trick up it’s sleeve, even when you’re not driving on it. As any of you who have read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath may recall, the Joad’s car finally gives out at the end of their journey. In particular, they blow a tire. Hah. Funny story here. I was driving up Topanga Canyon Road when…I blew a tire. The same tire that got stolen in a hotel parking lot in Taunton last summer, oddly enough. Now, any other time I might be able to get a laugh out of this. But at this point in time I was simply not in the mood for any more delays in my journey. I was close to tears, fighting with my mom about calling AAA, apologizing to my friend for being so late, and trying to remember what I learned in 10th grade driver’s ed about how to change a tire. I actually got pretty far by myself, but there’s no way I could have made it without the help of a BMW driving, flip-flop and board short-wearing, sunglassed Cali stranger. Thank God. He very graciously pulled over and helped me change my tire. Sir, I don’t know who you are, but you saved my life that night!

From there, I made it to my friend’s apartment in Woodland Hills and was able to just take a shower, lay down, and relax. Mission accomplished. It was too early to reflect on the fact that I had just completed a trip of almost 3,000 miles. Alone. In one week. Too early to think about the history I had just driven through. Too early to freak out because here I was in Los Angeles, California! For this night it was ok to just sit and enjoy the company of a good friend. Perfect.

Memorial

I passed quite a few of these roadside memorials on my way West. This particular one is probably the most touching of them all, because of it’s placement on this lonely mountain corridor, so I stopped to take a few snapshots.

I will probably never know who Sonny is, or his story. But I have to thank him for giving me a moment of quiet reverie up on the top of the Aquarius Mountains. Reminding me of my humanity and, for a few short moments, connecting me with his life.

Aquarius

The last stretch of 66 in Arizona is through the Aquarius Mountains on the border of Arizona and California.

A little intimidating, I must admit. I can’t imagine what traveling over these mountains 80-some years ago must have been like!

Now, Astrology-Online tells me that Aquarians can be “Intractable and contrary, perverse and unpredictable, and unemotional and detached.” “Unemotional” certainly doesn’t describe these mountains. Neither does “detached.” But, the rest do. These mountains, and the road running through them, were certainly “intractable and contrary, perverse and unpredictable.” I have never driven hair-pin turns the likes of those which I navigated in the Aquarians. One one side of you is a solid rock wall (complete with signs warning travelers of falling stones) and on the other side of you is a sheer drop. The elevation of these mountains, at the peak, is approximately 4,593 ft. Not a tumble I want to make in my little Corolla! My average traveling speed was probably somwhere around 35mph. Curves come at you out of nowhere. Bumps and cracks pit the road. Other cars become a real worry on a road I spent half of my time driving on the wrong side of. I found myself winding ever back-and-forth, the top always in sight, but seemingly never closer. Incredibly frustrating. But also incredibly daunting.

I began my drive through the mountains in the late afternoon. What a perfect time to start the journey through this corridor! The light was perfect- that golden afternoon type of sun, the kind that makes shadows so much deeper and gives the rock a sort of phosphorescence. Everything was quiet up in the mountains, except for the wind, which howled along through the cracks and drops of the landscape, kicking up little eddies of dust along it’s way. It was lonely. Truly lonely. Exactly what one would expect in a place such as this. In my mind it became the kind of landscape robbers could be hiding out in, ready to ambush a lone traveler. I found none of these robbers. Only their ghosts as they swirled around my car and down off the cliffs.

At the peak of the mountains, you reach the Sitgreaves Pass. The West Coast version of the Appalachian Trail, it runs from Mexico to Canada. It is not as traveler friendly as it’s Eastern cousin. This terrain is much more treacherous than that found in the Appalachians. Much drier. Much harder going. And much higher elevation. Anyone who traverses the length of this pass certainly has my respect. I got my fill of it just driving across it!

As I began to wind down the mountainside, I spotted a few sign of life. Just a house here or there. Soon though, these signs gave way to an actual preserved mining town! Great little tourist spot. Lots of “authentic” gold mining things.

There were saloons, people in costume, gold panning, and…best of all…wild burros just hanging out in the road! I managed to get a picture of one of the little guys, not that he was moving anywhere too spectacularly fast anyways…but the tourist inside of me was proud of my accomplishment!

After this, the mountains began to flatten out. The base, (and California!) were right ahead of me.

On to Needles for the night!

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