April 21, 2009

Just got back from a six-day trip to northern Arizona, covering motels from Holbrook to Truxton. The two bookends of Arizona 66, which to me are Gallup, NM and Kingman AZ, where just out of my range this trip. Logistically, these interview trips have a couple of limitations – namely, that you have to fly in and out of a major airport, and in this case the airport was due south about 2 hours from flagstaff, in the center of the state.  Meaning I couldn’t go too far from Phoenix, either east or west, if I wanted to keep the trip manageable.  As it was I still logged around 800 miles in my best friend, my pal, my constant companion of the road – a gray Pontiac 2-door featuring a free upgrade to satellite radio.  XM Sirius Satellite Radio, by the way, was the best thing that ever happened to me.  It wasn’t just the crisp, clear, constant selection of music (although that’s great in the middle of the desert) as the feeling of never being very far from mass culture, which for better or worse, is where I feel at home.  Which is weird, because isn’t that what I love about this project and this fieldwork?  Getting away from the familiar? 


The truth is, what I love about this project is pretty similar to what I (now) love about satellite radio – namely, that it’s something that seems to be pretty generic and pre-produced on the surface, but that reveals more and more unexpected stories the more time you spend with it.  Not every Sirius XM Radio station bears up to this, but a couple of stations played great stuff that I’d never heard, with dj’s who actually demonstrated some kind of meaningful relationship with the music they were playing and were occasionally hilarious on top of it.   But anyway, with Route 66, it’s the same thing. It’s easy to lose yourself in the bland, warm nostalgia bath that’s crystallized in t-shirt form every fifty miles or so along the road – particularly in Arizona, where the high level of tourism bolsters the market for 66-related tchotchkes.  But once you start really listening to the people on the road, like you would to the radio, you can hear all kinds of things.   Stories of entrepreneurialism, of fresh starts in a new country, of mutli-generational family businesses – and also stories of poverty, of fires, drugs, abandonment, of owners barely hanging on, and everywhere a sense of shock fading into acceptance about The Economy, which has directly affected the income stream for local motels.


This trip, the standout motels and owners, for different reasons, were the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook and John, the Supai Motel in Seligman and the Shettys, and the Frontier Motel in Truxton and longtime owner and dustbowl survivor, Mildred. These three businesses together demonstrated just how connected these motel owners can be to their properties and to Route 66 in general.  But I saw again on this trip that none of these owners is really interested in the question of, Why do people come to Route 66?  Mostly, the owners I interviewed just didn’t answer the question, or said something that made it clear that the answer doesn’t matter to them.  Which makes me think it might not be a very good question, because the answer, for these owners at least, seems to be both totally irrelevant and embarrassingly obvious. But I’m still interested, even though I realize now that it’s the type of question only a tourist would ask.



Copyright Anne Dodge, 2009   •   Contact acdodge at gmail dot com