Tuesday, May 6, 2008
Stephanie and I spent last night at the Springfield, Illinois Route 66 Hotel, with vintage autos parked in the lobby, and a V8 engine revving in our room — Steph snored and coughed with a vengeance. I suspect my sick travel partner will soon abandon this road trip. “California or bust” is one thing, but “California or die”? Not so much…though I am beginning to understand how the Donner Party could eat each other.
Stephanie and I spent last night at Springfield’s Route 66 Hotel, which has vintage autos in the lobby.
Steph’s lighthearted sarcasm about the tackiness of Route 66 is starting to smack of complaint, things like, “Y’know, there’s a reason they replaced this torn-up road with a freeway!” When I ask if she’s depressed, Steph says, “It’s not depression. It’s resignation.” In her defense, my responding to every inconvenience with “It’s an adventure!” is probably about as helpful as Shirley Temple tap-dancing for a migraine-sufferer.
Traveling often reveals the truth about people, and the most painful truths are about ourselves. Rolling down Route 66, I cringe over how negative my friend seems, but after the trip I will feel ashamed of how selfish I was. The truth goes beyond that: when I was young I idolized Steph, a larger-than-life superstar. Now I see she’s life-sized, like me. Route 66 may be all about nostalgia, but we really can’t go back.
Steph and I both laugh, realizing that my latest bit of “Route 66 Americana” is likely a hangout for drug addicts and prostitutes.
Or maybe we can only safely travel back to a time where memory cannot follow. Come morning, we drive downtown to visit the haunts of a man long dead: Abraham Lincoln. Along the way, we stop at the rundown Bel-Aire Motel, where a white plaster seal points his snout skyward, his metal pipe spouting air into an empty blue fountain in the parking lot. As I shoot a photo, a weary-looking woman walks out of the office to ask, “You’re not from the newspaper, are you?” Steph and I share a laugh, realizing that my latest bit of “Route 66 Americana” is likely a hangout for drug addicts and prostitutes.
Illinois’ Old State Capitol is a building of solid rock and Grecian columns.
We leave the motel of iniquity for a seedier world: politics. We start at Illinois’ Old State Capitol, a building of solid rock and Grecian columns. Inside, a grand staircase leads to the legislative chambers. In the old House of Representatives, wooden desks curve around one high desk backed by a portrait of George Washington. This is where Lincoln served four terms, where he and Frederick Douglas debated, and where Lincoln gave the 1858 speech in which he said:
“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.
This is where Lincoln served four terms, where he and Frederick Douglas debated, and where Lincoln gave his “House Divided” speech in 1858.
Steph and I listen to a young docent give a quick history lesson to an elementary-school class. At the end, he points out two Daguerreotypes taken of Lincoln and Douglas early in their political careers, and then two photos taken years later. Lincoln, only in his fifties, looks as rough as if he’s already been shot. “Back then, politics was very stressful,” the docent says. Steph lifts an eyebrow, and I know what she’s thinking: It’s no picnic today either.
This was once a dry goods establishment where the Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices kept rooms.
We cross the street to a three-story brick building, once a dry goods establishment where the Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices kept rooms. On the second floor, the original wood-plank floors squeal and give underfoot to such a degree that I ask the docent, “Don’t you ever worry the floor will give way and you’ll fall through?”
“Yes!” she replies.
The period furnishings transport me to the 1800s, especially the only piece original to the building: the vast wooden desk where Lincoln wrote his first inaugural address. I run my hand over its smooth top, and think this is how a believer must feel upon touching the Shroud of Turin.
I run my hand over the smooth top of the vast wooden desk where Lincoln wrote his first inaugural address.
A few blocks away, we visit the Lincoln home, surrounded by four blocks of nineteenth century homes once owned by Lincoln’s neighbors. This tiny national historic site reminds me of an old Outer Limits episode, in which aliens steal an entire neighborhood and beam it to their planet. The two-story, tan clapboard home with green shutters is dignified but modest, like the man who owned it.
The Lincoln home is dignified but modest, like the man who owned it.
Inside, the park ranger is breathless with enthusiasm over everything from the romance of Lincoln and Mary Todd, “a beauty sought after by many eligible young bachelors,” to the visit Republican leaders paid to this very parlor to tell Lincoln he was their choice for president: “One observer said at that moment the president’s face fell and his shoulders slumped, as if a great weight had fallen on him.”
Republican leaders paid a visit to this parlor to tell Lincoln he was their choice for president.
In the master bedroom, the competing patterns of carpet, wallpaper, and bedspread make me dizzy. The ranger says it’s an accurate restoration. “It was the style of the times: harmony through contrast.” I wonder if waking daily to this M.C. Escher circus helped drive Mrs. Lincoln mad.
The master bedroom makes me dizzy. The ranger says, “It was the style of the times: harmony through contrast.”
As we look at the other bedrooms, small by modern standards, the ranger says all the Lincoln children died young, except Robert, who served as Interior Secretary and lived into his eighties. “I feel sorry for him,” Steph says. “He was so accomplished, but he must have been completely overshadowed by the accomplishments of his father.” I just feel sorry for him because his dad was assassinated.
As I stroll the neighborhood, Steph rests on a bench, looking like a Route 66 attraction in need of restoration. Over lunch at Cozy Dog, home of the first fried corn dog, Steph admits she feels worse, and not only because we’re eating bland, deep-fried corn-meal-battered hot dogs on sticks. We finally utter words like “medicine” and “doctor.” If she goes home, will I drive on alone? How depressing.
Over lunch at Cozy Dog, home of the first fried corn dog, Steph admits she feels worse.
As we leave with our Route 66 Route Beer bottles, I have to admit Steph’s complaints aren’t all wrong: this trip is kind of tacky. When I was a child, I assumed I was alone in living a cheap, embarrassing life. It turns out most of America was, too. When Lincoln predicted we would “become all one thing,” I doubt he had Cozy Dogs and the Bel-Air Motel in mind.
But at least his house still stands…which is more than I can say for this road trip.