You might think the CEO of Tourism Vancouver would get some flack for writing Route 66 Still Kicks, a travel memoir detailing the 12 days he and his buddy/nemesis Peter spent driving from Chicago to L.A. along what’s left of “America’s Main Street.” But Rick Antonson, who’s also written about his journeys through West Africa in the book To Timbuktu for a Haircut, maintains that travel is his mistress and the only person who could give him any flack is his wife—and she approves. Antonson took the Courier out for a spin to confidently talk about his new book, the Disneyfication of Route 66 and what he drives when he’s motoring down the mean streets of Vancouver.
1. So much has been written about Route 66. What do you think you were able to bring to the topic that hasn’t been explored?
The long missing Route 66 book has been a travel narrative laced with vignettes on little known history, surprising biographical sketches of pivotal people like Bobby Troup, Woody Guthrie and Dorothea Lange, plus a fresh telling of old tales about how pavement politics shaped the U.S. of A. As the National Historic Route 66 Federation’s executive director wrote: “There are many Route 66 books but none are a full-length road trip like this.” There are perhaps 45 books on Route 66 (I have them on my shelf at home). Route 66 Still Kicks is the necessary 46th—and for most readers it could be their one and only; it’s that comprehensive.
2. What is the enduring appeal of a Route 66?
Route 66 is the lost and found of highways, offering up a hidden heaven of travel for those with a patient compass and a willingness for life’s detours. It has always been the ultimate road trip. Yet the aura of the migrants “Mother Road” is still palpable. Route 66 has a lock on America’s self-image and folklore on a par with the Alamo.
3. What is your preferred mode of transportation?
I love trains. My two sons, Brent (43) and Sean (39) and I aim for a train trip together every three years, and the last five journeys have ended up with us circumnavigating the Northern Hemisphere including places like North Korea and Belarus where one might not normally spend time. I am personally “centred” when on a train—happy, content and at calm with all the noises and distractions.
4. Are there any roads you’re fond of driving in B.C. or elsewhere in Canada?
Highway #7—Maple Ridge through Mission and onward replicates my mind’s image of happy stretches on Route 66. Backroads in the Cariboo are like endless homecomings for me, though I don’t know why—they just feel like I should keep driving and that I’m always nearing someplace comfortable.
5. You drove Route 66 in a rented Mustang convertible. What do you drive in Vancouver?
The Mustang was a 2009, and I admit we took it places no rental car should be taken—but we had two weeks and adventure was our byword, not caution. My favourite personal vehicle is a 1995 Jeep I had for a lot of years until it just got too old. I drive a 2007 Jaguar.
6. How would you describe driving in Vancouver?
Presuming you miss being hit by those who jump red lights, and are intuitive about those who don’t signal, and aren’t bothered by those who drift into your lane, it’s therapeutic.
7. What surprised you the most about driving Route 66?
Peter’s lack of navigational skills. It’s been said that with today’s technology, ours will be the last generation to know what it’s like to be lost. And Peter will be the last of the last. That, and perhaps the amount of junk disguised as charm. Old neon signs, long unlit, hanging by the goodwill of slow rust, would in more prosperous locations be relegated to a scrap yard on the edge of town. Yet along Route 66 they conveyed a sense of place and meaningful perspective that was quite emotional. It often felt like a tentative form of history. And it all fit. It all deserved to be as it was—and it made one want to drive slow and absorb an America that’s not as lost as we think.
8. At the end of the book, you mention the newly opened Cars Land amusement park and the four-and-a-half-minute section dedicated to Route 66. What are your feelings about Route 66 becoming Disneyfied?
The animated film Cars is honestly entertaining and not without its moral high road, so to speak. It captures the essence of a neglected American road and profiles the sadness of such a loss. I’ve not yet been to Cars Land but I’ll go one day. It can’t help but be what America does so well—that magnifying of history’s good side.
9. What’s your number one piece of advice for anyone considering undertaking a similar road trip along Route 66?
Take your time, head west from Chicago to follow the history, and remember that the best part of a freeway is its off-ramps. Seek out the old parts of Route 66, enjoy the hopscotch effort that’s involved getting from one stretch to another, and listen only to music you buy along the way or pick up on local stations. Mostly, find the rhythm of the old road and let it set your pace. Make your only pre-planned obligation that of a flight home from L.A. two week’s hence.
10. Where’s your next road trip?
My wife lives in Australia. One of my sons teaches English in Iraq. I suspect my next road trip will be with one of them in their freshly adopted country. And I’m taking one of my grandsons camping out off Highway #7.