It took me all day to drive across Los Angeles.
Friends warned me about the traffic but after so many days of solitude in the dry and empty desert, I had forgotten the feel of a city.
Los Angeles is a city of cars, built for cars. People are second-class bystanders to the rivers of cars that flow to the coast, growing wider and wider like the Nile delta, splitting off into a half-dozen burgeoning highways with mechanical names like the 110 and the 405.
Inching forward in the yellow dawn of Pasadena, I began to think of every car that’s ever traveled down Route 66, and how they all ended up here, where the road finally ends, so abruptly on the California shore. All those cars never left, I thought—and that’s why Los Angeles is the way it is. So many cars and so many roads, an overpopulation of cars that all trickled down here over the decades and have remained, driving around in circles with nowhere to go.
By 10 AM, I had made it into the city of angels and high-rises and excitement. I imagine the earliest travelers on Route 66 drove these same streets with similar amazement—here was the payoff for their cross-country adventure—the bright lights and the flashing signs, the security of enterprise and civilization, the familiar comforts of Manhattan’s madness but with wafting palm trees overhead, whispering sweetly, “We’re really not so serious.”
In Los Angeles, Route 66 cuts through one of the oldest Chinatowns in America, and suddenly I felt the real distance of my journey. Asia was 2,500 miles closer than when I began and now the street neon took the form of Chinese characters, and the sidewalk cafés served dim sum instead of burgers.
I ate lunch at Millie’s Cafe, open since 1929, right on Route 66, known locally as Sunset Boulevard. As if they were hand-picked film extras, heavily-tattooed rockers huddled over the outside tables drinking black coffee and conversing in various forms of “Yeah.” Inside, twiggy ladies in cut-off jean shorts whined about their gluten allergies while back in the kitchen, the Mexican cook fried up, “The Devil’s Mess”—a signature brunch of eggs and salsa with hash browns and guacamole.
I sat alone at the bar, the only customer not wearing sunglasses. Barely fifteen miles remained of the Mother Road, and though the sun was high and I felt the coolness of an ocean that I could not see, the impending finish line bothered me a little. I had left Chicago three weeks ago, eager and energetic—I had crossed America’s Midwest with romantic notions about those places, but now that I was here in California—the supposed goal of all my troubles, it seemed a little too fast.
The real blessing of taking old Route 66 is the chance to travel slowly. America is most exotic at 25 mph, and that is how I had lived for this month on the road. Traveling slowly carries a richness of experience that becomes nearly impossible to convey, because our whole country is going too fast. What’s more, I write even slower than I travel.
The last twelve miles of Route 66 deserve a book of their own, because after the hundreds and hundreds of miles all hinting at Hollywood, suddenly I was there, in the thick of it, with stars’ names on the sidewalk and blinking theaters and dress-up superheroes vying for the world’s attention—look at me, now pay me.
I talked with Spiderman in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. His real name was Enrico and he was waiting for his agent to call him, “Next month, probably.” He had just wrapped up a supporting role in a Japanese film.
“Do you speak Japanese?” I asked. “No,” he answered, leaving me quizzical as I moved along with the other tourists hovering over Michael Jackson’s star before trying my foot inside Matt Damon’s cement shoeprint (we have the same size feet). Today’s Hollywood is a corny caricature of the art and industry it represents, and for me, it felt like the grand culmination of all of America’s hopes and dreams dropped off here, near the end of the road.
Block by block, Santa Monica Boulevard transitioned me through the ecologies of western Los Angeles—from the glittery grit of Hollywood to the clubby, sun-baked storefronts of West Hollywood to the designer boutiques and handsome houses of Beverly Hills.
Yes, Route 66—the same road that led me down brick lanes in southern Illinois and tumbleweeds in Texas, also cuts through the flowered lawns of Beverly Hills. I hit the most manicured section of Route 66 about the same time I hit afternoon traffic, and no kidding, it took me 45 minutes to move from Rodeo Drive to Wilshire Boulevard (less than a mile).
In that span of time, I may have witnessed some of the worst car behavior of my life—and I have driven in Montreal, Moscow and Cairo. Beverly Hills taught me that some of the world’s best-dressed people are also the world’s worst drivers and that traffic will make just about everybody a little angry.
I chilled out by listening to “California is Too Long” by Los Angeles band Signal Hill, and for the first time on my entire journey, I sent tweets from behind the wheel. I would never condone such a practice unless like me, you are utterly unmoving in gridlock.
When they saw I was in town, old friends began popping up on Facebook—friends I hadn’t seen in decades, friends who had run away to LA and then disappeared from my life. Now they are writers, movie producers, and big shot ad execs, but once upon a time we were all high school kids back in the Midwest auditioning for the fall musical and debating against China for Model UN. We all grew up and we all got to where we wanted to go—and for some of them, their lives followed Route 66 all the way to Lalaland.
When I mentioned the traffic them, they flicked it way with their hand like it was no big deal.
“Yeah, it sucks, but you shape your life around it,” said one high school friend who lives here now.
“You find out quickly who your real friends are,” said another. “Someone might invite you over to hang out, but it’s gonna take you an hour to get there, so pretty quickly you stop visiting anybody who you don’t actually like.”
It’s amazing I still liked anybody by the time I entered the city of Santa Monica, which is like the laidback, low-cal cousin to Los Angeles and by far my favorite place in this whole mess of Southern California.
I got my own sunset strip on those final moments of the Mother Road, passing by malls and shops and glass-sided condos, all the while watching the horizon as it sprouted with palm trees before the pink and yellow sky.
“This is it,” I thought to myself, barely believing it—that this great road, all 2,448 miles of it, was suddenly coming to a close. It seemed impossible and too soon. Too much had happened to me in the last three weeks to so suddenly call it quits, and too much has happened in America on Route 66 to say that it’s over.
Abraham Lincoln lived on this road, Cherokee Indians walked this path, and Elvis played up and down this road. This is where Bonnie and Clyde drove their getaway car after robbing a bank, it’s where Wild Bill Hickok shot his first cowboy, where corndogs and soft-serve and drive-ins were invented. This is where thousands upon thousands of Okies traveled West, it’s the road that inspired Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” and the road that Woody Guthrie traveled with his ballads. It crosses the first battlefield of the Civil War and Mickey Mantle’s hometown—it’s the road where soldiers and tanks mobilized in World War II, and where America’s earliest motorcycle gangs first traveled after the war. It’s where motor court hotels became “Motels” and where McDonalds was born.
Route 66 is the evolution of America, from our humblest origins to the dirt fields of Kansas to the red rocks of Arizona and the bright lights of Hollywood. I had seen it all in the last few weeks, and now here I was, on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard, turning left onto Ocean Avenue and then hanging a right out onto the pier with its funfair amusements.
The Pacific Ocean was bluer than promised—a forever dark blue like a blackout screen at the end of a movie before the credits start to roll. I parked my car behind the Ferris wheel and wandered to the edge of the boardwalk, to the place where America ends and the vastness of water continues unbothered more than halfway around the world.
It looked no different than the Lake Michigan I left behind—one giant city against the forever blue stretch—but the Pacific Ocean felt bigger and more open, as if this was the not the grand finale of some epic road trip, but only the promise of some fresh new beginning—proud, glorious and free—an open road, leading to the open sea, and little old me, sitting on the edge of the pier, legs dangling over the waves on the prettiest beach in California.