So my girlfriend has this theory that the Pixar movie, Cars, did a lot to help revive the tourist trade along Route 66. I don’t know how serious she is about this theory, but it’s as good an excuse to talk about Route 66 as any, and about Cars, so here goes…
What has Monica talking about Cars? We’ve taken a couple trips along I-40 this summer and last. This year, we’ve taken a few of the detours off I-40 to see what we can find along Route 66. It’s nostalgia for me. I’ve driven large parts of the southwestern route enough to get to know quite a few of the stops quite well. Having someone unfamiliar with it all is interesting though, because I get to see these old sites through her new eyes.
Also she gave me an assignment.
…to watch Cars.
I’ve certainly done worse duty. The movie is cute, perhaps a little too cute. I should probably gruff it off, but I actually enjoyed it. Funny though, I spent the first half of the movie thinking the judge-car (Doc Hudson) sounded an awful lot like Paul Newman. Couldn’t figure out who else it could have been until I mentioned it. Turns out the voice for the car is Paul Newman, and the film turned out to be a little older than I thought.
It’s fitting that Newman would appear in Cars, because I think The Hustler is pretty much the prototype for sports movies. I know, straight pool is a bit of a stretch for a sport, and perhaps a cartoon race-car is an odd subject for a sports film, but I’m sticking to my guns on this one. It’s a story of a prodigy in a competitive field, one who needs to get his priorities straight. That’s almost every sports movie I can think of, and the voice of Fast Eddie Felson (Newman’s character in The Hustler) haunts them all as far as I’m concerned. In this case Fast Eddie’s voice sounds a bit aged, but it’s literally there. And this is certainly a film about a prodigy that needs to get his priorities straight.
…which is an interesting theme through which to explore the relationship between I-40 and Route 66.
There are no people in this movie; just cars, cars that seem a lot like people. The film’s main character is a race car named Lightning McQueen. Lightning is a talented race-car who is tearing up the tracks during his rookie year on the circuit. He is one of three contenders for the annual Piston Cup award, which would effectively make him the biggest champion of the year. Unfortunately, Lightning’s ego alienates his pit crew and so they leave him just before the final show-down, a race against two great rivals to be held in California. Lightning plans to win the race all by himself, but first he must get to California. For reasons best watched for yourself, Lightning ends up stranded in the tiny southwestern town of Radiator Springs. Having accidentally destroyed the towns main road (a section of Route 66), McQueen finds himself sentenced to repair it before he can go.
Radiator Springs is very much in decline. It had its heyday in the fabled days when Route 66 was alive. The creation of Interstate 40 effectively rerouted the traffic just a few miles off the old route, and in this case, that few miles proved enough to be the undoing of the town. Its inhabitants can only hope to catch the attention of an occasional tourist, but it gets precious few of those.
…even before Lightning comes disastrously to town.
Pressed for time, Lightning struggles first to escape and then to finish the repairs in time to make his final race. In the interim, he must contend with a small cast of character-cars (most of whom were based on actual people living along route 66), including a love interest (a lovely little Porche). He wants out badly, of course, but in time Lightning grows to appreciate the town and its four-wheeled denizens. Having finally grown to appreciate the human side of things, …or at least the personified motor-car variant thereof, Lightning finds himself both a better race-car and a better
person car for it. In the end, he doesn’t merely repair the damaged road and make a good showing the race (I’m not going to tell you who won, ha!). Lightning also revitalizes the town, establishing it as a thriving tourist trap with a promising future.
So, what does this movie have to say about Route 66? Well, I think one of the best lines about that topic comes from Sally (Lightning’s love interest). She tells Lightning that people moved through the landscape differently when it was Route 66. Asked how, she says:
Well, the road didn’t cut through the land like that interstate. It moved with the land, it rose, it fell, it curved. Cars didn’t drive on it to make great time. They drove on it to have a great time.
So there it is, the claim this movie makes about Route 66. It represents the rich experience that travel can be in direct opposition to a modern strictly utilitarian form of transportation. The question is which matters more? The experience of traveling across the landscape or simply getting there? This theme smacks of nostalgia, of course, and I can’t help but begin to imagine counter-examples (great road-trips on I-40 or the near certainty that at least some people must have taken to Route 66 for the specific purpose of getting somewhere fast). If there is a concrete difference between the actual roads, it also lies in way the old route goes through small towns while the new one goes around them. Which approach is more welcome may depend a lot on why one is behind the wheel, and how much time one has to get where they mean to go. Still I-40 does nudge things a bit in the direction of getting from point B to point A with a bit more efficiency, and that does come at the cost of seeing a stretch of small-town America.
This nostalgic moment has its own creative force. Many of the small towns along Route 66 have indeed made precisely the transformation depicted in Cars, turning themselves into tourist-traps in the hopes of diverting people off the main highway. As far as I can remember, references to Route 66 have always lured tourists off the main highway along the route, but I can’t help thinking the scale of Route 66 marketing has gone up a notch in the last decade or so. Perhaps Moni is right. Maybe that’s a post-hoc fallacy sweetened with a dose of confirmation bias on my part, but I was rather surprised to see just how much draw some of these towns seem to be getting out of the subject. Whether or not people used to drive Route 66 to have a great time, many do seem to be pulling off onto the small detours now for precisely that reason. No doubt, such traffic brings a few smiles to the faces of locals to match those of those taking in the sites.
Moni and I couldn’t help but notice at least one person who wasn’t so happy about all the traffic. Sitting in gridlock traffic in the middle of downtown Williams, Arizona, neither of us could quite tell what the woman a few cars ahead had been ranting about. The words; “Oh my god, Get out of my fucking way!” clarified things a bit. We watched as a tourist slowly decided to take advice from a green light and the exasperated local finally got around him and made a little headway along main-street. A few minutes later, I heard the same woman shouting “One way street” as she walked along behind a vehicle making a rapid and quite unplanned side-turn.
Yep, there are definitely definite down-sides to tourism.
Didn’t stop Moni and I from taking pictures.
(Click to embiggen; it’s what Fast Eddie Felson would want you to do.)
* Pictures marked with a star came from Moni’s camera. She also helped me find a source or two, and of course it was Moni’s request that we take some of these detours that led to this post in the first place. She also reminded me to give a fuck to a certain quote, so to speak. Moni is solely responsible for the good parts of this post. I of course am the devil messing up the details.