On a recent roadtrip I followed the path of two of America's most famous roads - the Oregon Trail and old Route 66. They say the adventure is in the journey, not the destination, but both of these pathways existed to traverse the country as quickly and safely as possible on the way to the West and a better future. The journey was long and arduous, sometimes dangerous, and the prospect of the gleaming future in California was ardent enough to persevere the trials of the trail. You might get your kicks on Route 66, but you weren't too linger too long.
The Oregon Trail, as most of us know from school, was the primary wagontrail west that departed St. Louis and crossed the plains of what was later to become Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming and beyond. The trail itself is not a single path, but a series of braided trails largely following water courses and passing through the Rocky Mountains and over the Continental Divide at their lowest and most accessible location, South Pass City in Wyoming. And like that city, now a ghost town, the paths of the Oregon Trail are long-abandoned and obscured. There are some places where roadways were put down in their place, some contemporary river and stream crossings in the same historical locations. But for the most part, the Oregon Trail has disappeared in farm fields, pastures and range.
Route 66 is the fabled early automobile journey west, from Chicago to Los Angeles. Like the Oregon Trail, it was a path of dreams, a trajectory to sunshine and the abundance of the West Coast. And like the Oregon Trail, it has also largely disappeared. There are sections in most states that can be identified and even driven along, but there are significant stretches that have been lost. The interstate highway system made Route 66 obsolete and greatly reduced the driving time across the midwest. But with this efficiency gain, there has been a loss of the progression of small towns and eateries, gas stations and motels that were sprinkled along the route.
What is most interesting to me is that these two most famous routes West, fundamental chapters of the history of the country, have largely disappeared in a relatively short span of years. Searching websites, old maps and documents can reveal their paths, but actual on-the-ground discovery is rather difficult. Route 66 is infrequently marked with some historic road signs and you can find the occasional historic markers for the Oregon Trail, but history and 'progress' fling us along so rapidly, that these old routes are swept away with little regret and short eulogies.
Maybe these paths West, these winding journeys to a better life, have withered away like the pilgrimage paths of the Middle Ages. No longer able to sustain our belief in the myth of redemption at the final destination, the presence of the paths themselves are unwelcome reminders of dreams lost to reality, faith in that "next great future place beyond the horizon" exposed as naive myth. Better to erase that nagging reminder in the guise of progress. We get there faster now, but the journey is not so rich and the destination no longer Shangri-la.