A theme that comes up frequently on this blog is the American fascination with travel and movement. While studying Anthropology at the University of Arizona, I took a course in Southwestern Literature. I was introduced to the intriguing Spanish conquistador Cabeza de Vaca, and read his account of an eight year journey across the North American continent, translated in English as “Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America.” An academic commentator named William T. Pilkington had this to say in the Epilogue of this work:
One of the recurring motifs of American literature is the voyage of exploration, of physical and spiritual discovery, the journey to the interior, in which the dominant figure is man isolated – alone in the wilderness, alone with himself.
Pilkington suggests that Cabeza de Vaca was a literary pioneer, the Southwest’s first writer, even though he was a 16th century Spanish explorer. The idea is an interesting one, and I agree that travel in the American experience is more than about getting somewhere, it nearly always has a component of self-transformation or spiritual awakening.
If you’ve watched many movies that involve a storyline that continues across several decades (i.e. Mr. Holland’s Opus), you notice that one of the main hallmarks of the passage of time (and thus the inner development of the characters as well) is the changing models and styles of their cars. It’s true that the horse, the covered wagon, and the train are iconic expressions of American self-discovery through travel, but by the 1930’s that was easily supplanted in our consciousness by the automobile.
So it isn’t surprising that we have monuments across the country that sanctify our travel urges, and our cars, as religious relics and temples. Route 66, the Mother Road, is 2200 miles of the history of American spiritual wandering, a 20th century pilgrimage route.
In this Route 66 Museum, in Clinton, Oklahoma, a 1960’s era room has a psychedelic Volkswagon minibus which drives through a beaded curtain into a 1970’s era room and becomes a more respectable, two-toned vehicle.
No one can say with perfect authority where the American West begins, but the topography begins to visibly change about halfway across Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas, as you travel east to west. The green floodplains, the rolling hills, gradually change to dry yellow grassy plains, and outcrops of bare rock formations begin to appear. It is in this region that the Temples of the Car are found.
In Alliance, Nebraska, is “Carhenge”:
And nearly directly due south in the Texas Panhandle is “The Cadillac Ranch” of Amarillo, Texas:
which is another alignment of cars reminiscent of Stonehenge as they protrude out of the foggy plain, with American Neo-druids standing nearby in worshipful awe.