Thursday, September 24, 2009

Vintage vehicles add flavor to old roads

Back when I had a MG, and hair.

Riding a Royal Enfield the whole length of Route 66, as John Powell did, is quite an accomplishment. My own runs from Chicago to Los Angeles and back again were car trips on the Interstate; challenging but not worth mentioning except that the cars were often MGs, and never up to it.

The aptly named MG Midget was an automobile with a motor only a bit more than twice the size of the motor in a Royal Enfield motorcycle. Cruising at 60 mph The Little Engine That Barely Could turned about 4,000 rpm.

My dash from Chicago to Los Angeles in 1975 had to be quick — I didn't have much time off work. Being foolish, I decided to compensate for the car's lack of speed by running as long as possible without sleep.

Hard to believe now that the 1966 Midget my brother loaned me while he was in the Army was only nine years old in 1975, and Midgets would remain in production another five years. It already seemed dated, with wire wheels, toggle switches and a whimsical roof you removed and put in the trunk. Its electrical system could be counted on to fail at odd intervals.

I had a cooler of caffeine rich Coca-Cola, but my secret weapon was tubes of LifeSaver candies in various flavors. I had discovered that putting two LifeSavers of different flavors in your mouth at the same time produced a wake up call of taste, not to mention a huge jolt of sugar.

One night I rested a bit sitting with my back against the wall of an MG dealership in St. Louis, and I slept one night on a picnic table in New Mexico. By the time I hit the desert I was primed for the sort of dream like experience we sometimes have when lack of sleep alters perception.

It was so soon after dawn that I was nearly alone on the road through the desert. The beautiful morning light was heavenly. Only one thing bothered me. Why a fellow all alone in the desert needs to find a rest stop to pee in, I can't explain, but I guess that's the way we city boys are.

I passed a low, gray complex that looked like it catered to tourists. I ducked off the Interstate at the next exit and doubled back to the place on what I judged to be the Old Road (maybe Old Route 66).

It was like stepping through a warp in time. The place had been a tourist stop, alright, with probably gas, a restaurant, bar, gift shops and motel. Now it was empty and dusty — filthy, really. But it wasn't closed. Every door was open. It was as though, one day, the people who worked there had just walked away and never looked back. I wondered how many years the business had survived after the Interstate passed it by.

Luckily the rest rooms were unlocked, too, and to my satisfaction the urinal even flushed.

Someday, I vowed, I'm going to drive the Old Road, and see how many of these places still exist.

Somehow, I've never found the time.

John Powell, I envy you!

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