CHICAGO IS FAR behind us now and Los Angeles is still a distant idea. Pushing west on Route 66, we pass ghost towns collapsing in slow motion under a beating sun; longer stretches of empty land between settlements; cities that swallow the road into tight-packed urban architecture.
We’ve set out to drive every stretch of this iconic highway, a task that is neither easy nor obvious. The road forks and spurs; turns to dirt and disappears under the interstate. We pore over online guides, accordion-folded gas station maps, a hand-drawn book of intricate road diagrams we bought somewhere in Texas. We stop to feed apples to horses; rattle over cattle guards; debate whether we’re still on 66. We are lost and found over and over again.
The communities along the road are changing, too, gradually becoming more diverse as we move from Midwest to Southwest. Even as we hunt for the remains of physical road, we are trying to get beyond the kitsch and into the essence of America. We pass reminders of the complex and sinister strands of our history, from the rough mining towns of Kansas to the cattle drives of Texas, burning through land that was once Indian Territory into the remains of Spanish Mexico.