Sunday, September 25, 2022

London: showing some class

And so it’s farewell, to a classy individual who caused people to dress up, stand and march in straight lines, and brought us together in unity, while exhorting us with old-fashioned values. I speak, of course, of the recent death of my high school band director, Bill Scott.


Clarinets, state funeral procession, 19 September 2022

Mr. Scott preached “class,” a word that sounded old-fashioned even at the time, especially in America. “Show some class,” he would urge us at a band competition. Other bands lacked class because they went around with their jackets unbuttoned, but also because they failed to applaud other bands. When we won the band equivalent of a sportsmanship medal, we knew that made him prouder than any of the other awards we received.


Being high school students, we made fun of Mr. Scott a lot, but we admired him too. Authority figures are complicated. They speak to us from another generation and of course, we think we know better in the new. Jeanette Winterson, in her reflection on the death of Queen Elizabeth II, writes “The wrecking ball of revolution, big or small, smashes what we have loved, as well as clearing the way for something new. New doesn’t always mean better – as the exhausting disruption and acceleration of our own times makes clear.


Winterson also mentions that many in Britain and beyond would call themselves republicans, meaning they would prefer an elected head of state to a monarch. One of my republican (in this sense) friends acknowledged that a lot of people were saddened by the death of the Queen, but her heart went out to everyone who was saddened by the loss of anyone. I’ve heard a lot of people say, and I also feel, that we’re surprised how much we’ve been affected by this death of someone we didn’t know personally. Because it’s not just about one person, but about a different generation, the values those people represent, and all that we have lost.


Goodness knows, as a world, we’ve had a lot of loss in the past few years. Early in 2020 we visited our friend Margaret, who had lived across the road since the 1950s, until failing health forced her to move. She and her husband, Fred, were married on the same day as then-Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, and they received a Diamond Anniversary card from the Queen.


That visit to Margaret turned out to be our last. I saw her daughter on our road, gathering some things from the house she’d been born in, and she mentioned that the government was soon going to order us to stay home, because of the pandemic. Shortly after the first lockdown began, we lost Margaret. Her death was not caused by COVID-19, but our inability to see her was.


As was our inability to celebrate her life. Like so many other families, our neighbor’s were not allowed to have the funeral gathering they would have wished. Our road is a friendly place and many longtime residents wanted to say goodbye to Margaret. On the morning of her funeral, her family arranged for the hearse to pass slowly down the street, past the house where she’d lived with Fred until just a few years ago. We, the neighbors, lined up to pay our respects to a good woman and a long life.


Arms reversed in mourning

I thought of Margaret when I saw the long and growing queue to visit the Queen’s coffin lying in state. The BBC broadcast a continuous live stream of this event, and I was hardly able to take my eyes off it. There is something deeply human about wanting to connect with other people, and the opportunity to do so in such an old, ritual form is rare these days. 


On the Mall

I heard about Mr. Scott’s death from another country, shared only in comments from fellow band members I have not seen in decades. I know that he—like Queen Elizabeth, like Margaret—was preceded in death by his spouse. So was my paternal grandmother. For their golden wedding anniversary, she and my grandfather (who, like many in my family, served in the Second World War) had the gift of a trip to England, Wales, and Scotland. In her journal Grandma wrote of one occasion when Grandpa raised eyebrows at her singing along to the national anthem, “God Save The Queen.” “She’s a nice lady,” was Grandma’s comment. “Why not?”


Nice ladies. Grandma, Margaret, and the Queen. It’s an old-fashioned word, “lady,” another that Mr. Scott would have used. “Behave like ladies and gentlemen,” he might have said. How dated! Yet as the people queued past Queen Elizabeth’s coffin—hour after hour, filing through the oldest part of the complex that houses the British Parliament—I got a different perspective on dated. “Old” might mean ninety years, or it might mean a thousand years, the age of Westminster Hall.


Security, done unobtrusively and/or with class!

One member of the public, interviewed in the queue, said he knew “everyone on Twitter thinks we’re all nutters.” Yet another sign that Twitter is not real life. Sitting at a keyboard expressing an opinion, as I am, is not doing something. I can’t defeat Putin from here, although it’s fashionable to imagine fighting fascists is something one can do in a Tweet. 


Still, we can’t resist offering our opinion, and some on Twitter at least were offering theirs politely. “This is a country I don’t recognize,” one wrote. Who are these people, wearing black and standing in line for hours to genuflect to someone “they deeply believe is better than them”?


Well, they are thousands, tens of thousands, of your compatriots and people from other countries too. So it’s worth asking who they are, and not just rhetorically. Spend any time watching the live stream and you would soon see that the full range of age, race, disability, and indeed dress was represented. From jeans and T-shirts to uniforms of saluting officers, whose service was to the Queen. There were people crossing themselves. There were skullcaps. There were turbans and headscarves.


And kilts

I can’t speak for why they were all there or whether they believed Elizabeth II was a better person than they were. What does “better” mean, anyway? I presume the objection is to the old-fashioned notion of “your betters,” people whose status is above you and therefore, to whom you should bow. Some bowing and curtseying went on, and some tears. Many people seemed only to want a moment to stand, in quiet reflection. My instinct when Margaret’s hearse went down the street was to raise my fist in salute, but I wouldn't do that at the Queen’s coffin.


Car containing Prince George, Princess Charlotte, and their mother, the Princess of Wales

Perhaps they were there for the quiet. Occasionally a baby cried, and there was, every twenty minutes, a gentle tapping to indicate it was time for the changing of the guard. But it was otherwise silent in Westminster Hall, and no one was there to disrupt it. Even the most solemn observances outside, in public places, weren’t that quiet. There was spontaneous applause, shouting (some, but not all, respectful), singing of “God Save The King.” Outside, with no queue, you could go along just to see what was going on if you wanted to.


And of course, take a picture.

Is it just me, or does it look like our Guard stuck his finger in the light socket?

Every other event surrounding the Queen’s passing was pictured with a crowd of people holding their mobile phones aloft. It could be pretty, like the effect of holding up lighters at a concert, but everyone was trying to capture their individual moment with the Queen, the King, the princes. Inside Westminster Hall, you couldn't take pictures. The room is a thousand years old, and people were behaving, more or less, the way they would have behaved a thousand years ago on a similar occasion.


We live in an era when everything is photographed. When something hasn’t happened unless it’s documented on a phone. I tried to think of places in the world, occasions, where people had been this quiet and respectful and no one was taking selfies. The only ones I could think of were those associated with death.


People usually behave this way in church, too, but attendance at religious services is part of far fewer people’s regular lives than used to be the case. They may only have attended weddings or funerals. At the lying in state there was a solemnity, a sense of the sacred, that may only happen on a few occasions in many contemporary people’s lives. 


I imagine that, for many attending the lying in state as well as for me, there was also the sense of being part of a collective experience, of a moment that had not come for over seventy years and—at least in terms of a Queen—will not come again in our lifetimes. Other people have pointed out that the world, and even the business of Britain, did not stop because of this moment and that a lengthy period of public mourning was perhaps a distraction. For a Ukrainian, or indeed a British family struggling to pay daily living expenses, all this pageantry might seem far removed from a more urgent situation.


All that is true. And yet when I think about the Queen, and Margaret, and my Grandma, and Mr. Scott, I think about what they represented. Ladies and gentlemen, duty and class. Which, as it turns out, I miss when they are gone.


Late in the Queen’s life came the funeral of Prince Philip, who died in 2021. Many remarked on the sad spectacle of the Queen sitting alone, masked, at the funeral of her spouse of seven decades, which was the duty of everyone in Britain at that time. It has since emerged that members of the government that ordered those sacrifices were ignoring the rules themselves, partying away, in one instance the very eve of that funeral. But it was Her Majesty’s government, and she did her duty, setting an example for everyone else. Who looks “better” in this case: the hereditary monarch, making the same personal sacrifice as so many ordinary people did, or elected politicians and their cronies showing only contempt for the people who trusted them with extraordinary power over our lives?


Representatives of armed forces from across the Commonwealth

One of the articles I read immediately following the Queen’s death described the massive changes that had taken place in society over the long decades of her reign. In the 1950s, status still depended on class, which in Britain means upper class, working class, etc. Whereas now, status means wealth or celebrity. It was a factual description, not commentary, but I immediately wondered which one was better. The Queen was not a celebrity, she never gave an interview; but in our day one can be a celebrity just for having a big arse. Or being on a reality television show, a work of fiction that elevates to the real presidency.


Of course an elected leader can be revered: the last state funeral in this country was for Winston Churchill. And the black mourning veils on the princesses reminded me of Jacqueline Kennedy, mourning the death of her husband in drastically different circumstances. But in my own lifetime, I can’t think of any president or prime minister whose coffin I’d line up to see—even the ones I voted for. (Nor would I dance on the grave of any human being, but that’s another story). 


Blues and Royals with horse

Another of the memories people kept mentioning about the Queen was how, from her and her husband’s own isolation in Windsor Castle in 2020, she spoke directly to us about the challenge of the pandemic. It was during that first lockdown period, the hardest time, when death counts were daily headline news and vaccines barely dreamt of. This elderly, unelected head of state looked into the camera and evoked the wartime anthem “We’ll Meet Again” to encourage us in our separation from one another. Only someone from the Greatest Generation could have done that, with any authenticity. By contrast, the then-prime minister stood up daily and tried to make Churchill-like sounds, but nobody was fooled by them. People elected him, but he was just another politician. The queen had been through thirteen prime ministers before him, the first one Churchill himself.


If the events surrounding the death of the Queen showed us nothing else, it’s that she and Vera Lynn were right: we met again. Not everyone, of course. Not our friends who died during the pandemic. COVID-19 is not over, it may never be over; but case numbers are lower in Britain than they’ve been since October 2021, and people are meeting again. In Westminster Hall, and outside, large crowds gathered, the government no longer forbidding them to do so. We can gather in our churches or our gardens or in the streets, like we did during the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, just a few months ago.


The whole notion of reverence is old-fashioned, as is obedience (to laws, even when one doesn’t agree with them), and faith, and the belief that one is on earth to serve others, and God. The Christian faith is full of reverence for God as King, and this old-fashioned language has been changed, because it’s thought people can’t relate to a king these days. Modern people aren’t supposed to believe anyone is better than we are. Equality means “leveling up,” whatever the Conservative government meant by that.


The idea that someone is “better” than us seems so offensive—until we think of someone, or at least some action, that seems beyond what we can do ourselves. Someone we aspire to be. Perhaps only God is really better, and that belief, to many, is old-fashioned too. The ambivalence I have about monarchy—the absurdity that Charles Windsor should now be our King, in the twenty-first century—is not unlike my belief in God, or for that matter in “ladies” or “showing some class.” There are some problems with all of these, but if we get rid of them, what are we left with?

By all accounts, Queen Elizabeth genuinely thought that her life was meant for service, to God and her country; this whole essay is starting to sound like the Scout oath or law. No one does something, however bizarre, for seventy years without genuinely believing in it. To me personally, the Queen didn’t represent royalty so much as just that generation of my grandparents, who did their duty by serving their country in World War II, and made real sacrifices in their lives. The Great Depression, or just staying married for all those decades. We have heard, almost on a loop, Princess Elizabeth’s pledge to her people on her twenty-first birthday: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service…”

But many people her age made vows at the age of twenty and stuck with them to the end of their very long lives. 


Since the Queen’s and Margaret’s generation, people have increasingly quit marriages. We’re positively encouraged to quit jobs. But the Queen never quit. A lifetime commitment inspires awe in me because it’s something I can never do. And when we can only aspire to something, what’s wrong with calling that better?


The procession was led by the Mounties.

Royal Canadian Mounted Police

It’s a funny relationship we have, the British monarchy and I. I grew up enthralled with U.S. history, disappointed to learn that my own ancestors had been Tories, Crown loyalists, who left America for Canada. But then I went and did the same, working for the Canadian Forces (of which the Queen was commander-in-chief) and, in my citizenship oath, pledging my loyalty to the Queen of Canada, “her heirs and successors.” People who are born British subjects or citizens of the Commonwealth never have to make that pledge, unless they are police officers, or members of the armed services.


On Monday morning, we were out in the crowd to watch the funeral procession. I didn’t take a picture when the Queen’s coffin passed. I wanted, like those other people, just to have the moment, her and me, saying goodbye. But I also think that, while the coffin may contain the small body of Elizabeth R, she is not there. She is, perhaps, in the hall of another kingdom, with Margaret or Mr. Scott.

Monday, June 6, 2022

Blessed are

 When the BBC news started playing audio of Steve Kerr, the head coach of the Golden State Warriors, I knew he wasn’t going to be talking about basketball. The NBA playoffs are not prime time news in Britain. Kerr was talking about gun violence—specifically, attacks that had just taken place in a Buffalo grocery store, a church in California, and a school in Texas. He was expressing the frustration that many people, in America and in its friends and allies abroad, feel about the seeming inability to do anything about what have become numbingly familiar massacres. 


Kerr blamed the intransigence of Congress, specifically Republicans in the Senate. The BBC reported that gun violence is now the leading cause of death among children in the United States--and then had to follow up with confirmation, because people were calling into the station incredulous. How could this be true, of a country not technically having a war on its soil?

I wanted to write that it isn’t as simple as Steve Kerr says. How gun violence is only one example of how the U.S. has become almost ungovernable, at least at the national level. But I didn’t write, because what I was feeling was worse than the frustration, anger, and bewilderment that Kerr and others were expressing. I was feeling numb, cynical, like this situation is never going to change. I felt like giving up. 


What feels worst is that it is my generation of Americans that has allowed this catastrophe to unfold. When we were growing up, there were no active shooter drills in schools. Mass shootings happened, but they were still exceptional, outrages. Yet we had the same Constitution and the same Second Amendment that had been around for 200 years—and we had an assault weapons ban. It is on our collective watch that this maximalist interpretation has been allowed to take over, and it is our generation's children who are being robbed of their psychological health, if not their lives.


Meanwhile, I kept getting e-mails from Greenwood Rising, the excellent new museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma that commemorates Tulsa’s historic black neighborhood. I’m on their mailing list because we paid an excellent visit to Greenwood Rising last year, on our Route 66 road trip. Readers of this blog will recall that 2021 was the centenary of a horrific massacre of black Tulsans, one of the worst mass killings in the history of a country that has seen so many. The e-mails were letting me know about Greenwood’s observance of the 101stanniversary.

And then, in the middle of that observance, Tulsa itself was the site of another mass shooting, this one in a hospital. T. remarked that there are so many of these (a mass shooting is defined as four or more victims) that they are reported in categories now. “Another school shooting.” “A church shooting.” Like they are a thing. (As I was writing this, and looked up “church shooting” to verify the one on the 16th of May in California, another one came up just hours before, in Ames, Iowa.)


My feelings were not changing from numbness and cynicism. I already knew what everyone was going to say, from a basketball coach to British reporters to my various friends online. Some blame “the Constitution” as if it were an actor in all this. Some attack those to the left of them for proposing solutions that won’t work. Some attack those to the right of them for not caring about dead children. Importantly, it’s all words and no actions.


What good can more words do?


I didn’t read many words that moved me, that broke through my desire just to turn away and pretend none of it was happening. But I did read some, a comment by a friend of a friend, someone who, from the words he used, I guess has an evangelical background. He summed up the left and right bickering and the resulting inaction, and then asked: Who is happy at this state of affairs, that Americans are so hopelessly divided and angry at each other that no action can be taken to stop horrors we all know are horrific? Who could be happy about this? Jesus or Satan?


Now, many people do not talk this way. If I were to say to you, “I see the hand of the Enemy in all this,” we might quickly get hung up on is there a literal, personal Satan walking around causing misery, and that is not really where I want to go. Instead, I go back to my feelings, and the many (strong!) feelings swirling around, and ask a different question. Is the best way handle this to tune in to and express my feelings about it, or to wait until I’m experiencing the “right” feelings? Are feelings, perhaps, just sometimes, overrated? 


Which brings me to a completely different set of events that's been going on in Britain and the Commonwealth this weekend: the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. 


If some of you don’t know what to make of my bringing up Satan, others will surely feel the same about the Queen. She, or her role (which I would argue are not the same thing) seem odd or anachronistic. In fact, I am going to argue that in spite of a wide range of political opinions about the monarchy, there is something about the Queen that is countercultural, even radical. There may be something to learn from someone who has been around so long, and seen so much. Someone who is an anachronism or, to put it another way, a link to a different time.


Put simply, the Queen in her official role is a stoic. There is probably nothing more unfashionable in the 21st century than stoicism. Think about the extent of emotions that people are constantly expected to express, from crime victims with microphones being shoved into their faces to seemingly everyone on social media. We may sympathize with the feelings or we may be angered by how wrong they are, but either way, we expect to emote all over the place. Nothing should ever be kept inside, whether it helps anybody else or not. And our own emotions are not enough; we are then supposed to ridicule the emotions of others, the ones that are wrong. Barack Obama’s tears were mocked from the political right. “Thoughts and prayers” are mocked from the left.


For various reasons my adult politics have tended more to the left than the right, certainly by U.S. standards; and yet I’ve frequently been irritated (and irritating) on that part of the spectrum. For my brothers and sisters too often seem to be unhappy whatever is happening. They’re unhappy when their opponents are in power, certainly, but they hardly seem happier when their representatives are. 

By the simplest definition, conservatives want to conserve things and progressives want progress, so perhaps it makes sense that conservatives would be happier with the world as it is. According to a report from the Pew Research Center, Republicans have claimed greater happiness than Democrats every year since the General Social Survey began asking in 1972. But this isn’t true only in the U.S. There are British and Commonwealth voters who want nothing to do with the Queen, but they even more strongly dislike elected politicians. There seems to be no one they do like. 


I sympathize with the votes of these unhappy people, but I wonder if they want to be happy. Those happy Republicans, I imagine the Democrats saying, are happy because of their privilege, because everything is stacked in their favor. There is so much wrong with the country; how can we be happy about it? Meanwhile the British and Commonwealth lefties can’t be happy celebrating a holiday weekend with their neighbors because it’s all about the Queen, and the Queen stands for privilege, and how can we be happy about that?


The funny thing about the Queen—and here’s the difference between her and her role—is that it is all about her, and yet it’s not about her at all. The Crown, like the Constitution in America, is something bigger than and separate from any one individual. It is what members of the military, officers of the peace, and civilians swear their allegiance to. Something bigger than you or me or even Elizabeth II, who has known fourteen presidents, whose first prime minister was Winston Churchill.


It is so hard, these days, to grapple with the concept that whether we like someone, how we feel about something, is not the most important thing and perhaps even gets in the way. The explosion of the internet, the divisiveness of Brexit or Trump, has brought tsunami after tsunami of feelings that are really quite awful, that I was not brought up ever to express. Being on the right (or is it the left?) side now means dancing on the grave of a prime minister, or wishing for the death of a president. I was not raised that way. When I was a child, even the word hate was not allowed in our house. If it appeared in a story that was being read aloud to us, it would be replaced by “dislike.” Some feelings were unacceptable, or certainly their expression out loud was.


Was that really so bad? Because the America I grew up in also didn’t have “school shootings.” Columbine hadn’t happened yet. There is nothing inevitable about the battle lines that are now drawn, about the warlike country Americans are living in. (Despite all these mass shootings, most of that gruesome statistic—gunfire being the leading cause of death in children—occurs away from the headlines, in neighborhoods that are violent for so many of their residents and not just children.)


For gun-rights advocates, gun ownership is an essential part of their sense of freedom—how they feel. “But they shouldn’t feel that way!” We can deplore those feelings, or we can recognize that it is for that reason that 90% of Americans, including most gun ownersdo support some measures like universal background checks and “red flag” laws. Because they see no reason that such laws would prevent them, personally, from owning guns. If we realize this, despite how we may feel, we can work on doing something instead of the complete failure of the federal legislature to enact measures most citizens want.

With a nod to the apolitical Queen, I challenge us to think of something we can do besides “defeat the opposing party.” Because let’s be honest: that hasn’t fixed things. I know, I know: if you don’t hate the people you disagree with, at the very least you cannot work with them.


How do you think the Queen felt when, as part of the Northern Ireland peace process, she shook the hand of a former commander in the Irish Republican Army, which had murdered her own cousin? No doubt she felt some emotion she did not express; but it wasn’t about her. She was serving something more important than any person, and more important than one country. Even the Queen could not, by herself, bring peace to Northern Ireland; but what she could, she did.


In a position alien to Americans, the monarch is head of both state and church, “Defender of the Faith.” By all accounts, the Queen’s Christian faith is sincerely important to her, but for the role that she plays her personal feelings are, again, not so relevant. As part of the public role of Christianity in this country, we have people like the Queen and the Archbishop of Canterbury talking about forgiveness--yet another ridiculed foreign concept, along with its necessary companion, penitence. Such an old-fashioned word. Today people want accountability, which somehow excludes both forgiveness and penitence. If an artist, for example, has done something wrong or said something wrong—something on the side of hate!—we are never to enjoy their contributions again. People are unforgivable, and the way we punish them is to punish ourselves.


This is awkward for Christianity, which teaches that all have sinned, as well as for Judaism. In the Hebrew Bible it is plain that everyone’s accomplishments are in spite of the ways they fell short, and there is no suggestion that they are not accountable. Moses and David faced real and severe consequences for the things they did wrong—and those are the most revered and “right” figures in the entire tradition. Were King David’s sins “forgivable”? 

My own reading in the Hebrew Bible has recently brought me back to the Books of Kings. Occasionally they describe a king who, like David, "did what was right in the eyes of the Lord," or a wise ruler like the queen of Sheba. Most of the kings, though are reported to have done what was evil. And what made them most evil of all? In their day the people "made their sons and daughters to pass through the fire." Child sacrifice. What made the gods of the nations idols was not just that they were other gods; idolatry leads to the deaths of innocent children.

What is wisdom, what is duty, in a nation or a world where such violence is possible? None of us, even a head of state, has the power to change things alone. Perhaps change is best accomplished not at the level of a throne or a nation, but on streets and in communities. For the Jubilee, we knocked on our neighbors’ doors and chatted on the street. I know that there are other neighborhoods where this is not possible, where people are being killed on the street. If we have the privilege of that not happening in our neighborhood, then maybe we have the responsibility of doing something for those not so fortunate. 


How old-fashioned that sounds, too! But getting hung up on whether that’s the correct way to feel or not will just be paralyzing. I admire anybody—volunteers, donors, officers of the Queen’s peace—who are doing something to reach out to communities and make a positive change in some measure. Hosting a refugee. Passing a state or local law. Whatever action means for you. What we can do, we should.


“It may not seem like much," Madeleine L'Engle wrote in her work on the Beatitudes; "it is not much; but it is what is given at the present moment....When we are given the grace to be peacemakers even in these little, unimpressive ways, then we are children of God."


I still may not feel any better. But it’s not about me.



Friday, December 10, 2021

End of the trail

Dawn cracked over the Wigwam Motel. I heard a rooster crow. Still have no idea where that was coming from.

We were on Foothill Boulevard, Route 66 west of San Bernardino. Decades ago this was lined with fruit trees. Now a lot of it is modern sprawl, though there are still things to look out for.

Art Deco Standard Oil station, Rancho Cucamonga

Rancho Cucamonga is, first of all, a great name for a town. Picture it as it was in Route 66’s heyday: orange groves, vineyards, wineries dating back as far as the 1830s! Now there are a lot of gas stations, none prettier than the 1915 Richfield station, preserved as a museum by enthusiastic volunteers.

Photo by Route 66 IECA (Inland Empire, California)

The friendly volunteer here took our picture for the heritage association’s Facebook page. She showed us how every detail of the station has been restored—even the bell that rings when a customer drives (or in our case walks) up! “Are you going to the end of Route 66 today?” she asked. “It’s 90 degrees here but it’ll be nice in Santa Monica. Everybody will be going there today.”


Somewhere along Foothill Blvd., T. spotted a sign for the “first adobe house 1843.” I didn’t photograph anything quite that old, although the Sycamore Inn began as a stagecoach stop only five years later.

Magic Lamp Inn (1957)

If you take the time to drive this way, the sights come thick and fast. Upland has one of twelve Madonna of the Trail statues, this one identical to the one we saw on old Route 66 in Albuquerque. Jerry McClanahan writes amusingly of “those sturdy women who had to listen to months of ‘How much longer?’ and ‘When will we be there?’ from the backseat of the covered wagon.”

 There’s a market along the tree-lined boulevard through Claremont that’s been run for over a hundred years by the same family. La Verne has a classic building built in the mission style in 1928 (the restaurant and sign date back to 1966).

La Verne

Pinnacle Peak Steakhouse, San Dimas

I was determined to stop in Azusa. This town, “A to Z in the U.S.A.,” was where my great-grandmother (Gi Gi) spent the last years of her life. I remember addressing many notes to her address in Azusa, thanking her for the $2 bills she liked to send. I was too young then to know or appreciate Gi Gi’s colorful life, including a stint running a motel in Las Vegas, Nevada in the ’60s! Azusa has a tile and stucco City Hall (1932) as well as the preserved marquee of what was the Foothill Drive-in Theatre.

Mayan Revival is another style of architecture that has almost disappeared from the country. Fortunately, Monrovia’s Aztec Hotel (1925) is still there.

We were headed for Pasadena and, since Route 66 passes right through Old Town, there was no excuse not to see my cousins Adam and Alma and their two daughters. We’d last seen these folks when we stayed with them in 2018—back when we were traveling around the world—and, what with COVID-19 canceling Thanksgiving and everything else last year, were overdue for a visit. Alma and Adam and the girls were eager not only to see us, but to find us the best lunch in town.


Much as there are three different eastern ends of Route 66 in Chicago, so there are three different westernmost points. The original Route finished in downtown Los Angeles, at 7thand Broadway Streets. We’d been to L.A. on that 2018 trip, so the only part of this (1926-36) alignment we took was south on Fair Oaks Avenue. There’s a 1915 corner drugstore there that’s still a working pharmacy, but alas, it was a Sunday and closed. So all I got a picture of was Pasadena’s giant “Fork in the Road.” 

From Pasadena, Route 66 into L.A. is the Arroyo Seco Parkway. This was the first freeway built west of the Mississippi River (1940), and for a freeway it’s quite attractive: lots of sweeping curves and overhanging concrete bridges with fetching designs. Modern freeways are built for higher speed limits so the Arroyo Seco probably has a frustrating volume of traffic now, but on a Sunday afternoon it was a decent drive. I guess “everybody” had already gone to the beach.

By Sunset Boulevard, my camera battery had died (first time on the trip!) and it wasn’t the kind of road it was easy to stop on. You have to take my word for it that we made it to Beverly Hills and its Art Moderne police station (I did not see Eddie Murphy there). “We’re the Beverly Hillbillies,” T. joked.


There’s an understated left turn (no light; thankfully traffic was light for L.A.) and the next thing you know, you’re on the final stretch of Route 66. “Santa Monica Boulevard 🎵,” T. sang. I could see the Hollywood sign intermittently appear on the hillside, when buildings weren’t blocking it.


In Santa Monica, the post-1936 alignment turns left on Lincoln Boulevard and ends at the intersection with Olympic.

The reason for this ending was that Route 66 was an actively used U.S. highway, and the rule was that every highway had to connect with another (U.S. Highway 101A, in this case). You couldn’t just end a highway driving into the sea.


However, as Ian at 66 to Cali (the kiosk on Santa Monica Pier) later told us, most travelers coming down Route 66 through Santa Monica had never seen the Pacific Ocean before. So on getting their first glimpse of the ocean, they ignored the left turn and just kept on going down Santa Monica Blvd. 

Well. The first time I saw the Pacific, when I was fourteen, I'd never seen any ocean before. Today as navigator, I’d timed us to be there for sunset, and we were. 

So it is picturesque and appropriate that now-decommissioned Route 66 does, indeed, dead end on the coast, at Santa Monica Pier.

This is the sign that tourists (not all of whom, I suspect, have just driven thousands of miles on Route 66) take pictures with, but neither sign is original. In fact, according to Ian, historically there was no “finish” sign at the western end of the Route. The Route 66 kiosk has reproduced the one at Lincoln and Olympic, though, placing it on the more scenic pier; and he helpfully took our picture with it.

We had to celebrate, and luckily we had friends to do so with. Konn, whom I’ve known for thirty years, and Danny came to see us in London in 2019 (B.C.), and now met up with us in their city. 

And we didn’t have to return the car till the next afternoon, so we had the morning to ride the Ferris wheel and enjoy Santa Monica Beach.

Georgian Hotel and Palisades Park

Like the last time we were in California, I had conflicted feelings about the place. Sometimes the west coast feels as if it's just trying to do the opposite of whatever other states do, whether it makes sense or not. So many rules (smoking outside or vaccinations inside), yet such intolerance of homeless people, of whom California has an appalling number. In so many instances, public restrooms just forbidden. At least this one was open. 


So. Three beginnings, three endings, 3,443 miles (including side trips). And countless American stories all along the way. 

Reading through Jessica Dunham’s Route 66 Road Trip, researching this blog, I’m struck by historical details that I’d missed when we actually saw the places. The Armory in Chandler, Oklahoma was built to withstand tornado winds, and in 1958, Reverend Burton Z. “Lee Lee” Lewis was sworn into the Oklahoma National Guard there—the first African-American so to serve. 

In Flagstaff, Arizona, the Museum Club was the site of Tanya Tucker’s first gig.

 Meanwhile, Du Beau's Motel Inn, on pre-1934 Route 66 in downtown Flagstaff, was operated by the French-Canadian Albert Eugene Du Beau, who advertised in the Green Book this way: “Vacation & Recreation Without Humiliation.” 

Also welcoming to black travelers were the ubiquitous Fred Harvey railroad hotels. From the Amtrak station (a.k.a. the museum) in Gallup, New Mexico to the Santa Fe Depot and Hotel in downtown Amarillo, Texas, more Harvey Houses remain than I had thought. And then there’s the fact that Mary Colter, of whom I’d previously never heard, designed a gazillion buildings in the Southwest (including almost every structure at the Grand Canyon).


If we made this trip again, one thing I know is that it would be very different. Not because I’d purposely change how we did it, but because Route 66 is always changing. Inevitably, some places we went would be closed; some of the places that were closed might well be open again. And even if we stuck to the same alignments of the Route and the same stops all the way across the country, the trip would never be the same, because we would meet different people.


Will Rogers, after whom the highway is also called, famously said that he never met a man he didn't like. Who can say that today? Yet I don't think Rogers was wrong about this: "You would be surprised what there is to see in this great country within 200 miles of where any of us live. I don't care what state or what town."


I’ve written before that I wish the U.S. national anthem were “America The Beautiful,” written by Katharine Lee Bates with music by Samuel A. Ward. This is my new favorite version, recorded and with additional words by the great Native-Canadian-American artist, Buffy Sainte-Marie (all lyrics below). After our trip on Route 66 I feel more positive about America, and I hope you do too.


There were Choctaws in Alabama
Chippewas in St. Paul
Mississippi mud runs like a river in me
America, ooh, she's like a mother to me


O beautiful for spacious skies
For amber waves of grain
For purple mountain majesty
Above the fruited plain

America, America
God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea
From sea to shining sea


There were cliff towns in Colorado
Pyramids in Illinois
Trade routes up and down the Mississippi River to see
America, ooh, she's like a mother to me


O beautiful for vision clear
That sees beyond the years
Thy night time sky
Our hopes that fly
Undimmed by human tears

America, America
God shed His grace on thee
'Til selfish gain no longer stain
The banner of the free

And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea