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Notes from the Road

There’s a haunting scene in the middle of the Route 66 Museum in Kingman, Arizona. A life-sized diorama depicts a family of forlorn-faced Dust Bowl refugees rolling slowly West along the Mother Road in a loaded-down pickup truck.

Pots and pans dangle from the side of the rickety rig and too many old suitcases balance up top. A baby pouts from under a torn blanket and a child in ratty duds perches on an overturned crate in the truck bed. Dad, suspendered, plods along beside them on foot. Blanketed in dirt, they seek a better life in California.

My family and I are headed in the opposite direction. We’ve driven from California to spend our spring vacation careening over this famous highway in a rented motor home. It’s 80 years after the Great Depression and the current economic downturn hasn’t yet incited the kind of desperation those hard-luck migrants faced.

And yet it’s funny how many times during our trip we’ve felt like those rag-tag refugees in their rattle-trap jalopy.

RVs make a racket as they rumble and lurch down the highway, dishes clinking, metal blinds clacking, engine barking like a tubercular wolf. We pull into abandoned parking lots to throw together makeshift meals of toast and cheese, then eat them in our cramped cabin because it’s too cold and windy outside to set up the folding table. We bump-thump over curbs, unaccustomed to the vehicle’s exterior dimensions, and whack-smack our heads on low doorways, unaccustomed to its interior ones.

There’s a fiendishly large hornet stuck to the windshield. It’s been with us since the Golden State and gets uglier with each county we pass. The windshield wipers won’t get near it, and we’ve got too many other problems to deal with: a temperamental battery, broken screen door, and rising tank of “blackwater.” So we call the tenacious carcass our mascot and move on.

Sedona. The Grand Canyon. Hoover Dam. Most of what we see is amazing. The rest is amusing. The town of Winslow, Arizona, is so proud of its mention in the Jackson Browne/Glenn Frey song “Take It Easy” that it actually boasts a “Standin’ on the Corner” Park. Its other claim to fame: “Gateway to the Petrified Forest.”

And we’re charmed. But we’re spoiled, too.

Our RV park has cable hook-ups, but not the channel we want. The lack of a dishwasher has left my hands chapped. The damn radio doesn’t work.

Then we visit Montezuma Castle, a kind of sleek ancient condo built into the side of the steep Arizona mountains. It’s hard not to feel like a lazy slob while gazing up at the Sinagua Indians’ sophisticated architectural achievement.

On our way out, my son notices a shiny new Honda Insight pulling into the lot. Its plates say Santa Barbara Honda.

“Mom!” he says. “They’re from Santa Barbara!”

It’s funny how, once you get some distance from home, anyone you meet from your hometown becomes an insta-friend.

A hip-and-handsome couple emerges from the sleek silver coupe. They notice my son’s Santa Barbara City College T-shirt and walk over to shake hands.

Their names are Catherine and Arnie and they’re on their way to Albuquerque to see their son. They lost their home in the Tea Fire and figured this would be a good time to hit the road — in a zippy new hybrid — and focus on the things we can’t appreciate from behind closed doors.

They’re lucky; unlike some of their neighbors, they’re able to rebuild their home.

“We thought about living on our lot in a motor home until then, since, you know, we don’t have a lot of stuff,” Catherine says. “So … how do like your RV?”

And for the first time on our trip, I’m walloped with the perspective that even that Dust Bowl diorama had failed to drive home.

I look over at our sloppy jalopy and smile: “I love it.”

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