I have spent many exhausting and frustrating years recommending to my nieces and nephew, as they entered college, that they sign up for a course in Entomology. That’s right – bugs. I’ve emphasized strongly and repeatedly that the course would prove to be a transformative experience. For me, it actually provided confirmation of the existence of God. I am completely serious.
But no one ever listened to my advice, no one ever took the course, and to this day I continue to be appalled.
So I am now going to take up another cause in hopes that one person – just one! – among my legions of readers will adopt my counsel. Here it is: Watch the “CBS Sunday Morning” show.
This charming TV show was recommended to me by my friend Gigi, who shares with me the desire to shut out the disturbing elements in life and ferret out the poignant, the generous, the beautiful, the artful, and the heroic. The 90-minute program, hosted by the delightful Charles Osgood, features beautifully written and filmed vignettes about regular people, some of whom have done extraordinary things in very simple ways. The stories are folksy, sweet, emotional, informative, and always eminently respectful of their subjects, no matter how eccentric.
My all-time favorite piece on “CBS Sunday Morning” was about 10-year-old twin boys whose love of the game Battleship turned into a trip to the aircraft carrier Yorktown in South Carolina, which resulted in their learning about a still-living World War II sailor with whom they became instantly enamored. Even talking about the man made them burst out crying. “We want to hear what his voice sounded like, we want to touch him, we want to know him a lot more,” one of them said through his tears. The story is about how their surprise meeting with the 90-year-old sailor changed all of their lives. I blubbered through the whole thing.
[You can watch the story at the link below. If you can get through the short video without crying, please leave a “comment” to that effect and I will immediately declare you to be a hardhearted fussbudget.]
I was catching up on my “Sunday Morning” shows last week when I was particularly captivated by a story about fossilized wood that is pilfered every year from the Petrified Forest in Arizona’s stunning Painted Desert. This was a familiar subject to me because in 2001 I was conscripted to actually return a piece of petrified wood to that same area.
In the fall of that year, I decided to drag Julie on a month-long road trip down nearly the entire length of Route 66. The whole thing came about because I had fallen obsessively in love with the new, retro-looking Thunderbirds that had just been released, and I was determined to get one. Frustrated with the prohibitively long waiting lists and outrageous dealer markups in California, I had the brilliant idea to call some dealers in Kentucky. Kentucky is Julie’s native state, and we were out there often to visit her family anyway. It turned out that at a dealership in Versailles (pronounced “Ver-SAILS” in Kentucky), lo and behold there was no markup and no waiting list. So we put in our order, and I came up with the plan to drive the car back home to California on Route 66. We would take our time, spending a few weeks cruising appreciatively down the historic road that had been the conduit for so many Americans searching for better lives.
Not all that many decades ago, Route 66 (or “The Mother Road”) was the main travel route for people crossing the country. It became official in 1926 when, with the automobile establishing itself in the minds of Americans as their ticket to freedom and prosperity, the U.S. government decided to create a comprehensive network of interstate highways. As Bobby Troup wrote in his famous song, it “winds from Chicago to L.A” and covers 2,451 miles, eight states, and three time zones. It begins in Illinois, drops down into the verdant state of Missouri, clips a corner of the Kansas plains, plows through the Oklahoma dust, then heads straight west out of Oklahoma City through the Texas panhandle, over the long stretches of desert through New Mexico and Arizona, and into California at around Barstow, where it snakes its way through the orange groves of southern California until it ends at the Santa Monica pier.
Route 66 was the great trail that brought people west. Black Americans fled the nightmarish Jim Crow south; poverty-stricken Dust Bowl families set out to find work on California’s farms; and after World War II young soldiers and their wives, bolstered by the GI Bill and national optimism, packed up their infant boomers and went looking for housing and employment. In the more prosperous years that followed, people with cars and leisure time and a decent income took family vacations to see more of what this country had to offer than they could find in their hometowns.
What a great time it was for travelers back then. They could start their day with a heap of flapjacks, eggs, bacon, and hash browns for about a buck, washed down with a piping hot mug of coffee brought to their table by a smiling diner waitress. Then they would spend the day on the road, stopping in each small town to buy local crafts or let their kids play on the kitschy amusements set up as lures in front of each store. Take your photo next to a giant Paul Bunyan statue! Ride on a big blue cement whale! See the inside of a totem pole! At the end of the day, hungry and tired, they would pull into a truck stop and fill their stomachs with flame-cooked burgers, fried chicken, and milkshakes or ice-cold Coca-Colas, followed by enormous slabs of berry pie heaped with fresh whipped cream. Another hour or two of driving straight west into some of the most glorious sunsets they’d ever been lucky enough to see, and it was time to stop for some very sound sleep at one of the ubiquitous, neon-lit drive-up motor courts that had popped up along the road.
Unfortunately, the quaint, friendly cross-country stretch that was Route 66 suffered a terrible blow in the 1960s and 1970s, when the 42,000-mile national interstate highway system was built. Interstates 55, 44, 40, and 15 would essentially parallel Route 66 but bypass all of the small towns that had grown up along the route. Slowly, those towns withered and died as the “big slab” (as many called the interstate) promised travelers the ability to traverse great distances in far less time. Chain motels, chain restaurants, and chain gas stations replaced the colorful lodging and eateries along the route. People lost their livelihoods and moved away from their homes. In 1984, the last bit of Route 66 was replaced near Williams, Arizona. An era had ended.
Fortunately, some individuals, organizations, and state legislatures have stepped up in recent years, restoring old buildings and maintaining sections of the old road. Nostalgia-seekers and people with time on their hands are heading back down Route 66. There are parts of the road that are long gone, forcing travelers to hop on the freeway for miles at a time, especially in New Mexico and Arizona. But stretches of the old road do remain, and there are refurbished diners, gas stations, motels, and roadside attractions – not to mention museums – to be enjoyed. I highly recommend it. It’s almost as much fun as entomology.
Before we headed out on our own Mother Road adventure, my guitarist friend and bandmate Dina M. – a transplanted New Yorker – told us that she had purloined a piece of petrified wood from the Petrified Forest at least a decade earlier when she had moved out to California. In the Petrified Forest, it is absolutely illegal to remove anything because of the numerous ongoing scientific experiments that are conducted on the fossils there. Wood becomes petrified when mineral matter seeps into buried trees and, over the course of millions of years, eventually replaces all the organic matter, turning the wood into a fossilized stone. That wood/stone can reveal an entire geologic record about the passage of time.
So, consumed with guilt, Dina asked us to do her the favor of bringing the wood back to its home so she could be relieved of the crime and the emotional burden once and for all. We agreed, and we brought that little rock (it couldn’t have been more than 6 inches in diameter; we called it “Little Dino”) with us from California all the way to Kentucky and then back west as we meandered along the length of Route 66. It was 50 miles off the route and out of our way to go into the Petrified Forest, but well worth the detour – for Dina’s sake, for Little Dino’s sake, and also for our own amusement, edification, and overall sense of self-congratulation.
The petrified wood in this forest can be 225 million years old, and signs about the federal penalties attached to removing the wood were everywhere. Although we were bringing contraband into, not out of, the place, I remember sweating like a drug dealer when we passed through the entrance gate and had to undergo the ranger’s interrogation about what we had in the car. Then, once into the park, we could find only groups of large rocks that completely dwarfed Little Dino, and he was going to look supremely out of place. But we had no choice. Holding the contraband clandestinely in the inside of my jacket, I awkwardly tossed it a full 3 inches and it landed among its new boulder family, where I presume it lies to this day.
This whole caper is caught on film, thanks to Julie’s persistent cinematography. The link to the 4-minute clip is below:
For the “CBS Morning Show” story, the reporter met with a park ranger who displayed his collection of remorseful letters written by petrified wood thieves – many of them children. These people, like Dina, had carried guilt around with them for years, and their letters accompanied the pieces of wood they were finally returning. (You know, the postage on some of those boulders must have been astronomical!) As I watched, I began to get miffed. I thought that I should have been interviewed. After all, the show likes to feature people who do extraordinary things, but instead the story was showcasing the criminals who had taken petrified wood out of the park – not heroes like me who had gone out of their way, nearly 1,000 miles from home, just to bring back a 6-inch rock.
My attention was starting to drift when, at the end of the story, the reporter casually mentioned that the rocks that are sent back to the park are simply stored away because they cannot actually be put back. When I heard that, I snapped quickly to attention. The ranger explained that no rocks can be introduced back into the area because the scientists conducting their careful studies could inadvertently pick up something that had no reason to be there and the study results would all be totally botched.
Uh-oh. Oh, no. Now we’ve got to go baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack!