The Mother of All Road Trips: Beyond Route 66 (I)

Got a fantasy road trip squirreled away in the imagination?  Tiptoeing the spine of the Rockies? Tracing the shores of the Great Lakes?  Driving US Route 1 the length of the Eastern Seaboard? 

Route 66 gave birth to much of America’s car culture: fast food, drive in eateries and cinemas and most notably the ‘Motel’. Above, the Blue Swallow in Tucumcari, New Mexico.  During the ‘Dust Bowl’ years, Route 66 allowed impoverished families to escape the desolation of their farms to find new lives in California.  Today, Interstate 40 has supplanted that historic highway which has largely been abandoned, except in certain stretches where it is preserved by localities who recognize its power to fire the traveler’s imagination.      photo credit: wikimedia commons

The fantasy jaunt of the American soul would have to be a ramble down U.S. Route 66 – in a tail-finned convertible a la Thelma and Louise – spanning the American hinterland from Lakeshore Drive, Chicago to Santa Monica, California.  Ribbon of dreams beyond topography, it’s a tour de force through the atlas of American culture and experience, a highway toward redemption, fortune and renewal. Indeed, if the ‘69 Woodstock music festival had been twinned with that ‘Mother Road’ – say, in Tucumcari, New Mexico – it would certainly have ushered in the Millennium itself. Burning Man doesn’t even come close.

But that epic American journey, rich in history, lore and folly though it be, cannot hold a candle to what must be the mother of all road trips: A trans-Eurasian trek.  The Silk Route version of that trip, the one tramped by the likes of Alexander the Great, Ibn Battuta, Marco Polo, and by missionaries Buddhist and Nestorian, has been virtually impassable for decades given the season of wars raking Syria, Israel-Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.  But that very itinerary was still open in the summer of 1965, when my schoolmate companions and I set out with family friends in a Volkswagen sedan to retrace that storied track.

The approaches to the Khyber Pass are dotted with reminders that the old Silk Route offers troubled passage.  Above is a ragged piece of fortification allowing the Khyber Rifles police to monitor a highway often used in the traffic of drugs, arms and other contraband.  Much of the hinterland is ‘no go’ terrain for national authorities.  But that wild interior of rugged mountains is also stunningly beautiful.  

In the following series of blog posts based upon my journal, I propose an account of that 8,000-mile journey following the Silk Road from Northern India to the cities of Europe: the Mother of All Road Trips.  

10 thoughts on “The Mother of All Road Trips: Beyond Route 66 (I)

  1. Looking forward to your series of posts on the road trip. I have a friend who was able to do that route with his family in 1979, I believe. Wouldn’t it be great if peace would come for the sake of millions caught in the crossfire (but also so that others could experience that amazing route!) Hard to imagine! Keep well, Jonathan!


    1. Hello, Mark! It’s one of the great travesties of our time that we think of Silk Road Asia as a place of endless war: of drones, of dusty siege, of refugees, of the most ancient cities reduced to rubble, of frightful cruelties. Yet, as I hope to show, our journey was possible only by the kindness and hospitality of complete strangers, leaving me with the impression of cultures possessed of refinement and dignity. As you suggest, those depths of goodness must one day overcome the follies and injustices that have ruled the day. And the beauty and greatness of the Silk Road will once again call to traipsers. A must read for those who want a restored grasp of that corner of the world: Peter Frankopan’s majestic book, ‘The Silk Roads’, a recent rendering of world history from the vantage point of central Asia.


  2. I used to regret not taking the opportunity, in 1970, to join a caravan going overland from London to Calcutta. Your accounts here will no doubt resurrect my second guessing that choice. The year before, however, I actually did hitchhike from Chicago to L.A., much of it prior to US 66’s being overlaid by I-55 and I-40. Not the Silk Road, certainly, but for a long-hair crossing the South, not without its harrowing moments.


  3. Happy Monday as I too was looking at my old travel journals lately. My Cessna solo flight/check ride from ’69 occurred during the same week that man went to the Moon & back! Then the 84 day World Tour adventure in the summer of ’70 across Russia by train still resonates in my thoughts with most every type of public transportation used. Looking forward to reading your details of the Silk Road travels as it was back then. Blessings & bon voyage, Dan Johnson from Cambridge, MN


    1. Hello, Dan! Noting your red-letter trans-Siberian ramble by train reminds me of a story about Marco Polo. It is said that when he returned to the gates of his family estate in Venice after nearly three decades, now clothed in tattered robes, he was no longer recognizable to his kin who initially refused him entry. But his florid stories of Cathay were confirmed by the jewels he had sewn into the seams of his garments. It sounds like you have such gems secreted in your journals!


  4. Jonathan, you are an international ‘Wanderlust Unrooted!!! And it seems that was your mission from a day or two out of womb. Is there any place mentioned on any atlas on which you have not set foot? Or at least plan to set foot on? Whatever, wherever, stay safe.

    Your birthday brother.


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