By Nicole Hennessy
In early October 2011, Angela Paterek stood in a gift shop in Seligman, Ariz. The owner and purported guardian angel of Route 66, Angel Delgadillo, nowhere in sight, she wandered, wishing for a glimpse of him.
No matter the utilitarian nature of modern highways and roads, connecting further away cities than ever imagined when automobiles still represented the freedom to roam, in American culture remains a wanderlust.
Paterek knew that to travel what John Steinbeck famously referred to as the Mother Road was to renew her spirit, and she planned that spontaneity for a year.
Across eight states and three time zones, Route 66 manifests itself in characters, roadside attractions and legendary diners serving ordinary meals, the spirit of drifters 86 years enshrined in independent museums, monuments, music and literature.
Listlessly rummaging through souvenirs she intended to purchase, Paterek felt let down.
Meeting Delgadillo was just about the only thing she felt really adamant about accomplishing on this trip. Figuring it wasn’t meant to be, she looked up to see him standing there in a plaid shirt and baseball cap.
With shining eyes, she introduced herself, going on to discuss the decline of Seligman following the implementation of Interstate 40, as well as the Pixar movie “Cars,” partly inspired by Delgadillo’s passion for the route.
Finally, saying goodbye, Paterek posed for a photo with Delgadillo and her nephew’s stuffed friend, HA Bear, who tagged along for the trip.
In a 2007 Pontiac Grand Prix GXP with a V8 engine, she and her husband Steve headed to their next destination. The two had come a long way from the first sign in Illinois, marking the beginning of thousands of miles.
Now, almost eight months later, Paterek has trouble choosing which stories to tell, illustrated by the 6,000 pictures she took along the way.
There was the mayor in Pontiac, Ill., who personally gave them a tour of a bus famously driven up and down the road by an artist named Bob Waldmire, who added murals to blank walls in need … then the rainbow stretching across the enormous sky in the Painted Desert, and the two-cell jail built in 1928, and the balloon festival in Albuquerque.
There was the phone call Paterek made to her mom from Bryce Canyon.
“You need to see this place,” she told her.
There was the reunion with her cousin, whom she hadn’t seen in 20 years, and a trip to Vegas with a soldier she sent packages to all four years he was in Iraq.
There were ghost towns lurking just off the side of the road, run-down cabins marked “modern,” railroad museums, dirt roads and old motels. The Patereks’ elongated shadows at Cadillac Ranch, whatever they wrote on the half-buried cars, covering and to be covered by so many years of spray paint.
Traveling lesser-used sections of Route 66, sometimes the “old road” would dissipate into beautiful parks and forests, earth fracturing the parts of it that remained.
In Joplin, Mo., which had been devastated by a tornado months before, there were the portions of town leveled and a somehow untouched amusement park, a Ferris wheel parked against a perfectly blue sky.
At the end of the road in Santa Monica, Paterek dipped her toes in the Pacific Ocean, to which she had never been. Standing on the shore, she looked out over the ocean, the cold water lapping at her feet.
On what she describes as “a scavenger hunt for history,” Paterek maintains, “I didn’t expect the people to be my favorite part.”
Along with the people, she found she loved the little towns that were capitalizing off of Route 66, so much so that in September, she and Steve will return to Illinois to travel a section of the route that splits off.
“We want to take the other path,” she says.
There’s no point in not living life.
Driving back home in October, the Patereks took Interstate 80 the whole way.
“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks disappearing? — it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-by,” Jack Kerouac wrote in “On the Road.” “But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
SIDE BAR: Angela Paterek works as an IT trainer at Rocky River Public Library. On June 7, she will share her stories and photographs at the library.