Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Nostalgia Road #SOL17

My high school senior picture c.1977
"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." ---F. Scott Fitzgerald

The concluding sentence in The Great Gatsby ranks among my favorite lines of literature. It speaks of the desire to reclaim our lost youth, our innocence, a more simple, carefree time of life.

Lately, I've been thinking about personal, national, and historic nostalgia and have come to the conclusion that our reach "ceaselessly into the past" often precludes our progress into the future. So intent on capturing a bygone era are we that we often fail to consider the myriad challenges accompanying the present moment of our personal and national past. That is, what is now past was once present, and in the present moment human nature beckons us to look back and long for an idyllic, romantic time that exists only in memory. A passage in On the Road articulates this idea:

I realized these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, our actual night, the hell of it, the senseless emptiness.

Through photography and memorabilia and memory we tend to privilege the "good times" and shove the past challenges into the recesses of our minds. We have businesses and traditions devoted to reclaiming and romanticizing the past, high school reunions and yearbooks among these.

My 40th reunion is this weekend. I graduated from Webb City High School in 1977. Then I left town as I headed to college that August, shortly after Elvis died. When I graduated from college in 1981, I left Missouri and moved to Yuma, Arizona, then to Iowa, then back to Arizona, and finally to Idaho, where I've lived since June 1989. I last ventured to Missouri right after the F5 tornado that decimated much of Joplin.
Webb City speech and debate c.1976-77.
I'm standing, third from the left.
My visits to my home state have been sporadic. I attended the five and ten year reunions. Many of my classmates have died; my debate partner was killed in a train accident years ago. One of my best high school friends died a few years ago, but I don't know how as our lives took different paths after New Year's Eve 1978.

With only extended family in the area, and with most of my cousins younger than I and having moved far away, I don't feel the pull to return.

Upon graduating from high school, graduates vow to "keep in touch." I haven't, although social media has made reconnecting easier, but often the profiles I see on FB bear little resemblance to my memory of the classmate with whom I've reconnected.

A high school reunion embodies a narrow nostalgia. Those who stayed in the area, or who have family beckoning their return, often stay connected. I see Facebook posts about this as high school friendships evolve into middle-age ones. That has not been the trajectory of my life. Being a teacher necessitates one to reflect on the past, but the emphasis for me is always on the future.

I'm not attending the reunion. Simply, I don't want to. I'm not nostalgic for high school. It was a difficult time personally, with me in constant conflict with my stepmother and with me having to care for my sick father who died my junior year. And I was not a party kid or part of the "in crowd," such as it were.  I was a nerd, a shy nerd, through most of my school days. Some of my best friends were both younger and older than I, so they won't be at the reunion. Others moved away, moved on, and also have little desire to return to the "glory days" of high school. I don't identify with Fitzgerald's Tom, whom Nick says this about:

I felt that Tom would drift on forever seeking a little wistfully for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game.

I'll not lean into the nostalgia of high school. I'm not beating against the current, borne back into my high school past. We can't make our high school days great again. We can't recover the past in that way. Our attempts to "repeat the past" ultimately lead to our sacrificing the future.

However, if I were to drive home to Missouri, a journey I've taken many times, my path would cross a highway preservationists have worked to restore and honor.

Historic Route 66 begins in Chicago, Illinois and ends in Santa Monica, California. I grew up close to Route 66 where it bisects southwest Missouri and cuts across Kansas. Our literature and pop culture embraces the "Mother Road," and seeing the road's end on the Santa Monica pier has been on my bucket list for a long time. 
My granddaughter Kayla and her friend Chandra.
Our recent vacation to Universal Studios and the Grand Canyon afforded me the opportunity to teach my granddaughter a little about Route 66 and its national importance, but I couldn't help think about the road as a relic to the past, a past romanticized even as the literature featuring the road uses it as a symbol of promise, a mode of moving forward. 

Steinbeck's Joad family traveled to California from Oklahoma via Route 66. He calls  Route 66 "the path of a people in flight." The hardship of travel offered the promise of a better life, and Steinbeck's Joad family symbolize Moses's Israelites. Both traveled to the Promised Land. Both took to the road as a way to move toward the future.

This theme of promise also resonates throughout Kerouac's On the Road. 

I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility, says Dean Moriarity.

Nat King Cole sang about Route 66 in lyrics that speak to the pleasure rather than the hardships of travel along this iconic highway:

Well if you ever pan to motor west
Travel my way, take the highway that's the best
Get your kicks on Route 66.

The decommissioning of Route 66 became for many a symbol of a bygone era, and now it's a popular tourist destination for those who "beat on, boats against the current." The Cars movies and the Radiator Springs area at California Adventure pay homage to Route 66. I learned from my cousin John that Radiator Springs in Cars is modeled after Selligman, Arizona. Now the Snow Cap drive-in in Selligman beckons tourists longing to experience a bygone era, longing to relive the past. We stopped there, too, this summer.
My husband Ken behind the Snow Cap Drive-In.
Ironically, the road that led refugees, immigrants, and dust-bowl drifters toward the future lives in our national consciousness as a museum artifact bisecting the country. These days I see the Mother Road more as a symbol of our nations cultural, racial, and political divisions than as a symbol of promise. 

I see Route 66 and the nostalgia it represents as a cautionary reminder that we can't retrace the past, can't relive the past, and certainly can't escape the past, but we certainly should move forward.


  1. There is a lot to think about in this piece, Glenda. I love how you weave literature into the processing of ideas and emotions: the reunion and the road ahead.

  2. This was a ruminative essay, Glenda - such a pleasure to read. I, too, prefer to think of roads as accesses to the future, to moving on and leaving the past where it belongs...behind.

  3. lovely, absolutely lovely. And perfectly captures the misgivings so many people have about high school and the culture of nostalgia. Glad I found ya!