I sit in the waiting room of a doctor’s office, across from a large man, about my age, who stares at his phone. I am wearing a baseball cap. He has one too, and it’s sitting on his knee. I can’t keep my eyes off it.
I have a hat collection, about 60 at last count. But I have never seen a cap as cool as this one. I knew right then I had to have one. On the front was a famous logo, an American road sign from the old days.
In the early 1950s, if you wanted to drive from Chicago to Los Angeles, you had to take the Mother Road as it was known to its children. If along the way you wanted to get your kicks, brothers and sisters, you took Route 66.
What was truly remarkable about my new friend’s hat was that from the back to the front there was embroidered a full map of the famous road, with eight famous stops marked along the way.
“Man, I love your hat,” I said. “Where did you get it?”
He explained that he had once made the trip via motorcycle. About 1,000 miles into the trip in Adrian, Texas, was the famous Midpoint Café, home of all-American food, and a gift shop where, among other 66 merchandise, he found that hat.
Completely swept up in this big man’s adventure, dreaming of the glories of the road, I resorted to instant gratification. I searched for the hat on Amazon. I could have it in a couple of days for $13.95. About the value of 5 gallons of gas.
The romance of the trip West is part of the American grain, beginning with early American stories of the frontier. The myths included the ability to run off from the constraints of the civilized town and to “light out for the territory,” as a young Huck Finn learned the hard way. The vehicle of travel might be a river raft, a covered wagon, a magnificent stallion and eventually, as we shall see, a 1961 Chevy Corvette convertible.
If you had the radio on, you might be listening to one of the great songs of the 20th century, “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66.” In 1946, actor and songwriter Bobby Troup and his wife Cynthia hopped into their 1941 Buick from Pennsylvania and headed to Hollywood to find fame and fortune. The trip took 10 days, during which time Troup wrote the lyrics, with mentions of towns they drove through.
They finished the song in California, where they checked a map to find the cities that sounded best in a litany. The final choice in westward order were St. Louis, Joplin, Oklahoma City, Amarillo, Gallup, Flagstaff, Winona, Kingman, Barstow, San Bernadino…
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I recently spent most of an evening listening to versions on YouTube. I found it performed in jazz, rhythm and blues, Texas swing and rock ‘n’ roll versions. Even the Rolling Stones got into the act. The greatest performance remains the one by Nat King Cole and his trio, so smooth that it inspires dreams of Western sunsets falling softly beyond the horizon.
I’ve tried to play the song on the piano and sing along. The hardest part, it turns out, is to remember the list of towns along the way. Now I can take off my hat and read the map on the side!
The TV show
The romance of Route 66 was magnified in 1960 by a television series, “Route 66,” that ran over four years with 114 episodes. It followed a pair of young men, played by Martin Milner and George Maharis, as they rode around the country in a Chevy Corvette. Filmed on location in 25 states (not just on Route 66), the boys would take on odd jobs, solve a few mysteries and meet a colorful group of saints and sinners.
Earlier in the decade, Jack Kerouac, a writer of the Beat Generation, had written his most famous work “On the Road.” Drawn from his own experiences of travel, jazz, booze and literature, the book caught the spirit of a rebellious generation. Kerouac’s journey ended in St. Petersburg in 1969, where alcohol got the best of him.
Kerouac thought he was ripped off by the creators of the TV show “Route 66.” He wanted to sue, but smart lawyers talked him down.
Local pop historian Bill DeYoung described how the final two episodes of the TV series were filmed in Tampa Bay. In the second to last episode, Milner decides to marry an heiress played by the stunning Barbara Eden. After the wedding, a bad dude, disguised as a cabdriver, drives the couple to the top of the old Sunshine Skyway bridge and tosses him into Tampa Bay. (We find out in the final episode that he survived the fall and exposes the villains.)
Getting my kicks
The slang word “kick” or “kicks” is about a hundred years old. It denotes pleasure or excitement, sometimes, but not always, associated with alcohol or drugs. It almost always connoted a sense of rebellion, of an experience on the edge.
It turns out that at the age of 74, I can still get my kicks in lots of ways. I don’t need to ride a Harley (or my Toyota Camry) from Chicago to L.A. I don’t need to buy a Corvette and drive it, top down, across the Skyway. But I can sit at the piano and make believe I am Nat King Cole.
And now I can wear the coolest hat in town. It never fails when I wear it to the coffee shop or the bookstore. “Hey, man,” a stranger will shout. “That is the coolest hat. Where’d you get it?”