In a diner in Normal, Illinois, Mother and I
stare at a man mixing maple syrup
into the yolks of his eggs.
We’re not in Scotland anymore. It’s 1966
and we’ve lived in Windsor, Ontario for only six years.
This is the summer we set out to discover the U.S.,
traveling Route 66, Chicago to L.A.
Wakened in our tent in a state park in Kansas,
we hear snarls, screams like the screech of an owl.
Our flashlight catches ringed tails. What are they?
When we ask the ranger next morning, he thinks
we’re joking. Who doesn’t know a raccoon?
Amarillo offers Hawaiian Festival Days.
People in plastic grass skirts and leis cook Texas barbecue.
Will our tongues recover? The Big Texan offers
a free steak dinner, 72 ounces, to anyone who can finish
in an hour. We remember rationing in Scotland,
a quarter of a pound of meat per person per week.
Further west, men harvest large green oblongs
in an acre-sized field, hoisting them onto a flatbed.
Mother parks the car, marches down the rows.
What are these? A man cuts one open. The cool
pink flesh quenches our thirst in 100 plus heat.
We spit seeds as they do.
We marvel at colors and striations in the Painted Desert,
the size of Meteor Crater, the hairpin turns
of the Black Mountains, but unlike Americans,
we don’t need to hire locals to navigate its winding grade.
We’re from Scotland with its single-lane twisting roads,
one called ‘rest and be thankful.’
Burma Shave ads lead us to the edge of the Mojave.
‘Last water. Last gas. 600 miles.’ With both in our trunk,
we drive through Hell, California, population 17,
watch the desert wave in 130-degree heat,
feel every degree in our non-airconditioned car.
Driving north to Leo Carillo State Park, we feel strange
with the ocean to our west. We’ve lived only on east coasts.
In the morning, our car won’t reverse. Kind campers
give us a push. We navigate twenty-five miles to Santa Monica,
use all but $20 of our dwindling funds for repairs.
Mother starts our drive back at 6 p.m. It’s cool in the desert
at night, she says. We stop in Needles, California, sweating
and stuck to our car seats and backs, amazed
that it’s 117 at midnight.
Back on the plains, we drive into a Van Gogh painting.
Yellow corn, black sky, whirling debris. Our first tornado.
In the late 1960s, Route 66 gives way to the Interstate.
When crews widen the road, they erase Hell.
In the 1990s, I meet Joe, whose family owned an Oklahoma farm.
He went out with his Dad to break up the strip of Route 66
that ran through their land, ploughing the earth
into their holdings.
Today, people work to restore Historic Route 66,
erect signs along the way, lament that it’s too late
to save every mile, but I savor the original forever.