This summer our family vacation was also a family road trip. We spent time in the western United States culminating with a visit to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. We also spent time among the red monuments in Monument Valley and the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde. We saw tumbleweeds in the desert, the snow-capped Rocky Mountains and almost ran out of gas on a road less traveled. If not for an art gallery that also happened to sell emergency gas cans, we would have had to coast our way to the next gas station.
One of the unexpected highlights of the family vacation was the time spent together on Route 66. Unlike a number of other U.S. Highways (completed after WWI) that continue in existence today, Route 66, John Steinbeck’s “mother road,” has largely been supplanted by interstates and was officially decommissioned in the mid-1980s when the last portion of interstate 40 was completed in Williams, Arizona. However, parts of Route 66 continue to exist as state highway 66 and scenic byways that follow the old path or business route through the center of the many towns it connected. The original Route 66 began in Chicago and terminated in Santa Monica, California – providing a major commerce artery from the Midwest to sunny California and also providing a road of opportunity, refuge and flight for dust bowl migrants during the Great Depression.
Though interstate highways have supplanted most of Route 66, we were still able to experience the old “mother road” in places. We cruised at night in Williams, Arizona, and saw neon lights adorning dated (but well preserved) motor courts, 1950s-style steakhouses and curio shops. We detoured in Hancock, Arizona, to see the wigwam motel enticing vacationers to spend the night in a motel adaptation of a teepee. In Albuquerque, we dined at the Frontier Diner. In Amarillo, Texas, we paid homage to the Cadillac Ranch, but could not quite stomach the 72-ounce sirloin at the Big Texan Steak Ranch. And at the beautifully restored Conoco station in Shamrock, Texas, we finally parted ways with the “mother road,” and sped our way on home. As we were traveling on the sacred asphalt of Route 66, I wondered what all the fuss was about. Why all the shops with maps, patches, pins, books, refrigerator magnets and knick-knacks commemorating a “lost highway”? It had the same white lines and black top and median that all other highways and roads possess. What was so special about the “mother road”?
We often get tongue-tied when trying to describe the distinctive qualities, significance and beauty of life together in Christian community. Look inside the church or dissect its congregants, and we are unlikely to find any special qualities or superior features from any other human gathering or group. The asphalt is still black, the shoulder stripes are white and the median looks like any other highway. And yet, it is on the road, and in the church, where life happens, where we break down and have to rely on fellow travelers for help. It is on the road, and in the church, where what looks like fairly inconsequential scenery is pregnant with meaning and importance. It is on the road, and in the church, where we do not travel alone. It is on the road, and in the life of the Christian community, where we share the significance and wonder of each moment, and then make our way onward to flourish and serve.
The church is nothing we should worship – we know all the flaws and can recite our lengthy litany of the church’s all too human tendencies. But the church is also never to be dismissed – like Route 66, it is not just any other road. And while not our destination, it is a sacred corridor that we cannot do without.
CHRIS CURRIE is pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Shreveport, Louisiana.