#2892MilesToGo: Reimagining the Mother Road

This post was written by educator Dr. Shanna Peeples.

The real voyage of discovery doesn’t start when we leave home. It happens when we see home with new eyes.

Marcel Proust

Growing up here in the Texas Panhandle and traveling to New Mexico for late-summer visits, Route 66 has been a familiar, kitchy ribbon of two-lane blacktop. So many of my own ideas about “motoring west,” as Bobby Troup wrote in the lyrics to “Get Your Kicks on Route 66,” were formed from pop culture centering the idea of a white, middle-class, daytripper looking for adventure. Later, my own understanding of Route 66 shifted through hearing stories of desperate economic refugees from the Dust Bowl driven away from their farms and down what John Steinbeck named “The Mother Road,” seeking better times in California. 

I thought I knew most of what there was to know about this landscape. But what would happen, if I slowed down and began to try to develop new eyes for this old road? 

One way I have learned to develop new eyes for old places is to reach out to folks whose communities have different perspectives than you do. Asking them: what do you see? 

I thought I knew most of what there was to know about this landscape. But what would happen, if I slowed down and began to try to develop new eyes for this old road?

Dr. Shanna Peeples

Our 2892 Geographic Walk for Justice team of storytellers is built on perspectives and questions from  indigenous communities, Black-owned businesses, and Latinx neighbors who are living the effects of a racialized past to share important lessons for all of our futures. 

We are exploring historical intersections of race, culture, mobility, and energy along Route 66. This “Mother Road” is the thread that brings these ideas together and allows us to think like travelers going both backwards and forwards. The route we will travel examines the 2,500-mile Southwest leg of Route 66 through Amarillo (Texas), Albuquerque (New Mexico), and Arizona – a trio of places that our team members and contributors call home. 

The idea of home and community is one that is built – or neglected – in every generation. We are seeking insight and expertise from leaders like Bonnie Graves, a consultant for our Amarillo team, who is helping us think about that idea through the buildings that used to be in the historically Black neighborhoods of Amarillo. She is teaching us that community is created from the people who take care of us, teach us, and feed us. What happens to a community when those folks can’t stay in business?

 “When we had our own hospital, dentist, doctors, schools, and businesses we had a community. A community where we thrived and developed the village mentality” Bonnie said. 

Rethinking community is a huge part of what drives one of our founding Wayfinders, Melodie Graves. She is a Black community activist in Amarillo who wondered: How did Route 66 build and dissolve Black businesses – like those in North Amarillo? 

Home in the North Heights neighborhood. Photo taken by Dave Clayton.

“Many of the people I have talked to look to the state of North Heights right now,” she said. “With few businesses, no housing developments, empty lots, and dilapidated houses, they have all said we have no community. Many of the residents have lost hope for better days. But the hope of a few will revitalize this community through education, economic empowerment, and developing relationships with city leadership.”

Development can come with mixed outcomes, especially for the first people, like the Diné and Pueblo people who live near Albuquerque, one of the major cities along Route 66.  

“Netflix is expanding studios in Albuquerque, and Facebook has a huge data center here, and Amazon is building a massive distribution and warehouse center,” Ramona Emerson, a Diné filmmaker, and our Wayfinder team member in New Mexico, told us on a call recently. “That’s great for the economy, but what about the native land, the sacred sites close to all of it? Our water resources are precious and we’re not sure about the sustainability of all that development.” 

The 6th World Water Forum expressed concern about balancing the demands of increasing populations and the variability of water supplies in an area with dependencies on rivers, wells, and aquifers. It called for more exploration of “the role of water in addressing social problems related to population growth, economic prosperity, public health, environmental quality, and social justice…the source of both conflict and community.” 

B. Lynn Ingram, a professor of earth and planetary science at UC Berkeley is more blunt. “Long dry stretches during the Medieval centuries had dramatic effects on the native peoples of the Southwest (the ancestral Pueblo, Hohokam, and Sinagua),” she writes in “The West Without Water: What Can Past Droughts Tell Us About Tomorrow?” “including civilizational collapse, violence, malnutrition, and forced social dislocation. These earlier Americans are a warning to us.” 

Demographers tell us that the United States will soon be a grayer, browner, and more Southwestern population. That fact impacts how we will live and work together and what we can learn from this place and its history to think about our future. We in the Southwest are at the leading edge of dealing with climate change and its effects. Route 66 gives us a geographical trail to follow as we explore all of these interconnected lenses, and reconsider the mythology of “The Mother Road” – as well as the path forward it may unveil.

We invite you along with us as we continue exploring the wisdom of the past, the work of the present, and the possibilities for the future. 

Dr. Shanna Peeples, the 2015 National Teacher of the Year, took the road less traveled on the way to her classroom. She worked as a disc jockey, medical assistant, and journalist before teaching chose her. Shanna taught middle and high school English in low-income schools in Amarillo, Texas for fourteen years. She recently received her doctorate in education leadership from Harvard Graduate School of Education and was the Educator in Residence at TED-Ed.

Meet the entire 2892 Amarillo to Albuquerque storytelling team and learn more about the 2892 Geographic Walk for Justice by exploring the 2892 website. Stay tuned in the coming months as 2892 Amarillo to Albuquerque shares their storymap and experiences. Follow @NatGeoEducation for future updates and information about ways to get involved with 2892.

Lead photo by Vincent Musi.

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