I still consider myself the ‘shy kid’. Although I recognize that I’ve grown a lot in the last few years and my worldly experiences have broken me of many habits, I still have the same tendencies when I am with a group of people for the first time. My little demon of insecurity tells me there’s not possibly ANYTHING that I have to contribute and the old anxiety machine begins to spin up. When I arrived at the Munger Moss Motel in Lebanon, Missouri to attend a rally to save a historic Route 66 bridge, I felt that familiar knot in my stomach. Maybe I’d made a mistake, driving 235 miles to a town I didn’t really know to join up with people I’d never met. I stood in the parking lot of my one-night-home, working through this cloud of doubt, when a man came up to me and introduced himself. I recognized him from a Facebook group I’m a part of and took his extended hand; at that moment, all of that anxiety dissolved and my amazing weekend began.
This man (Dean from Indiana) offered me a ride to the rally, which I gladly accepted. It took about fifteen minutes to get there, and during that time I learned about Dean’s history with the Mother Road. It was cool to meet a stranger, essentially, and be able to have a conversation where you KNEW they understood what you were talking about, which is how I felt as I shared my own experiences. When we arrived at the Gasconade River Bridge, there were already about a hundred people milling about. As Dean and I joined the crowd, he introduced me to a few of his Route 66 buddies; by the time the rally itself started, I had met roadies from Kentucky, Texas, Missouri, Colorado, Kansas, Ohio, Arizona, Maryland, even Germany and Sweden. It was overwhelming in the best way.
The Gasconade River Bridge was closed by the Missouri Department of Transportation a few months back due to the deteriorating condition of the bridge. It was built in 1924 and is one of the few remaining mixed-truss bridges on Route 66. Not only does the closure damage the congruity of 66, but it also has had quite an impact on the local population, some of who now have to travel 12-15 miles out of their way because they can’t cross the river. When word came down that demolition was an option on the table, a guy named Rich organized a group of passionate people to help bring attention to the closure and, hopefully, save the bridge before it was too late. Attention was, indeed, gained: there were several hundred people (not to mention several local news outlets) listening as Route 66 aficionados, local residents, officials from MODOT, and even the Missouri State Representative for the area spoke and offered hope. It was refreshing to hear positive talk and people working together to try to come up with a solution. After the rally concluded, a core group of the organizers and supporters adjourned to the county library back in Lebanon to start the process of forming a committee to truly get some action started. That was a little beyond me, so I stayed back at the bridge for a while longer. As I walked the span, I understood MODOT’s decision: the bridge was in TERRIBLE shape. I just hadn’t really noticed when I saw it for the first time last spring.
Many people brought classic cars to the meet-up, and I met a man from Bartlesville named Ron (known as the Tattoo Man thanks to his 130+ tattoos, many related to Route 66) that had brought a BEAUTIFULLY restored 1956 Chevrolet with him, complete with an airbrushed map of the Route on the trunk. I met a man named Crocodile Lile that owned an art gallery in Amarillo. I met a co-founder of the Route 66 Alliance that had flown in from Washington, D.C. I met a man from Arizona who was passionate about preserving and restoring a variety of aspects of the Route with a keen business sense. I met dozens of other people over the weekend and the unifying thing about them (aside from a passion for the Mother Road) is that they were the kindest, most welcoming group I had ever met. I felt like I had joined a club that I was already a member of. I was instantly comfortable with them, and they were just as interested to hear MY story as I was to share in theirs. After dinner together, we all stood around a fire into the late hours on Saturday, talking and drinking and having a great time as the Munger Moss Motel sign buzzed overhead.
I woke early on Sunday and drove back out to the bridge by myself. I was struck at how empty the place was after having hosted so many the previous afternoon. The cold morning air was foggy and not yet pierced by the rising sun; I enjoyed my solitude as I sat near the bank of the river. I was a little surprised that nobody else had the same idea, and then it dawned on me that not EVERYONE traveled the road with photos as their main focus. As it was, I felt my focus shifting. Photos are still my passion when I travel, but now I had all of these relationships that were as integral to the experience as gas in the tank of the Mustang. I returned to the motel, checked out, and joined part of the group for breakfast as the day’s itinerary was discussed. Sunday held the second event of the weekend: the Celebration of Gary Turner’s life. I wrote about Gary’s passing a while back here. He was a mountain of a man on the Route that had a tremendous impact on everyone he met; when I pulled in to the Gay Parita station in Paris Springs, I was not surprised to see dozens of cars parked on the side of the road.
Most of the people I’d befriended in Lebanon came down for Gary’s Celebration. I spent several hours wandering, talking, and taking pictures as people shared their experiences with Gary. There was a silent auction to benefit the family, food, and a good amount of standard merchandise. I bought a hat! I connected with dozens of people, exhausted my supply of business cards, and felt I had a good feeling for what Gary meant when he said Route 66 roadies are “friends for life”. I truly feel that way. As I headed home, I felt a bit sad. I’d only known these people for hours, yet our connection was already strong. I must ensure that I attend at least one of the big festivals this year so I can see them all again soon.