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Highway to Heaven: Corvettes

Like Its Ancestor on TV's "Route 66," a New Breed of Corvette Is Prowling the American Road
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Denzel Washington, Jan/Feb 98

A snake slithers slowly across the heat-soaked asphalt--no rush, for it could be an hour before another car comes by. The thermometer on the wall of the old gas station stretches, pleadingly, towards the sky, the temperature rising by the minute as the sun climbs over the horizon. It's not even 10 a.m., and it's already topped 100. But Walt Wilson doesn't seem to notice--or care. His muscular, deeply tanned arms are crossed tightly across his chest, a foot resting on the tailpipe of an old motorcycle. Eyes asquint, he slowly surveys his domain, Amboy, California, a pinprick at the center of the map of the

Mojave Desert. "They say 20 people live here," he relates with the vaguest flicker of a smile, "but I can only find 16."

Another time, same place, and Amboy was a bustling oasis--that "last gas for 90 miles," a cold Dr. Pepper, a soft bed in a row of whitewashed cabins. A bit of civilization in an otherwise untamed desert. The traffic moved more steadily then, like the snake on the tarmac, heading west, ever west along the Mother Road. There are other highways that run cross-country. U.S. 1, from Maine to the Florida Keys. Route 2, tracing the rugged Canadian border. Highway 61, linking the Midwest to the Deep South. Yet there is something about Route 66. Just say the name and you hear Nat King Cole's dulcet voice crooning how "it runs from Chicago to L.A." More than two thousand miles all the way, across vast plains and rugged deserts. Through ghost towns and tourist towns like Oatman, Arizona, where, for $1, they'll sell you a skimpy bag of carrots to feed the donkeys set free when the mines were closed after the Second World War.

Collective memory etched itself in the national consciousness long after the feds officially decommissioned the narrow artery, which by then had already been bypassed by a network of expansive freeways. My own vision of the Mother Road was formed late at night on a small DuMont television screen, the image flickering and fading in and out as a pair of modern-day cowboys roamed through the still Wild West of the early 1960s for an hour every Friday night on CBS. They'd traded their horses for a convertible, an exotic piece of machinery--low, sleek, with a wedgelike hood and scooped doors, unlike anything anyone drove in my neighborhood. I wanted to be Buzz. I wanted to drive Route 66.

And I wanted a Corvette convertible. Like the one I'm sitting in. Well, not quite. This one's a new '98. It's a lot faster, a lot more nimble, than the one Buzz and Tod drove. But it's the same "ticket-me" red. Gassing up at Amboy, passing a few moments with Wilson and his sister, I have a few moments to pause. But not too long, for the sun keeps rising and the heat makes a long train running down the Santa Fe tracks shimmer like a ghost. Obeying a primal urge, I stomp on the gas pedal, launching the car in a shower of gravel, as the cooling wind begins to whip through my thinning hair.

The Corvette and the Mother Road. Somehow they seem as inextricably linked as peas and carrots, cowboys and Indians, tourists and tourist traps. I've dropped in on the last leg of a long convoy. It set out from Chicago nearly two weeks ago, and I've hitched on for just the last 500 miles, which, for me, is the romantic leg through the towns with the syncopated names: Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino.

But William Ball is going the distance. The retiree cruised from his home in Lewisburg, North Carolina, to Chicago in a '79 "Shark" Corvette. There, Martin Milner, "Tod" on the old TV show, waved the flag to begin the Route 66 rally. "It's a dream--it's part of the American Dream," Ball says during a break in the long drive. At first, you're not sure whether he's talking about the Mother Road or his Corvette. It's both. "There's something that pulls you like a magnet. Once you get the car, you feel the draw to drive the road--just to say you made the trip."

For Chevrolet, "Route 66" was a seminal marketing breakthrough. It hit the airwaves during an era of unbridled optimism and exuberance, a time when nothing gave us greater personal identity than the cars we drove. For the "Leave It to Beaver" generation, the station wagon was the ultimate embodiment of suburban life. But for those who saw America as a land of limitless opportunities and vast open spaces, it was an open roadster and a road trip out West that spelled personal freedom. The Oakies had driven the Mother Road in whatever jalopy would run. But the Dust Bowl days were over. And now there were folks ready to make the journey for its own sake. There were plenty of cars competing for their hearts, minds and pocketbooks: the Ford Thunderbird, the Studebaker, even a few odd imports, like the tiny little Triumphs, MGs and Bug-eye Sprites. But Hollywood put Buzz and Tod behind the wheel of a Vette, creating an indelible image that Chevrolet couldn't have created for itself despite its massive marketing power.

"When I was a kid, little girls were supposed to be at home, playing with dolls or having babies and baking bread. But the way they depicted the open road, I got itchy feet. I wanted to be on the road," Bonnie Samson says with a sigh, as she strokes Haggis, the year-old West Highland White Terrier that's taken over the shotgun seat. For Samson, the open road has always been spelled C-O-R-V-E-T-T-E. She bought one of the first '98 convertibles to roll off the assembly line, and now she's clocking miles fast. Her husband is back home in Branford, Connecticut, and Bonnie confesses that he's not even sure where she went. Nor is Bonnie quite sure what she'll do when the trip is over, but for now it doesn't matter. "When I have the top down and a full tank of gas, that's the real feeling of freedom for me," she says.

Mile after mile we drive on, past towns with no names, and names that no longer have towns. Restaurants and old motels built long before the era of homogenized convenience, their cottages built of adobe or shaped like little teepees. The names suggest a more prosperous time, when their owners still had aspirations of success. Yvonne's Paradise. The Oasis. There's a For Sale sign on the Roadrunner's Retreat, but the way it hangs loose, banging in the breeze, it's obvious the owner long ago gave up hope. There's not even an exit here for the freeway running just a few miles to the north.

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