If you ever plan to motor West, travel my way; take the highway that’s the best.
During a long break that I had in graduate school, right after I passed my candidacy exam, I decided to take songwriter Bobby Troup’s advice and drive all the way from my home in Columbus, Ohio to Los Angeles, following the path of historic Route 66. Built in 1926 as a link between the Midwest and the West Coast, this road soon became the subject of songs, novels, and television shows, and has come to symbolize America’s fascination with auto travel. Even decades after being superseded by interstate highways and then officially decertified, the route continues to inspire the adventurous—as shown, for example, in the 2006 Pixar film, Cars.
Most of the old road is still drivable, and so I traversed the route from Chicago to Santa Monica over the span of twelve days, visiting tourist traps, staying in motels, and eating at diners, drive-ins, and dives along the way.
I met up with friends in various states, but the drive I made alone. If I had been on the freeway, this wouldn’t have posed a problem; but since Route 66 is no longer an official federal highway, it’s not clearly marked in some areas, especially in the cities through which it passes. Not knowing which way to turn, one can easily get lost and then spend hours backtracking. I packed along a guidebook that indicated most of the turns—yet even so, it was only after a number of unexpected “detours” that I finally arrived at the route’s terminus: the Santa Monica Pier.
Along the way, as I visited historic churches, stopped at roadside shrines, and wondered at the beauty of God’s creation, I began to think of my trip in more spiritual terms. I thought, for example, of how road imagery abounds throughout the New Testament: the highway that St. John the Baptist exhorts us to prepare for the Lord; the dangerous path on which the Good Samaritan helps the traveler whom no one else would; and the way to Emmaus where the two disciples encounter our Lord after His resurrection. St. Paul’s conversion occurred on the road to Damascus, and, centuries later, St. Dominic’s preaching ministry began when he converted an innkeeper on his way through southern France.
Yet in all these cases, the road is not a place in and of itself. It is always a means of reaching another destination. Just as Route 66 served as a way out of the Dust Bowl for poor farmers, or a way to make it big in Hollywood for aspiring actors, or even a way to relaxation for vacationing families, our road in life is taking us somewhere—to a final destination even greater than the sunny shores of Southern California.
God Himself is our infallible guide along this road, for, while we can certainly hone our sense of direction by cultivating the natural, human virtues, only God’s grace can provide us with the supernatural means of salvation, guiding us at every crossroads. As we sing at Midday Prayer here at the House of Studies,
Be present with your servants, Lord,
Who look to you with one accord . . .
When human insight fails, give light
that will direct our steps aright.
We look to God for direction especially through prayer and the Sacraments. If we make a wrong turn, He brings us back to the proper route through the Sacrament of Penance. If we are weary, He gives us strength in the Eucharist, called the esca viatorum or “food of travelers” (incomparably more nourishing even than the 72-ounce steak you can get for free in Amarillo—if you can eat it in an hour). And, at every turn, we can have recourse to prayer for guidance, always remembering the example and the intercession of the saints, who made this journey before us.
Route 66 can certainly take us to the Pacific Ocean, but only the Christian way leads us to what St. Catherine of Siena called “the Sea Pacific”—that is, eternal rest in God. The Psalmist prays, “Lord, make me know your ways; Lord, teach me your paths,” (Ps. 25:4), and Jesus Christ answers, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). Yes, Lord,
They are happy whose strength is in You, in whose hearts are the roads to Zion. (Ps. 84:6)
Image by Dietmar Rabich.