She wore neon like a string of pearls…
The Jewels of Route 66. On a balmy summer afternoon, Ruth shares with me her story of growing up along Route 66 and how this iconic road helped shape the woman she would become.
Ruth, Navajo, was adopted as a baby by a family from in Tucumcari, NM. Since the moment she opened her eyes to this world, Route 66 was there, but for Ruth the route is more than just an historic highway. Knowing that Route 66 ran through her new home as well as the land where she was born helped give her a sense of connection to her people and to Dinétah — the Navajo word used to identify her homeland. Eventually the road also became a symbol of femininity and strength to Ruth.
Growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Ruth saw Route 66 at its prime, a busy transcontinental thoroughfare bringing business, color and life to the communities along its way. New Mexico’s Route 66 communities big and small sported the aesthetic of the time. Diners and motels slanted into the horizon with deco profiles, complemented the landscape with colorful mid-century paint jobs, and lit up the dark desert night with the atomic glow of neon signs welcoming in road weary travelers. Blue-winged Biscaynes and candy-apple red Chevelles colored the asphalt like a speckling of gemstones against black velvet. And at the tips of everyone’s fingertips opportunity jingled like dinner rings.
“I began to see the road as a beautiful mother and we were all her children,” says Ruth. “The neon was her jewelry — coral earrings tucked against her dark hair, turquoise necklaces at her tan throat, soft hands decorated in green and pink stones.”
Ruth, a self-proclaimed “spitfire,” credits the route for inspiring her to venture away from home, go to college and learn about her world, things, she says, that were still uncommon for women of color to do back then.
“The ‘Mother Road’ brought people together, helped them get where they were going, and picked them up when they fell,” she says. “We would help people who broke down in Tucumcari. My father would drive them over to our house and my mother would feed them. We got to meet a lot of different kinds of people this way and it helped me understand that there was a bigger world out there.”
The afternoon passes and Ruth tells me more about coming of age in a time caught between tradition and revolution along the most famous road in America. As I sit and listen to her I begin to realize something very important.
It is this layering of memory that creates a legacy. It is what preserves a place, or an object and gives it meaning in an ever-changing world. Just as Route 66 created a legacy through the jewels that she wore, so too do the women that she’s touched. As women, our stories create memories that create legacies. Some stories are spoken, while some stories are merely worn.