For generations, Americans have “found themselves” by hitting the road and discovering America, and many of them did that on Route 66. I had some great uncles that drove a Model T from North Carolina to California in the early 1920s, before Route 66 officially existed. Without a national road system to follow, that was a tough trip. In 1971, I developed an itch to hitch, so I set out for California myself.

I had decided to hitch along the U.S. southern border, and then up the coast of California to Alameda, where I had friends. I started my trip by hitching from Lenoir to Myrtle Beach, where I joined my high school class for a couple of days. Then I headed for Georgia, but I got stuck out in the country and had to spend the night sleeping on a mosquito-infested golf course with my sleeping bag closed up so tightly it’s a wonder I didn’t suffocate.

Getting to Florida was a little easier. When I got to the panhandle, I connected with a truck driver going all the way across the Gulf Coast to New Orleans. That was a good ride. One of my most vivid memories was seeing the Gulf Coast all lit up at night — it was magnificent. Unfortunately, my driver had to let me out in the middle of the night on the east side of New Orleans, and I spent the rest of the night walking through neighborhood after neighborhood to get to the highway on the other side of the city. That was surreal.

The opening of Route 66 in 1926 was a very big deal. It was the first link in a national highway system, but at the time it was still just a loosely connected patchwork of back roads and main streets, meandering from Chicago to L.A. While some motorists had the courage to venture out on the new road, most people still traveled by train.

John Steinbeck was the first author to write about Route 66 in his 1939 novel, “The Grapes of Wrath.” He called it “The Mother Road” and illustrated how difficult traveling by automobile could be. In 1951, Jack Kerouac, in his autobiographical novel, “On The Road,” took his readers on a more lively and entertaining ride across America. In 1960, Route 66 came into its own with a television show by the same name. Two friends, Tod and Buz, hit the road in a Corvette convertible to “discover themselves.” It inspired many, including me, to do the same.

So there I was, traveling across America like Tod and Buz, minus the car. Everyone connected with Route 66 makes the point that “hitting the road” is not about the road, it’s about the people. America is about people, which is why, when you go off searching for America, you can find yourself. When you get out of yourself and into the lives of other people, like Tod and Buz did, you realize that your problems are small in comparison. The Road helps give you that perspective.

When I got to El Paso, Texas, I realized I was finally “way out West.” The scenery changed dramatically and became awe-inspiring. There is nothing more spectacular than the Western sky at sunset. Standing out on a little state route, you can really take it in. Our interstate system misses our small towns and the countryside in between, and so it misses the real beauty that is America. That’s why we need to preserve and use our downtowns and back roads, like Route 66, because they help to tell the story that is America.

In northwest L.A., I was standing out on State Route 1, which runs all the way up the coast. It was early morning and there were dozens of us out there hitching. I must have been the most clean-cut of the lot because I hadn’t been out there more than 15 minutes when a man in a suit came up to me and asked whether I would drive a car for him up the coast. He said he was a dealer, that the car was a Mustang convertible, and that it needed to be in San Francisco by nightfall. What could have been sweeter? I can tell you, that is the ONLY way to see California.

And that is the only way to see America, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t know that I necessarily “found myself” on that trip. What I did find was that people are pretty much the same everywhere, and that, no matter where you are, there will always be someone willing to help you. People make America what it is, and hitting the road can help you see that. If you’ve never hit the road yourself, maybe it’s time you did.

Reporter Kara Fohner can be reached at 828-610-8721.