Take A Route 66 Road Trip That Starts In Santa Monica And Ends In This Graphic Novel
The historic Route 66 runs from Santa Monica out east to Chicago. Cartoonist Shing Yin Khor decided to take that route with the help of their Honda Fit and tiny dog Bug, documenting it in the new book, The American Dream?: A Journey on Route 66 Discovering Dinosaur Statues, Muffler Men, and the Perfect Breakfast Burrito.
Khor grew up in Malaysia, though they've made their home in Los Angeles for more than a decade. The book came from wanting to examine their immigrant identity as a relatively new American, they said, having become an American citizen just four years before taking this trip. They wanted to see parts of the country they'd never seen before.
"I've always, always wanted to drive Route 66 — but it's a kind of long trip that you sort of need a really good excuse for," Khor said.
Nat King Cole popularized the road with his take on the song "(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66," singing about how it winds from Chicago to L.A. — but Khor took that route starting from the West Coast, bringing that Angeleno perspective with them.
"We're not living in the Great Depression, and there was no need for me to go west to seek a better life, or my fortune in the gold mountains," Khor said.
They camped along the way rather than spending money on hotels — realizing once they left that L.A. had made them "more of a city girl" than they expected, Khor said, as well as creating certain expectations of their environment.
"I'd become very comfortable in Los Angeles, and I'd become very comfortable in the kind of diversity that I get every single day of my life living here," Khor said, "to the point where it's almost jarring to be in a town, and look around, and be like, 'Oh, it's majority white. I am in a majority white space, and this feels incredibly awkward.'"
They brought a Route 66 guidebook and combined that, firsthand experience, and some eager Wikipedia-ing to offer insight into what they saw along the way. They're obsessed with maps and infographics, which they weave throughout the book.
"I made some sketches while I was traveling, but mostly I just took a lot of reference pictures," Khor said. "And there were definitely parts in the book, if you look closely, where I very obviously had to resort to Google Street View for a little bit of help remembering how things looked."
Along the way, they dive into small obsessions — like Muffler Men, the giant fiberglass sculptures that often advertise local businesses and other roadside attractions. A friend of hers had a quest to visit every Paul Bunyan statue in the continental United States, which led Khor into the world of Muffler Men and their outsider-art nature.
"It's a very iconic, American thing to me, that really touches on the things I love — which is just goofy ass statues, Americana, giant fiberglass things that people repaint and adapt on," Khor said.
One of their personal favorites is right here in L.A.: Highland Park's Chicken Boy. He's what's known as a "mutant" — a Muffler Man who's been modified from the original mold.
The book took them three months to complete, and with the complicated nature of publishing, they actually finished it some time ago. The trip was originally taken before Donald Trump was elected president, and Khor said that they feel the America they visited isn't the same anymore.
"I look at the book now, and it feels very much like a time capsule already," Khor said.
The book is about examining their immigrant identity — but when they were writing it, their actual immigration status didn't feel as tenuous as it does to them now. Route 66 itself has changed too, Khor said.
"I almost want to put a disclaimer on it, to be like, yes, this place was really great to drive through [at the time] — let me tell you, there are Confederate flags there now," Khor said. "So if you're a person of color, no, I would not recommend driving through this space."
They up the change with a one-page epilogue:
The American Dream is available now. (Well, we're not sure if the dream itself is available, but you can find the book.) Khor is also an installation artist, and their next book coming out next year is about the early American logging industry and the myth of Paul Bunyan.