People who have never been there know all about Atlantic City. It is part of our folklore—the Steel Pier, saltwater taffy, the Boardwalk, St. Charles Place and Park Place. There also is Albany, an east-west avenue that dead-ends at the Boardwalk in a kind of alley between a motor inn and an apartment building. Obscured by commercial displays and advertisements are signs indicating that Albany is also U.S. Route 40, and as such is the beginning, or the very end, of one of the most distinguished and interesting transcontinental roads in North America.
Let's assume it is the beginning. You can make a U-turn at the Boardwalk and head west. Drive out of Atlantic City, across New Jersey, a bit of Delaware, Maryland, cut the corner of Pennsylvania, cross the neck of West Virginia, then on through Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California. You end up just a few blocks from San Francisco's China Town without ever having left Route 40 or one of its direct numerical descendants.
Route 40 runs through the middle of the U.S., geographically and in other ways. The road is a kind of mean, along which virtually every extreme of America and every sort of American can be met. And while it progresses horizontally in space across the continent, 40 descends vertically in time through our history. There are sections that once were a buffalo trace, an Indian pathway, a drovers' and emigrants' trail. It has been, or is, a foot, wagon, stage, bicycle, tin lizzie, cab-over-engine, gas-guzzler highway.
One could begin the trip any day, but the Fourth of July seems appropriate. Stop at almost any little town along the way and you will find a safe, sane and institutionalized Fourth celebration. They seem to merge into one: after the parades and supper, the townspeople stroll down the sidewalks, marvelous tunnels of summer foliage shortly to be pierced by porch and street lights, to a park bordering on a small lake. On a peninsula the police and fire departments are readying a 45-minute display of fireworks. The pyrotechnicians work in a cordoned-off area.
By eight o'clock the street and lakeshore are jammed. Some spectators have brought lawn chairs. Others sprawl on the grass for comfort or courtship. People mill around and gossip; children run and squeal. A park bench has been draped with a fishing seine. It holds a stomach-down infant who watches from his foam pad. Ice-cream vendors circulate and a soft-drink wagon parked near the ambulance is doing a rush business.
When it becomes dark the police shoot the works—rockets, star-bursts, pinwheels. The spectators "Oooh" and "Aaah," which by tradition is what you say about fireworks.
Some young bloods are shooting off private, illegal stocks of rockets, zebras and cherry bombs. Breathlessly, the outlaws tell two admiring girls how they just made a teacher jump with a cherry bomb, how they have outwitted and outrun cops who have been trying to catch them. The girls think the scofflaws are cool, but adults warn that somebody is going to get hurt, that a few hoodlums are going to spoil the night for everyone. In fact, nobody gets hurt and the outlaws do nearly as much as the police to make it a Real Old-Fashioned Fourth. The Fourth and Halloween were once feral festivals celebrating the notion that good red-blooded Americans are naturally and rightly hell-raisers.
Years ago the Fourth was given over to pageant committees, promoters of shopping centers and park rangers. The new style is probably less dangerous than the old and that is probably good. But the Fourth is less stimulating than it once was and that is probably bad. What has happened to the Fourth is another mixed blessing.
After wobbling through New Jersey, Route 40 crosses the Delaware River and heads south. In Baltimore it turns right and finally heads purposefully into the midlands. Highways buffs are sometimes disdainful of the Atlantic City-Baltimore segment of Route 40. They contend that it wanders about with no more dignity than a suburban lane; that it was arbitrarily and awkwardly grafted onto a mighty transcontinental route.