Once upon a time, there was a highway that stretched 2,448 miles across the American landscape, from Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, California. Constructed in 1926, Route 66 actually no longer exists—having been replaced by the Interstate Highway System over the years. This ghostly road, which exists only in historical snapshots, relics, and memories, once represented the heart of American folklore.
You can trace Route 66, down through Arizona and New Mexico, down to a couple of hundred miles away from the border between the United States and Mexico. Drive for a bit longer and soon you won’t be able to drive anymore. Soon you’ll find a border, which might as well be an open wound, spilling out bodies viewed as disposable by our current government.
Recently I read Valeria Luiselli’s 2016 book, “Tell Me How It Ends,” which finds the author traveling down to the border between America and Mexico with her family to research and gather source material. Luiselli wrote her book before migrant stories became a hot media topic when the 2018 news stories about immigrant family separations broke—even before the election of Donald Trump. The book was written under the Obama administration, when the odds were still stacked—albeit slightly less so—against immigrants, especially immigrant children. She chronicles her work as an interpreter for children undergoing the process of answering questionnaires that will determine whether they may stay in the country. For all its politics, it is a road novel, chronicling an author’s journey—but there is no gleaming California at the end of the road—there is no ending.
From March to May of 2018, 50,000 immigrants—from nations including El Salvador, Mexico, and were arrested at that border. Currently, at the border, according to GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America/CoreCivic together detain 15,000 people in immigration per day.
Why? In 2017, the GEO group received $184 million, and the America/CoreCivic group received $135 million for immigrant detention costs.
(Is it starting to become clear, to rise out of the mist? The other ghostly roads that line this nation? Roads that are indeed paved with gold, and green, but that lead to penthouses, to towers, to government offices, to heavy wallets and wounded minds?)
For a long time, I’ve been dreaming of taking a road trip from New York to California. Along the way I imagined winding through the Badlands of Wyoming, lurching up towards the bluegrass fields of Dakota, passing through Vegas—on the way seeing countless icons of the nation’s landscape—stopping at diners and motels—turning down strange unknown paths towards gem mines and sudden lakes. And meeting locals, and exploring the middle of this country that I have only seen from the outside.
Nowadays, when I think about my oft-daydreamed road trip, my thoughts take different shapes. I realize that the migratory lifestyle that I saw as a gateway to freedom is, and has long been, a prison in which hundreds of thousands of people are trapped, moving from one place to another because they either cannot afford to live in one place or because they are on the run from a government that wishes to expel them from a nation that had long represented a hope for redemption.
Still, the ghost of those dreams remain. Like the ghostly relics of Route 66, America lives on.
It lives in the children making the treacherous journey from Mexico to America, all of whom have to jump a train called “La Bestia,” or “The Beast,” in order to reach it. Sixty to eighty percent of migrants are assaulted in some way on the journey, according to a 2012 study. They are running from gang violence and drug cartels (for whose existence America is certainly more than a little culpable).
They are not a “they”—they are individuals. Turned into numbers. Turned into criminals. Seen but not seen. Like ghostly highways, but still alive.
This is not an ending, not a story. The fairytale collapses, or never existed at all. This is not an ending—this mass exodus known as the modern refugee crisis, supplemented by the flux of hate that keeps them imprisoned in liminal spaces even after they have risked their lives to arrive on different shores—this is an open wound.
EDEN ARIELLE GORDON is a writer, musician, and avid traveler. She attends Barnard College in New York.