I first heard about the Notre Dame cathedral fire via Facebook messenger while I was cleaning out our performance space at the museum. My friend Jude messaged, “Can’t believe Notre Dame in Paris is on fire!”
I checked my newsfeed on my phone, and to my horror, I saw it was true.
I called my dad and mom—neither of them had heard—so they rushed to turn on the TV. Because they had lived in Europe for almost 50 years and wrote books on travel and gastronomy, this fire news hit them hard.
While I was talking with them, my son texted me, “Notre Dame is on fire.”
My Brat Facebook groups were buzzing with the news. So many of my friends remembered class trips to Paris to visit the cathedral; others reflected that they now would not be able to complete their bucket list.
It seemed my whole family had joined the world in the mass mourning of an icon.
I grew up overseas as a DOD brat and was fortunate to have traveled to many famous landmarks around Europe, Africa and the Middle East—Ephesus, the Parthenon, Versailles, Fez—at one time, I knew the Paris Metro system as well as my local public transportation.
Many military families have been able to celebrate great moments of their lives in famous places, such as a high school graduation or wedding in Heidelberg castle, a prom in Neuschwanstein, or hearing an opera performed in the Roman amphitheater in Orange, France. We are always astonished at how old these places are—and they are still in use.
My husband and I were married in the Eglise de St Jean in Wissembourg, France. Built between the 12th and the 16th centuries, Martin Bucer preached the Reformation there in 1522.
I think about permanence and historic preservation a lot.
People have donated a lot of personal artifacts and documents to our museum; it’s a huge responsibility to curate and preserve them. It takes time, effort, and a lot of money to ensure that their history is recorded correctly. While these items are people’s personal history, they reflect a portion of an even bigger event in space and time. People want a place for their history to be preserved.
Notre Dame is more than a church—it’s an artistic treasure, it’s history, it’s a symbol of France. It has always been there, and it seemed it always would be. And, already, the French president is pledging to rebuild it. People have donated millions to make it happen.
It’s kind of like Route 66. I knew about Route 66 when I was living in Germany as a teenager—I’d heard the song, “Get your Kicks on Route 66.” To me, it represented Americana. Our biennial family vacations to the United States often took us onto the “Mother Road.”
Today, as I stand in the museum’s parking lot, I see cars and motorcycles driving through Tijeras on Old 66. Many of those vehicles belong to locals, but some must be tourists. I wonder how Tijeras, Edgewood, and Moriarty look to them. Do they see historical landmarks, or do they see boarded-up buildings or nondescript shops? Do they stop in our part of the Route, or do they keep on going?
Recently, my husband and I drove Route 66 in Arizona. We had a little map of things to look for between Seligman and Kingman.
Some towns were doing a good job preserving their town’s history; others, not so much. As we drove by a little motel which was on the map, I noticed it was boarded up and neglected. At one time, that little motel had been a stopping point for tourists. Memories had been made there; it was important enough to rank a listing on the map. Yet it sits, neglected and falling apart.
What if, I wondered, the townspeople chipped in a couple of buckets of paint and just painted its facade? A couple hundred dollars, and travelers might stop to take pictures of the motel, and possibly cross the street and eat in the café, rather than driving on to some place that looks a little better.
Everyday citizens can help preserve their town’s history, and by doing so, connect themselves to place.
Debbie Pogue, who owns the Sunset Motel in Moriarty, knows this too well. When her husband’s family built the Sunset in 1959, there wasn’t much there. But soon, businesses moved in, families, too, and people were connected with their town—and each other. She is proud to be part of Moriarty’s history.
What if some of the boarded-up buildings on that Arizona motel had window scenes painted on the boards, so that they look cheerful instead of derelict? People might stop by and reminisce about their experiences in that place, remember meals eaten in that restaurant, or stopping at that gas station, thus retaining the ties between past and present.
A local group, RETRO 66 (for RElive The ROute) recently cleaned up a neglected property on Route 66 between Edgewood and Moriarty. They got a crew of volunteers, dragged a lot of dead cars out, cleaned up trash, cut weeds down, and repainted the front of the building. They installed a picnic table and trash can. Now people are stopping for photos as they travel through our area. That property has become a place to stop, reflect, and to create new memories.
Although Notre Dame’s architects and church officials envisioned the cathedral being for the ages, did the people building it understand that sense of permanence? Of the importance of place? Did they imagine it would stand for centuries?
Route 66, while not so old or magnificent as Notre Dame, is one of those world-famous iconic landmarks that people from all over the globe have heard of. While we can’t make it “our” Notre Dame, we can at least shore it up and preserve it. Several grassroots groups like RETRO 66 are trying; I’m sure they’d like some more help. They will be out this summer as part of Moriarty’s Sixty Six on 66 celebration and will share their vision for the future.
I wonder if the road builders thought about the Route being more than just getting people from point A to point B? Did they imagine that German tourists would ship their motorcycles across the ocean to ride its full length? Did they ever think a mere road would become a symbol of freedom?
Zdenek Jurasek, president of Czechoslovakian Route 66 Association, once told Roger Holden, President of RETRO 66: “We lived under Communist rule for 41 years. We were not allowed to travel, and access to information from behind the Iron Curtain was very limited. People tried to obtain information from Voice of America, Radio Free Europe; young people tuned in to Radio Luxembourg and copied tapes with English and American music, which was sometimes smuggled across the border. [That’s where we heard] ‘Get Your Kicks on Route 66.’ The words ‘Route 66’ evoked in us a feeling of freedom, liberty and a free ride.”
So, Route 66 is more than asphalt or pavement. It is an ideal—it represents freedom, dreams and a way of life some could only yearn for. It symbolizes America.
That’s what connects Route 66 to Notre Dame: Both are iconic and symbolize something bigger than what they are, a building and a road. They are ideals and connections, memories and history.
What memories have you made on the Route? Did you cruise along it? Did you eat at the El Comedor? Does your family have a home or business on it? Did you meet tourists from other places? What connects you to the Route?
As Debbie Pogue says, “More people than you imagine drive along Route 66. Let’s invite them to stop, there’s so much history here.”
We can do a lot now to influence the Route’s future. What do you think it will look like in a couple of decades? Or a couple of centuries? It’s up to us. Let’s all pitch in and keep it relevant for future generations.

Circe Olson-Woessner runs the Musuem for the American Military Family in Tijeras, and can be reached at news.ind.veterans@gmail.com.