The Mother Road
For many people, Route 66 is the drive of a lifetime and initially, when I set out from California I believe it’s only right that I attempt it in the car of a lifetime. At over US$400,000, the Rolls Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe is one of the most expensive, ostentatious cars on the road, sitting high and wide like some mad emperor’s chariot. It’s the kind thing that when I don’t have the keys, I stand around silently hating, occasionally mumbling something about “the bloody one percent.”
Unfortunately for this wonderful vehicle, I am to be its nervous driver for the next 4,000km. As soon as I start the engine I worry that I’ve made a terrible mistake. The car is so broad that I feel as though I’m sitting in three lanes at once; I cannot check it is locked too many times; and every parking manoeuvre feels like I’m performing open heart surgery with a machete. At home I drive a 14-year-old VW Polo that has been saved from the scrapheap more than once but on the first day of Route 66 I find myself pining for that beaten old wheezer.
Or I would if it weren’t for the Californians, whose unbridled enthusiasm for the Rolls and my forthcoming journey is as consistent as it is embarrassing. Having the top down seems to be an open invitation for all kinds of comments from strangers:
“Hey buddy, can I get a ride?”
“Vehicles do not get more luxurious than that… say can I borrow a dollar?”
“Hey Mr. Bentley!”
“You have a very beautiful car, Mister.” Having ignored everyone else, for some reason I decide to reply to this with an accidentally flirtatious: “And you have a very beautiful face.” The girl who’d offered the compliment goes red and her boyfriend, who I hadn’t seen in the car next to her, leans forward, unimpressed. I stare ahead and the moment the lights change, I am gone, gone, gone.
There are countless oddities about Route 66, including the flat-out bizarre fact that there’s some debate about where it ended. The road was officially decommissioned in 1985 after years of being phased out and replaced with straighter, flatter, wider highways. But before that it had helped sculpt America for 60 years, California in particular, during the days when domestic air travel was dangerous and expensive. Songs have been written and TV shows made about Route 66 – it must be one of the most famous roads in the world and yet there’s doubt over the location of its terminus. Some say Santa Monica; others say it was Downtown LA, insisting that the coastal claims are nothing more than a marketing ploy. Either way, I’m driving against the traditional route, starting somewhere near its end, and ending at its start.
Watching Pixar’s Cars is a great way to research Route 66. Originally the film was going to be named after the road, but that was changed to a simpler, child-friendly title. Cars is classic Pixar, one hand delivering an amusing tale of redemption for the kids, the other offering a deeper, sadder story about a country leaving its youth too soon. It’s about atrophy and decline and at times it can be quite depressing. The makers had clearly done their research.
San Bernardino, my first stop east of LA, is the kind of place lamented by Cars. I only stop there because it’s home to the first McDonalds, now a weathered Route 66 museum full of plastic knickknacks, greasy paraphernalia and a battalion of aging Ronald McDonald dolls staring at me with cold, dead eyes.
The second poorest city in America (after Detroit) San Bernardino hasn’t had much luck. If Route 66 disappearing was bad, the 1994 closure of Norton Air Force Base with the loss of 10,000 jobs was devastating. By the time the global financial crisis came in 2008, San Bernardino was so moribund it barely noticed.
It’s little consolation to that city, but Route 66 didn’t disappear everywhere. As I drive north towards Barstow, past the wonderfully named ski resorts of Big Bear and Mount Baldy, I find signs to join parts of the original route. From here up to Barstow, then turning east out of California, there are several kilometres of unadulterated Old Highway 66 to follow.
In some places it has been buried by its usurpers, in others it runs parallel to the modern highways. Once in a while, it detours drastically. At one point, I use a Route 66 phone app to try and find Exotic World, the strippers’ hall of fame. This isn’t for reasons of titillation but morbid curiosity – what does a person have to do to be regarded as a legend in that profession? Annoyingly, I don’t get to find out. The app leads me a merry dance along Wild Road, past a horse ranch, then onto Indian Trail and back to 66, but I never see a sign for Exotic World. Worse, a dust devil scurries across the road and, as I have the roof down, into the car. When Hunter S Thompson drove through here en route to Las Vegas it was bat country (“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold”) but for me the skies are disappointingly clear.
Things improve shortly after that, the road heading 2,000km due east to Oklahoma with innumerable distractions along the way. Quaint little Needles in the middle of the Mojave Desert is the last town in California, then on to the gold-rush town of Oatman, Arizona, and soon Kingman, which has tried to take a kind of ownership of Route 66 with a well-presented museum detailing the history of the road and its role in the exponential growth of America.
Turn north for Las Vegas, but east from here the route ploughs ever on, through some of its best preserved sections. With the empty road dead straight for as far as the eye can see, each night the fat sun sets in my rear-view mirror. The days are filled by the enormous blue of the sky above and Route 66 running next to an endless rail track, along which monstrous 2km-long trains haul titanic amounts of cargo.
Williams, Arizona, is the next popular stop, a town so kitschy it’s a wonder they don’t charge an entrance fee. But it’s clean and well cared for, and on summer nights portly cowboys come out onto Main Street for a slapstick shootout. Along the road Goldies Route 66 Diner has a pristine Cadillac out front and deadly milkshakes inside. You don’t leave Williams without smiling.
Its popularity is also boosted by its location – just as Kingman is tethered to Las Vegas, so Williams is linked to the Grand Canyon. Less than an hour away, it takes a pretty hardened soul to resist a visit. Nothing can prepare you for its scale; it is overwhelming in the same way as Iguazu Falls or Petra or Angkor Wat. Imagine an inverted jelly mould for a mountain range and you perhaps have the beginning of an idea about the Grand Canyon.
Yet in geological terms it’s a baby at only 17 million years old. The dinosaurs would have walked around here on flat land, and the whole thing seems rather foetal when compared to the 200 million-year-old fossilised trees in the Petrified Forest National Park, 230km away outside the unlovely town of Holbrook.
Holbrook was one of the main sources of inspiration for Radiator Springs in Cars – among other things, the Cosy Cone Motel was inspired by Holbrook’s Wigwam Motel – but despite the association with the movie, the town has the air of a place defeated by time. I leave after just one night and push on to Albuquerque, New Mexico. It too has had its travails, but recent years have seen it enjoy an unlikely resurgence thanks to AMC’s breath-taking drama Breaking Bad. The show may have been based on the very real problems of drugs and violence in the state’s biggest city, but the story of chemistry teacher Walter White’s descent into a self-made hell proved so popular that fans now travel from around the world to visit its filming locations.
Maps of self-drive tours are readily available from the tourist information office and I use one to visit Twisters (Los Pollos Hermanos on the show), Jessie Pinkman’s house and the Octopus Car Wash, which doubled as the Whites’ A-1 Car Wash. By now, I have taken to casually lying about how I got the Rolls Royce when people ask. In LA I claimed I was in the film business and in Vegas I lied that I’d won it paying poker. Now, when the Octopus staff ask, I say flatly: “Drugs, mostly,” before becoming quickly paranoid that I’ve caused offence. Thankfully they don’t believe me for a second and we quickly move on to talking about what it was like to cameo on the show (amazing) and what the cast are like in real life (lovely). When I leave and they tell me to “Have an A-1 day” I cannot conceal my glee.
Route 66 carries on unchanged by TV shows or much else, passing Tucumcari, before New Mexico becomes Texas. There my first stop is the rejuvenated Midpoint Cafe. This is the half-way point between LA and Chicago and worth visiting thanks to the efforts of the café’s garrulous owners. Since 2012 they have been meticulously restoring their little road-side joint to its 1950s glory, giving the interior the impression of being very old and new at the same time. As with virtually everywhere else in America, their coffee is pitiful, but they at least have the decency to make up for it with some unbelievably good pecan pie.
They advise me against visiting the notorious Big Texan an hour away in Amarillo, claiming it’s too touristy and a poor representation of real Texas. But I can’t help myself – amid stiff competition, there are few tastier or tasteless stops to be made. The fact this gargantuan steakhouse was featured on gluttony extravaganza Man Vs Food tells you a lot you need to know about it. The Big Texan is famous for giving away free 72oz (2.05kg) steaks, so long as you can eat it and an array of sides on stage within an hour. The menu claims they accept “cash, gold, silver bullion and some credit cards” while the wider restaurant features a giant rocking chair, a shooting gallery, animal pelts and “haunted” photographs. When an old-timer in an NRA hat hobbles in I suspect he may be an employee, or possibly the owner.
There’s also a roll of dishonour listing the greedy souls who have successfully taken down the eating challenge (one victorious comment reads “I’m a vegetarian, today was my cheat day”) but no-one, including me, has the sand to attempt it during my stop. Though I’d researched the gory footage of Man vs Food host Adam Richman wolfing it down in just half an hour, the pie from the Midpoint Cafe coupled with my natural cowardice result in me meekly ordering from the main menu. I ask the waitress, Sandy, what the success rate is like. “In the three months I’ve been here, maybe 10 people have done it,” she says, adjusting her regulation Stetson. “The last person was a 105lbs (47.5kg) girl, skinny as a rake. She just picked it up with her hands and went for it.” I do a quick calculation on my napkin – including the sides (a baked potato, a bread roll, a salad and shrimp cocktail) she probably increased her bodyweight by around five per cent in that single sitting.
I didn’t know what to expect of Oklahoma before I got there, and after a few days in the Sooner State, I’m not sure I can make my mind up about it. Despite its ancient, Native name, for Caucasians it’s a young place – Oklahoma City was only founded in 1889, a whole 24 years after Lincoln was assassinated, with a land run on an empty expanse recently cleared of its Indian residents. The state didn’t join the Union until 1907 and the (allegedly haunted) Skrivin Hilton Hotel where I spend the night was built just four years after that.
Pretty, organised, unfortunate Oklahoma – few other American cities this size have to deal with catastrophe so often. Most unforgettable was the horrific 1995 bombing of a federal building which killed 168 people and made headlines around the world. Until 9/11 it was the biggest act of terrorism on American soil and it is commemorated with a moving, measured monument at the bomb site. Unlike New York’s new 9/11 Museum, there is no shop here and no entrance fee, just serenity and sorrow.
The bombing was a one-off, unlike the natural disasters which barrel through with gusto. Mostly they take the form of tornadoes, though some locals claim the number of earthquakes is increasing in conjunction with the state’s booming fracking industry. However, between that gas and the subterranean oceans of oil, Oklahoma dealt with the global financial crisis better than many, never rising or falling quite as dramatically as cities that gambled their future on real estate. Consequently, global corporations come to do business here, while local radio advertises turkey hunting seminars.
Strange place, Oklahoma, where folks are friendly, the food is hearty and the death penalty looms large. Just a few weeks after I visit, the state experiments with a new combination of lethal drugs in a capital case, leaving a man writhing in agony for 45 minutes before he eventually expired through cardiac arrest. I leave the state as though I’ve met the gaze of a beautiful woman for too long – a little in love and a little afraid.
From Oklahoma, Route 66 heads north, through a sliver of Kansas (the modern highway skips it entirely) and then Missouri, which is also prone to extreme weather. In this part of the country in spring, hailstones are measured by comparisons to other spherical objects, ranging from garden pea to golf ball to an apocalyptic-sounding baseball.
The sky is never not menacing. I worry about one of those frozen fast balls smashing into my beautiful car and nervously keep the radio tuned for local weather forecasts. Church signs now seem heavy with foreboding, saying ominous things like: “Whatever is behind you, God is in front of you.”
I’m a wreck when I overnight in Springfield and the next day up to St Louis only offers more of the same. In early afternoon the charcoal sky finally explodes but I am never happier to be on Route 66. To my left, the overcrowded modern interstate grinds to a halt as people panic in the harsh conditions, but just a few hundred metres away Old 66 is virtually deserted. Having been a path through a national museum for so many days, now it’s returned to being a functional highway.
As a result I get to St Louis in good time to check in to the sleek Four Seasons. It’s lovely and all, but I decide to head out to see the city’s beloved Blues play ice hockey rather than hang around. For the NHL, it’s a fairly sedate affair and by far the biggest thrill comes when the crowd receives a blunt government warning on their smart phones: “Tornado warning in this area. Take shelter now.” We are held in our seats, away from the vast windows of the Scottrade Center as a mercifully feeble twister spins past.
The next morning I cross the Mississippi River and into Illinois where the temperature drops by 12C, as though the state line forbids warmer temperatures any further north. I breakfast in the Itty Bitty Cafe, ordering a mound of fried things covered in a creamy pepper sauce they wrongly call gravy. A plump waitress asks if I’m enjoying it. “I am, unlike my arteries,” I say with full cheeks. “Well,” she replies, “the old heart ain’t gonna stop itself now, is it?” Ah Route 66, I miss it before I’ve even finished.
I spend a final night before Chicago in the Vrooman Mansion in Bloomington. Built in 1869, it’s part of an America from a different era, a time of tycoons and fabulous Gatsby-esque wealth. Like so many other periods in US history it burned brightly and briefly and is now remembered in the reservoir of national identity. The Scott-Vrooman dynasty was founded on coal money and the mansion is preserved as it was in its heyday, a mass of wood, family portraits and an eerie automatic piano which plinks and plonks as though being played by a virtuoso ghost.
My final destination is near Grant Park in the heart of Chicago. I drop the car off at the outstanding Langham Hotel and decide to walk the last leg. There’s no mystery about the location of the marker here – a humble sign marks the start of Route 66, which finishes a world away somewhere in LA. I listlessly take a couple of photos, then retreat to the have a look at The Cloud Gate, better known as Chicago’s Bean. A chrome artwork that seems to contain all the mysteries of the universe in its odd reflective surface, it is necessarily polished and perfect at all times of the day. The last time I saw anything so brilliant was three weeks ago when someone smiled at me in LA.
But the intervening 4,000km were distinctly unpolished and imperfect – and I loved them for it. The concrete wigwams in Holbrook and the Devil’s Rope barbed wire museum in McLean; the world’s largest covered wagon and its biggest rocking chair; Devil Dog Road and Crazy Creek; the freaks and the weirdos (so many weirdos) who insisted on talking to me every day; the food that had me drooling even though I could feel killing me with each mouthful…
John Steinbeck memorably referred to Route 66 in The Grapes of Wrath as “the path of a people in flight… the mother road” but in truth these days it is neither – instead it is a river of nostalgia, still flowing thanks to its strange and wonderful tributaries.
A version of this piece was published in Australia’s Sunday Telegraph in November 2014.