Route 66: Feel the road
Nostalgia nourishes the pilgrims who still seek their kicks on Route 66, bump by bump all the way from Chicago to LA.
A narrow band of concrete crosses Oklahoma, rising and falling with the land. It is a highway, but an antiquated one. The plain is a vast flatness in every direction. If the road rises slightly, it is only to offer a slightly better vantage of the great emptiness.
It was assembled, rather than paved, laid down in slabs about 15 metres long by three metres wide, creating a seam down the centre of the road where grass has taken root. More seams run across each of the two lanes where the slabs butt against each other, resulting in a rhythmic thumping at any speed.
The jolting is worse where the road has been roughly patched. Our Harley-Davidson Road Glide is untroubled by the irregularities, less so the rider and pillion passenger, who receive every jolt via the suspension.
Route 66 can be felt as well as seen. There is no shoulder to the road. Grass sprouts hard against its edge. This is Route 66 as thousands of desperately poor families who fled to California from the Oklahoma dust bowl in the 1930s would have experienced it. They were the catalyst for John Steinbeck’s great novel The Grapes of Wrath, and it was he who christened Route 66 “the mother road, the road of flight”.
The only difference today is where once the land was bare and the topsoil swept away, now it’s a carpet of fresh young wheat, bright green after rain. The dust bowl is all but forgotten. Riding the length of Route 66 – as the song says, it’s “from Chicago to LA, more than 2000 miles all the way” – has become a rite of passage. Americans take the old road, rather than the interstate freeways, as an exercise in nostalgia for past family holidays. For some it’s a path of cultural discovery lit by a reading of Steinbeck or by numerous versions of the song recorded by people as varied as Bing Crosby and Buckwheat Zydeco.