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.
Route 66 riders in Amboy, California.
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.
Much that Route 66 once nurtured has fallen into ruin.
Whatever the motivation, Route 66 is a journey into middle America. After picking our way through Chicago’s suburbs, it offers up Pontiac, which has a worthy display of cars of the same name in its museum, and the historic charm of Springfield, where Abraham Lincoln made his mark on local and state politics before moving to the White House. But the ride really opens up when Route 66 crosses from Illinois into Missouri, where it runs through dense forests, climbing hills and dipping and curling into gullies as the landscape demands.
After two days of clear skies and fine riding, we approach Carthage in heavy rain, but it only seems to deepen the green of the countryside. The road is narrow but in good condition, save for that centre seam. Rural America with its trailer-home parks often appears impoverished, but Garrison Avenue, Carthage, is a boulevard of elaborate period homes. It alone is worth a short detour from Route 66.
The Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico, complete with restored Plymouth.
Gift shop in Oatman, a former mining town situated in the Black Mountains of Mohave Country in Arizona.
Leaving in renewed fine weather the next morning, I glimpse an abandoned car dealership for defunct makes De Soto and Packard. It is a portent of what is to come, since much that Route 66 once nurtured has fallen into ruin.
In the strict sense, Route 66 no longer exists and in a way never did. A section in Missouri was part of Route 66 only from 1926 to 1930; another to Santa Rosa, New Mexico, ceased as part of the official route in 1937. Another disused but still drivable section is a single lane less than three metres wide – the Sidewalk Highway – since that was all the struggling local county could afford. Route 66 was decommissioned as a national highway in 1985 but it persists in the public imagination.
We take in Oklahoma under ideal conditions. Hail storms stay two days behind us. As we ride through northern Texas there are floods in the south. Yet our charmed skies are blue.
Route 66 is mostly empty now save for pilgrims like ourselves and light local traffic. Entire towns grew to service, and to rely on, Route 66. Motels, restaurants and service stations sprang up. Most are abandoned, and many are ruins. Those that remain are echoes of period charm.
Tucumcari, New Mexico, illustrates this contrast. On the north side of that section of Route 66 that forms its Main Street is the distinctive Blue Swallow Motel, still lighting up its 1939 neon sign. Across the street is the derelict Apache Motel.
These towns are again looking to Route 66 tourism for survival. Period gems such as the Blue Swallow, or the equally authentic art deco Boots Motel in Carthage, or the 1946 Munger Moss Motel in Lebanon, Missouri, and service stations such as the Conoco in Shamrock, Texas, are prize assets for their host towns.
Galena, Kansas, is making what it can from its place as an inspiration for the animated Cars films. Winslow, Arizona erected a statue of a man with a guitar after Glenn Frey and Jackson Browne referenced the town in the 1970s Eagles hit Take It Easy. Apart from the hacienda-style La Posada Hotel built in 1930 and now part art gallery, museum and gourmet foodie destination, the statue is the town’s sole attraction, drawing a steady queue of tourists. Since Frey’s death in 2016, flowers and candles have been placed at the statue’s feet, and a guitar pick slipped into its pocket.
Like gift shops, automotive museums abound on Route 66. The best is the unmissable Route 66 Museum in Clinton, Oklahoma, which provides a social history of the road and samplings of folk musicians such as Woody Guthrie who referenced it. It also tells of the formation of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol in 1937 in response to the soaring road toll.
Our luck with the weather runs out after 12 days’ riding. We revel in the stark beauty of Arizona’s Painted Desert and Petrified Forest National Park one day and the next we’re riding through a snowstorm at 2000 metres. Visibility is minimal, ice forms on the visor of my helmet, toes and fingers chill, and for the first time I envy the convoy of New Zealanders who’ve been shadowing us from Chicago in Ford Mustangs. There’s virtually nowhere to pull over and no shelter when there is.
Fine weather returns for what proves to be a spectacular finale, as we sweep across ever-changing desert with red mountains curving at our shoulders like breaking surf. From the deep forest greens of Missouri, to the windswept Texas panhandle that shakes even the big Harley, to the ancient red ranges of Arizona and California, Route 66 still delivers quite a kick.
Straight ahead in Death Valley National Park, California
Get your kicks
There are many websites dedicated to Route 66. Two of the most comprehensive, offering maps and driving directions plus details of historic towns and sites, are: historic66.com and roadtripusa.com/route-66.
MORE An International Driving Permit is strongly recommended if you hire a car in the US, and it also acts as a useful second form of ID. It’s only available from RACV. Go to racv.com.au/travel for details.
Your RACV membership is affiliated with the American Automobile Association (AAA) in the US, so take your member card with you for discounts on accommodation and other benefits.