If you ever plan to motor west
Just take my way that’s the highway that’s the best
Get your kicks on Route 66
Well it winds from Chicago to LA
More than 2,000 miles all the way
Get your kicks on Route 66
There is nothing quite like a road trip – meandering through a country at ground level, at a leisurely pace, watching local communities going about their daily lives. It is the essence of thoughtful travel.
It is equally true that there is no better country to do it than the U.S.A, the 20th century’s land of the automobile. The thing about an American road trip is that it is rich in modern mythology, so this 2,400-mile legendary road – the “mother road” according to John Steinbeck or simply Main Street USA – winds through towns and cities that are part of folklore we’ve all grown up knowing intimately through words and music. Chicago, St Louis, Oklahoma City, Flagstaff, Amarillo, Los Angeles, all names that are imprinted on our collective cerebellum.
The actual tarmac may not be the same as it was in the 1950s – the roads that made up the original 1920s Route 66 have been detoured, abandoned and upgraded frequently since President Eisenhower introduced the Federal Aid Highway Act in 1956 – but the journey remains an epic engagement with the pulse of this great country.
Start with Chicago, the Windy City, Second City, the city forever associated with Al Capone and the mafia but equally one of the great centres of modern architectural thinking and most decidedly the home of city blues music. The skyscrapers that cluster beside Lake Michigan are as impressive in design as you will see in any modern city – the Willis Tower, formerly the Sears Tower was once the tallest building in the world, the Chicago Board of Trade Building, Mies van der Rohe’s Lake Shore Drive Apartments and the John Hancock Centre are all stunning representatives of American optimism and creativity writ large.
Of course Chicago gave its name to the Chicago School and the Prairie School architectural movements and was where Frank Lloyd Wright practised and left behind several houses, notably the famous Robie House, regarded as one of the most important buildings in American architecture.
And before setting out on the road a night out at one of Chicago’s great blues clubs should set the tone for a serious journey into heartland America. Chicago blues is the hard-driving electric blues style that influenced many of the British pop groups of the 1960s. Before this beat boom, the Chicago clubs were located in the primarily poor black southern suburbs, but with international recognition, so blues clubs began to open up on the more affluent north side. There are now blues clubs everywhere – there’s still a Checkerboard Lounge on the South Side and elsewhere Buddy Guy’s Legends and B.L.U.E.S. are recommended for a memorable night out.
Now, you’re on the road, heading south along Route 66 to Springfield, the capital of Illinois and one of America’s significant political centres. It was here that Abraham Lincoln practiced law and began his political life and it was here that he was buried after he was assassinated in 1865. Almost 150 years later Barack Obama, standing in the grounds of the Old State Capital, announced his presidential candidacy.
More prosaically, but significant to any visitor curious to explore all aspects of American culture, Springfield is where that great gastronomic treat the corn dog (hot dog sausage coated in corn batter) on a stick was invented. Here it’s called a “cozy dog” and is strongly recommended for anyone who finds American junk food irresistible.
As the road leaves Illinois and heads into Missouri and towards Oklahoma you are starting the transition from the Eastern to the Western USA, and St Louis is often called the western-most Eastern city. Confirming this geographic and spiritual crossroads status is the fact that Missouri is also considered to be part of The South as it was, prior to the Civil War, one of the slave states. However, it didn’t secede from the Union and went to war with itself, an internecine conflict that was most vividly and cruelly in the St Louis Massacre.
Today, St Louis is a city that is attractive, small, with population of just over 300,000, and boasting the most stunning botanical gardens. One of the strongest arguments for travelling through America at the end of summer into early autumn is that the foliage is starting to turn and small towns like St Louis are at their prettiest. However, most importantly for travellers along Route 66, this city is situated on the mighty Mississippi, that most iconic of American rivers. Here, a riverboat cruise will give you your first taste of the South as well connect you spiritually to the likes of Twain, Faulkner and Herman Melville, who set some of their most memorable work on the Mississippi.
You’re halfway through your Route 66 road trip by the time you’ve reached Oklahoma City, and the best is still to come. This is another of those American folkloric names that we have imprinted on our memory from film, music and colourful history, both distant and recent. Oklahoma City has been called “the city born in a single day” because in April 1889 some 10,000 settlers took part in a gigantic land grab known as the Land Run that established the city that would eventually become the State capital. Ironically it was on an April day a century later that Oklahoma City made news around the world when Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols blew up the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building and killed 168 people. Today there is a memorial on the site – and since its opening in 2000 more than three million people have visited it.
However, it is Oklahoma City’s Wild West past that makes it such a folkloric brand name and visitors are bound to want to visit the terrific National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, but also to venture downtown to Stockyards City where you can witness a cattle auction, listen to some live country music (if you need reminding of Waylon Jennings’ defiant southern anthem I’m An Okie From Muscogie), buy custom-made cowboy hats and boots, or eat a sirloin steak the size of a Volkswagen.
It was in this part of Oklahoma state that the whole idea of Route 66 was developed in the 1920s, conceived originally to connect rural Oklahoma with Los Angeles and Chicago, pulling together unrelated strands of roadway into a cohesive blacktop to connect the small towns and roadside communities scattered across this vast country. So, today as you motor west of Oklahoma City, as the Oklahoma plains give way to the to the Texas panhandle, Route 66 takes you through the small towns and communities that survive to this day, past old trading posts, filling stations, cheap motels, diners and roadside attractions that haven’t changed a great deal over the past half century or so.
So, from the plains to the north of the Ozark mountains through to the Texas panhandle, to Amarillo in Texas and then on to Albuquerque in New Mexico. This was the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression and the migration westward was described brilliantly and poignantly by John Steinbeck in Grapes of Wrath as the Joad family along with an estimate 200, 000 Dust Bowl farmers “came into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads, 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.”
And just as you are drifting into a reverie about the historical relevance of this great ribbon of asphalt you suddenly find yourself confronted by one of those iconic American statements that defy time and place. Just outside Amarillo, along the road to Albuquerque, is the Cadillac Ranch, a public art installation that is now known throughout the world. To put it bluntly it comprises 10 half-buried, brightly-painted Cadillacs in a row but it is much more than that, representing as it does rather appositely in this case the golden era of the automobile, and is the inspiration for Bruce Springsteen’s eponymous song.
Next stop is Albuquerque and if you ask anyone who has been here before they will tell you that the first thing you notice is the light, and the spectacular sunsets over the Sandia Mountains that form a backdrop to this lovely city. They say the Pueblo Indians who first settled here more than a thousand years ago were drawn by this beautiful light for it promised a better life. They may also have been persuaded by the presence of water in this fertile Rio Grande valley. The Spanish arrived in the early 18th century, and evidence of their presence still stands today in Albuquerque’s oldest building the San Felipe de Neri Church, built in 1793. In fact the city is full of history and evidence of its cultural and artistic roots, particularly the downtown area where the KiMo Theater, built in 1927, is a fabulous celebration of Art Deco-Peublo Revival style of architecture. The KiMo alone makes visiting Albuquerque worthwhile.
Beyond lies the great West, more of New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California vast expanses of countryside with big sky and endless horizons, the likes of which travellers from Europe dream about. Dream no more, for here it is in all its Technicolor glory. No matter how often you see landscapes such as these in photographs and on film, nothing quite compares with being there and a visit to the Grand Canyon, the only major off-piste sidetrip on the Route 66 journey, is one of modern travel’s great experiences. This huge fissure in the Colorado Plateau, 277 miles long, up to 18 miles wide and over a mile deep, is Pueblo Indians regard it as a holy site and I must say that my reaction on visiting the Grand Canyon for the first time was pretty much the same. There are few natural wonders on the planet as magnificent as this.
Back on Route 66, you are now heading through the southern tip of the Mojave Desert and passing through small Wild West towns, settlements, and ghost towns. Williams (population 3,000 at last count) is the southern terminus of the Grand Canyon Railway, Kingman is where Baywatch’s Pamela Anderson was famously arrested by local cops for indecent exposure while she was doing her 1992 Playboy photo shoot, and the Calico Ghost Town, is a silver mining town that thrived in the 1890s and was revived and made over by the owner of the Knot’s Berry Farm theme park. They are all irresistable stops as you drift West through the Mojave Desert towards the San Bernardino Mountains and down into your final destination, Los Angeles.
And, having emerged from the serenity and beauty of the desert it is an appropriate culture shock to be delivered into urban LA by way of the Santa Monica Boulevard. This final strip of asphalt takes you to the Pacific, to Santa Monica itself and if you wish to round off your road trip with a poetic codicil, you’ll wish to end it at neighbouring Venice Beach. Just as Route 66 provided inspiration for generations of America’s writers and poets, not the least Jack Kerouac in On The Road, so Venice and its beach has similarly resonance. In the 1950s and 60s it became a centre for the Beat generation, a gathering place for writers, artists and musicians. Frank T Rios, Thomas Lipton and the Doors’ Jim Morrison lived and wrote here and in the late 1960s it became a centre for the radical Black Panther political activists. Today, Venice Beach is less cerebral but more entertaining with body builders showing off their pecs, panhandlers, skateboarders, and scantily-clad California girls all displaying their Americanness on the shore of the Pacific ocean.
What you realise at the end of this magnificent ride through the heartland of America that even if Route 66 is somewhat mythical now – so many of the stretches you are travelling on today are upgraded and parallel versions of the original highway – it remains the greatest road trip of them all!