The ultimate US road trip

It was really Route 66 that made the American road trip possible. This is the route that gave life to the West by opening it up to the automobile and the truck - hence it is often known as 'The Mother Road'. As one who enjoys road trips in the United States, this was the ultimate - the road trip we really had to do.

Established in 1928, Historic Route 66 was 2,448 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles. Although it originally terminated in downtown LA, this was later changed to Santa Monica Pier.

The normal way to do Route 66 is starting in Chicago and heading West to Santa Monica. However, there were three good reasons why we decided to be unconventional and do it west to east:
• Cost - it is cheaper to hire a car to go west to east!
• Once in Chicago there's less of a journey back home.
• We had relatives in Chicago where we planned to stay a few days to relax after the trip.

We decided to do the trip in style, so we hired a Ford Mustang convertible through Hertz for collection at Los Angeles Airport. There was some muttering among the ranks when we found that our car was Illinois registered so we were, in effect, doing Hertz a favour by driving the car home but paying for the privilege!

Santa Monica
Ready to hit the road, with Santa Monica Pier in the background.

We duly drove to Santa Monica pier to start our journey on the edge of the Pacific. Soon we were rudely reminded of the realities of Los Angeles as we sat in five lanes of slow moving traffic inching through the Friday traffic in Los Angeles. Our saviour was the car pool lanes which allowed us to whisk past the slower traffic. What an incentive to find a buddy for your trips around the city! The car pool lane was bowling along at 70 mph while the other four lanes had bunching traffic and were travelling a good 20 mph slower.

Route 66 heads out through Hollywood which, interestingly, provides another link between the cities at both ends of Route 66. Film maker Francis Boggs moved his entire film making operation from Chicago to Los Angeles to benefit from better film-making weather and light during the Californian winter. With him, he took the Chicago name Hollywood.

The route to our first night's stop in Barstow should have been relatively easy but we encountered road works. Someone had decided to close off two of three lanes on a Friday night when it seems that half of Los Angeles heads out on the Freeway for a weekend of fun on the slots and tables of the casinos in Las Vegas. Our progress slowed from miles per hour to, quite literally, hours per mile and it was 2 am before we reached our hotel in the Mojave Desert town of Barstow - courtesy of some cunning map reading and a short detour.

The old Route 66 runs along the route of interstate 40 came the most amazing road sign. It flashed by announcing that the other end of the I40 was Wilmington and it was something like 2,400 miles away. For someone from Britain, seeing a road sign that has a distance in more than three figures is quite amazing!

These days the function of the old Route 66 as the main traffic artery to the west has been overtaken by various freeways. Only relatively recent have the US authorities realised the heritage and tourism value of re-establishing the old Route 66. New signposts and road markings proclaim Historic Route 66 and there are a number of museums and attractions growing up along a route where the signs of businesses having closed down some decades earlier are all too clear.

Route 66
Signposts and road markings are being introduced to direct tourists to the historic route.

Having said there are signs and road markings, if you plan to do Route 66 make sure you have done some planning beforehand, because, in some places, the route is not easy to find. We got slightly lost on a few occasions and completely lost the road near St Louis, ending up just driving across country to rejoin the route further on.

One of the first places we saw this new signposting was on a loop in is was in Arizona where we left the freeway behind and headed out round a long loop of crazed tarmac. We drove past townships, diners and filing stations that had closed when the traffic diverted away from their doorsteps. On this loop were towns with the name Essex and Cadiz. More unusually there was Bagdad, which now seems to be a cafe, plus a very small number of scattered houses and a few trailers.

These townships, now by-passed by the I40, are a sad reminder of what happens to communities when a new road passes them by. Boarded up filling stations and restaurants sported fading signs that had encouraged passers-by to visit. Weeds took the place of petrol pumps.

Just after the Arizona Border we took our first intentional detour to visit Lake Havasu City, 19 miles south of the I40. I had visited here 11 years ago and was amazed by the incongruity of London Bridge, with its granite sparkling in the hot American desert sun.

Lake Havasu London Bridge
London Bridge, Lake Havasu City, Arizona

The city's founder Robert McCulloch realised the bridge would provide a focal point for his new city in the desert and purchased it for £1 million. Transporting it to its new home cost a further £2 million. In the 11 years since my last visit McCulloch's dream had come true and the city - which then had been a few houses and touristy attractions at the bridge, sprawled out towards the far hills.

That's the kind of vision and opportunity that comes from a land that has space to allow one man and his planner to develop a city and design it so as to attract a whole population to live in a place where only a few trailer homes existed before.

It's this availability of big open spaces that is so amazing in the central plains of the United States. You crest a rise and see the road stretch out straight to the next horizon ten or 15 miles away.

After and overnight stop in Kingman Arizona we headed on to Gallup, stopping at Meteor City (who stole the city - it's just a filling station and a few buildings) with its huge meteor crater - the most recent and best preserved meteor strike. The estimate is that the meteor was about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. Before Kingman is the Petrified forest where perfectly formed trunks of trees (dating from when this part of America was in the tropics) litter the landscape.

Meteor Crater
Meteor Crater - a helluva big hole!

Heading into Albuquerque we could see the night sky ahead was lit up with violent thunderstorms. We were later to thank our lucky stars that we were not in the thick of the storm as the hail stones were the size of baseballs, smashing roofs and windows and covering cars with large dents. We also missed the flash floods and the tornado warning for just 25 miles away.

Petrified Forest
The shattered trunk of a tree turned to stone at the Petrified Forest

The next day dawned sunny yet again, allowing us to enjoy a rain free drive east into Texas and a new timezone. Nearing Amarillo we passed through Adrian which boasts the Midpoint Cafe (only open until 4pm, we found out) which is precisely 1139 miles from each end of Route 66.

Adrian Midway
The sign at Adrian marking mid point on Route 66.

You can guess what tune we had on the iPod as we drove into Amarillo! What a disappointment. The City's business loop is desperately in need of refurbishment. Run down and derelict it is hardly an advertisement for the city.

What Route 66 gives you is an insight into the past hundred years of the most powerful nation in the world. You see the road that took countless families to a new life in the west. These included those who decided to seek a new life in the west and those who had little choice. Like the farmers caught in the dustbowl era in the mid West when their lives were ruined along with their crops.

Setting out on Route 66 then was a hazardous adventure. When it was nothing more than a cart track.

Then came the era when every township on the way competed to provide more and more attractions for passing road users. The era of filling stations, motels and roadside restaurants.

Route 66 Museum

One of a number of Route 66 museums along the route, recalling the heydays of Route 66.

The turning point for Route 66 dates from the return of the American military after the war. The US administration admired one thing about Germany - the autobahns.

So began the freeway building. These days I40 and I44 have bypassed good old Route 66 and for its entire 2,278 miles you keep seeing towns that have seen better days, abandoned filling stations, restaurants and motels. Yet another nail has been driven into family businesses as "mom and pop" restaurants have given way to a clutch of the usual franchised operations at Freeway exits.

Starting out in summer sunshine in California and Arizona, we now moved into Autumnal weather as we took in a small corner of Kansas and on through St Louis and into Illinois.

Journey's end is in downtown Chicago.

Chicago Morning Cloud
Journey's end. The Bean (officially 'Morning Cloud) in Millennium Park, Chicago

Route 66 is an adventure for anyone who enjoys road trips. We didn't want to feel rushed and allowed eight days for the journey, stopping where and when we wanted to. Rather than booking ahead, we would decide each night where to stop and look for the best deals using a combination of checking the internet the night before, reading the AAA Handbook and simply looking at the roadside advertising hoardings.

There may not be a huge amount of tourist attractions by the roadside, but doing Route 66 gives you a better understanding of the recent history of the United States.
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