Route 66. The mere mention of America’s Mother Road conjures up images of open-topped motoring in a Mustang convertible, with the sound of “Get your kicks, on Route 66” blaring out of the stereo.
But what’s it like to drive, and is it really all it’s hyped up to be?
For as long as I can remember I’ve had it on my bucket list to drive the full 2448 miles of Route 66 from Chicago, Illinois, across the middle of the USA to the end of the road at Santa Monica Beach in Los Angeles, California. But it’s a journey that requires several weeks to do properly, and a big budget to boot.
So when we visited the USA late last year, part of the plan was to drive as much of Route 66 as we could in the time we had, which, after visits to New York and Washington DC, only amounted to four or five days. Nevertheless, it gave us a good indication of what all the fuss is about.
These days, you can’t drive from Chicago to LA on Route 66. Too much of the original road has been bypassed for you to drive the full length, but depending on what parts of the country you are in, you can certainly get a feel for the long strip of tarmac that linked the east and west coasts, and in the 1930s saw thousands of Americans heading west for jobs, warmer weather and the promise of a better life.
Part of our west coast USA trip included stays in Las Vegas, Flagstaff and at the Grand Canyon, so over a few days we drove bits and pieces of the road, and got a fair indication of what it was like, and how it must have felt for the pioneers back in the 1930s.
Arizona and Nevada are vast, barren states and much of the countryside is desert-like, void of vegetation and inhabitants – a bit like much of our own Nullabor Plain. Because of this, there are large stretches of Route 66 that are long, flat, straight and, yes, boring to drive.
Then there are the really exciting bits where the road twists and turns, and passes through towns with famous names such as Williams, Seligman, Kingman, Oatman, Flagstaff and Winslow. While the larger of these towns, like Flagstaff and Winslow, have long moved on from the mystique of being a part of Route 66 and are thriving cities in their own right, there are some that retain the magic.
Peach Springs and Seligman, for example, are literally dots on the map on sections of Route 66 that have long been bypassed by Interstate 40, but retain much of the structure of the ‘good ole days’ with period roadhouses, diners and souvenir shops that have been a part of dozens of American-made movies and TV shows.
It’s probably fair to say that most of the original shops and buildings along stretches of Route 66 have been kept ‘as is’ simply to try and attract the passing tourist dollar – the Americans and (perhaps mostly) international visitors who have come to see what all the fuss is about.
We made a point of driving an hour from our base in Flagstaff, just so that we could be “Standing on the corner, in Winslow, Arizona”, just like the Eagles did in their iconic song “Take It Easy”. There was even a “flat bed Ford” parked on the corner, simply for photographic purposes.
Okay, so if you’re not an Eagles fan, it’s probably a corny tourist attraction, and with a souvenir shop over the road selling all types of memorabilia, you’re probably right. But for us, it was a real ‘tick it off the bucket list’ moment, and being there while all the Eagles were still alive was a great thrill. (Glenn Frey was to die two months later.)
Interestingly, the owner of the souvenir shop told me that while Jackson Browne (the co-writer of ‘Take It Easy’) has visited the corner, to his knowledge the Eagles never have.
But if you are looking for the iconic Route 66 town, then you can’t go past Williams, a town of 3000 people about an hour south of the incredible Grand Canyon.
As the last town on Route 66 to be bypassed by Interstate 40 (on October 13, 1984), Williams is a real ‘step back in time’ place that really looks like it hasn’t changed since the 1960s. There are gift shops and diners where everything seems to have been kept in the condition that they were in in days gone by, and with Christmas looming when we visited, the decorations made it look even more beautiful.
We were also hoping to visit Oatman, a town of just 128 people that has undergone a rebirth in recent years thanks to worldwide interest in Route 66. Wild burros (which look like donkeys) roam the town and can be hand-fed from hay in the main street, but unfortunately we ran out of time and had to scratch it from our itinerary.
Heading from Las Vegas to LA, we visited Peggy Sue’s 50s Diner. Walking into the diner you would swear you had just walked onto the set of Happy Days, and the traditional US diner food only added to the authenticity.
Our final stop on Route 66 was at the end of America’s Main Street – Santa Monica Beach. As you’d expect in a mega-city such as Los Angeles, it’s nothing like the rest of the road, but standing there under the Route 66 sign for the obligatory photograph was a nice experience.
Looking back, it was an exciting part of our trip that I would recommend as a ‘must do’ addition to your US holiday, however, I’m not sure that I still have the urge to drive the 2448 miles from start to finish.
If the route through Arizona and Nevada is anything to go by (and it may not be), the exciting bits are interspersed with very long stretches of road that aren’t all that interesting, but I guess that can be said for many of the world’s great drives.
Given four weeks to spend in the USA and a free reign on what to do and where to go, I may now choose other locations to visit, but other stretches of Route 66 may also continue to be an itch that needs to be scratched.
Either way, I’ve now driven the Mother Road, and can report that I definitely did “Get my kicks, on Route 66”.