Get a taste of real America on Route 66

Image of Lexus on Route 66
Our man in America hits the road
"Abandoned ghost towns littered the crumbling Route 66, a reminder that the interstates gave so much to the country but, at the same time, took so much away"
  • | by Phil Huff

Route 66 is one of the most famous stretches of highway in the world – all 2,451 miles of it.

America’s mother road, running from Chicago to Los Angeles through Illinois, Missouri, Oaklahoma, Kansas, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California has seen millions of people follow the route seeking fortune, adventure or escape. Now it was my turn.

Originally built in the 1920s, it was finally replaced with the soulless Interstate in 1985. Stay off the I-40 and most of the old Route 66 still exists, from the sweeping curves of Missouri to the first ever freeway in Los Angeles. But there are still surprises for the unprepared.

Few realise that many miles were (and still are) nothing more than dirt roads, while the infamous Jericho Gap is just a mud pit in an otherwise dry and barren desert. I should probably have skipped that bit.

Once the route was sorted, I needed a car. You might think an old Mustang would be good, or perhaps a Harley Davidson. You might even look at a new Camaro. Whatever it was to be, it needed a big engine.

And so I ended up with a 4.6-litre V8 engined... Lexus. Ok, so it’s not the most iconic car you’ll ever drive across America in, but it’s supremely comfortable, surprisingly quick and comes with an excellent air conditioning system, as well as ventilated seats.

They would come in useful when I hit New Mexico...

Journey’s start

Image of Lexus in Chicago

Rolling through Chicago, the luxurious limo-like saloon just felt right for the country’s third-biggest city, the streets surrounded by towering steel and glass skyscrapers mirroring the car's lines.

The slightly anonymous and bleak nature of many US cities hides a friendliness that surprises. At Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket, in business on the outskirts since the 1920s, owner Patrick opened his restaurant just for me, firing up the kitchens to serve me some incredible fried chicken. For breakfast. Welcome to America.

Image of route 66 drink

Passing through the plains of Illinois, I stopped off at places as diverse as Bloomington-Normal, Abraham Lincoln’s tomb, the Beer Nuts factory (there’s no beer in them) and the oldest maple syrup producer in the country. The attractions were needed as, frankly, the roads weren’t great, while the towns felt a little sketchy.

Image of green highway

Crossing the Mississippi into St Louis, Route 66 mostly disappears, as does any sense of safety. Tired and run down, St Louis is a shadow of its former self, with crime rates through the roof.

The Missouri interstates overlay the old road, so it was time to stretch the V8 under the hood of the Lexus and make my way out of St Louis and towards the increasingly green and lush countryside.

Heavy weather

Image of house damaged by tornado

Unfortunately the weather had closed in by the time I reached Joplin, with tornadoes forecast. So, I retreated to the safety of my hotel room.

The next morning it was off to Kansas. Just 16 miles from my overnight stop lies Baxter Springs and it didn’t fare so well in the weather, taking a direct tornado hit that destroyed around a quarter of the small town.

Image of ruined house damaged by tornado in Kansas

I stopped to help as much as I could, feeling powerless while trying to assist people picking up what few belongings they had left out of the rubble of what was once their homes.

Route 66 might be an incredible experience, but the futility of driving it simply for fun when others were fighting for their lives struck home hard.

Heading west

Image of large statue of miner

Happier thoughts took over as I ventured out of Kansas towards Tulsa. Standing proud there is the Golden Driller, a 76-foot tall statue of a man celebrating the oil industry of the region. As you do.

The vast plains of Oklahoma gave way to the sandy desert landscape of Texas, but there was plenty to see, including McLean’s barbed wire museum. Set up by barbed wire enthusiasts (who actually exist, seemingly), the surprisingly large building plays host to just a handful of visitors a day.

Image of Barbed Wire museum

Fifty miles west of Amarillo, I reached the unremarkable ‘city’ of Adrian with its population of just 149. At one end is a busy cafe, with bikers, trucks and cars parked outside. Operating continuously since 1928, the cafe sits astride a line that marks the precise halfway point of Route 66, or so they claim.

Image of Lexus in country

There is no longer a single Route 66, the highway being realigned every decade or so until it resembles a map of the Great Wall of China. Still, Adrian seems as good a place as any other in the desert to declare the halfway point. So, 1,139 miles down, 1,139 miles to go.

Ghost town

Image of ggost town post boxes

Abandoned ghost towns littered the crumbling Route 66 as it climbed 7,700 feet up towards Santa Fe, a reminder that the interstates gave so much to the country but, at the same time, took so much away. The country’s oldest state capital only briefly appeared on the original Route 66, with those in charge deciding that it was just too remote to bother with and swiftly bypassing it.

Image of challenging terrain

That was probably due to La Bajada Hill, a steep drop you encounter when leaving the area. I headed to the bottom of the hill to see what the fuss was about, and found a rocky off-road route that would thoroughly test a Hilux, let alone the cruiser I was in.

Image of desert in USA

Then the desert really takes over, with nothing for miles. The sheer scale of the west is almost overwhelming. Travel 300 miles here and nothing changes; you’re still surrounded by sand, baking in the sun and barely seeing another car on the road. Drive 300 miles from Covered HQ and you’ll arrive in Glasgow or Paris, cities as diverse as it’s possible to get.

Just deserts

Image of new car next to old car

Through the remainder of New Mexico, nothing happened. Nothing at all. Into state seven, Arizona, a quick detour through the breathtakingly beautiful Painted Desert put me in Holbrook for the night, at one of two remaining wigwam motels on the route. Iconic in its own way, but not a patch on a Holiday Inn.

Perhaps I was becoming cynical at the endless ‘oldest whatever on the 66’ and manufactured history, or perhaps it was just the unrelenting desert. There’s no doubt Route 66 is going through a revival - partially perhaps because of  Pixar’s Cars film - but it's leading to a rush to capitalise on it, at the risk of losing the real history that’s there.

Ain't life grand?

Image of the Grand Canyon

To break the monotony of the desert I took a detour to a big hole in the ground.

The Grand Canyon looked so magnificent that I bought a tent just so I could camp at the edge.

Image of car driving

After a sleepless night thanks to making the ridiculous decision to camp, it was then onto the twisty roads that weave their way through the Black Mountains, with the tarmac rivalling some of the best offerings from Switzerland. Finally, I was getting my driving kicks, but all too soon I was back in the endless wilderness once again.

That meant spending the next 120 miles in the middle of the Mojave Desert, with no petrol stations, no cafes and no water stops. Just the Lexus and me, passing through an area that once went without rain for 767 days.

The City of Angels

Image of Route 66 end of trail

From there to Los Angeles, there’s little to see or do until you face the long slog through the megalopolis. If the scale of the desert was tough to grasp, nothing prepared me for just how big the urban sprawl of LA is.

I’d hit the city, but checked the sat-nav and saw there was still 70 miles to cover. I was nearer Palm Springs than Santa Monica.

Image of Lexus at night

Three hours later, I rolled the Lexus down onto Santa Monica Pier. Shutting the engine off, I sat for a few minutes and realised just how far we’d come together.

Route 66 was something special for the US. The newer interstates are undoubtedly safer, more efficient and considerably quicker. But, on this occasion, that doesn’t make them better.

By improving what was there, America has taken away some of the magic. The interstates are simply for transporting people from one place to another, while Route 66 is a journey to experience… and one to savour.