The Thrill That Is Route 66 Will Never Die

18 January 2015

Get your kicks on...that’s right.

Route 66 is more than a road, it’s a piece of American folklore. The highway across the heartland sparked a song and inspired a television show where the human stars shared top billing with a 1960s Chevrolet Corvette.

Built in the 1920s, the road that slashes across the middle of America served as a migration route to the West Coast for decades and generations after the great depression of the 1930s. It was the modern equivalent of the wagon trails used by the gold rush prospectors and homesteaders who blazed the path to California.

 

These days, Route 66 has mostly fallen into disrepair, very much like Radiator Springs in the Cars movie.

But that doesn’t stop people from chasing their bucket list dream on a well-worn path that still has plenty of history and homegrown hospitality. Just as Lightning McQueen discovers everything from Main Street to drive-ins during his time off the beaten track, you can repeat the experience in the real world.

And there is something special about spotting your first down-at-heel original 66 sign beside the road.

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A Good Old American Cruiser Will Do The Job

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Pick the right car, take your time, and you can use Route 66 as a kind of time machine. It will drive you back to the days when cars were relatively new, when McDonalds was way in the future, when all-day driving meant a town-to-town adventure and not 12 numbing hours of cruise control on an arrow-straight interstate.

 It all starts right here

You don’t need a muscle car for a Route 66 adventure, any old-school American cruiser will do, and you could even go for a Harley-Davidson if you want a full-immersion trip including sunburn and bug sprays.

I’ve done much of the run in a classic convertible ‘Vette and I know a couple of blokes who lit out from LA recently sharing a pre-loved LAPD cruiser. We both got the same buzz, although I spend more time worrying about the speed limits and the ‘smokies’ who turn small-town city limits into radar-enforced revenue opportunities.

But it’s amazing what an Aussie accent, with a polite ‘gidday mate’ greeting, can achieve with the most hardened Highway Patrolman.

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A Road Paved With History

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Route 66 runs from Chicago to Santa Monica over nearly 4000 kilometres, although most Aussies now run the opposite way after touching down in Los Angeles. It’s not the coast-to-coast mainline that many people expect, as it runs a long way south into Texas for a time and doesn’t make the final 1200-kilometre grind through to New York.

But if – like me – you want to go all the way, Interstates 90 and 76 will carry you from The Windy City on the shores of the Great Lakes through to The Big Apple.

 The road has seen better days

There is plenty of history on and about Route 66, but it’s not until you hit the pavement that you appreciate what it’s all about. That’s when you appreciate the vastness of the USA – which is about the same distance across the middle as the distance between Sydney and Perth – and the varying landscapes.

Santa Monica is white sand and sunshine, there are high desert plains, the wheat belt, giant rivers and clear blue skies.

But the cities are a strange assortment, and you cannot rely on your television movies for a true picture.

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Discover The Real America

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Needles, a tiny hamlet in the far East of California, is fairly faithful to the vision of Snoopy’s brother, Spike, but Albuquerque and Santa Fe are nothing like the wild west towns I remember from the small screen. Even St Louis, which I expect to be pretty special, is just another town once you’re past the Gateway Arch over the Mississippi River.

During my drive, I’m much happier to be discovering small towns and the real America. It’s not about the fast-paced consumerism of LA, or the me-first hustle of NYC, but sitting and talking to people in a diner.

The best thing about Route 66 is you can dip in and opt out. So you can cover ground on the modern interstates, then duck back onto the old road for a bit for a slower drive.

As you cruise through the heartland, you find what you expect. There are old diners, gas stations and motels that have seen better days, and plenty that have not survived, as well as roads that are narrower, bumpier and take far more driving than a modern turnpike.

It has roots in the original work in the 1920s, when it was established in 1926, as well as every decade through to the 1960s. And there is nothing quite like rolling into town with no plans, just a chance to soak up the experience.


Take a tour of the Windy City. A Guided Tour of Chicago

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Progress Left Much Behind

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As a road trip, Route 66 is both wonderful and frustrating. The enjoyment comes in the history and hospitality, the frustration comes when you want to move quickly or you’ve had enough of outdated roads and a lack of modern niceties.

 End of the line

These days, we’re spoiled and that’s also what killed Route 66.

In the early days, surviving the trip from Chicago to Santa Monica was a major achievement. Most people made the giant drive with plenty of spares, lots of stops, and predictable car trouble – flat tyres, overheating, broken suspension and all the rest.

Once cars became reliable, and as American’s modern system of Interstates spread its tentacles during the building boom after World War II, there were quicker and easier ways to drive across country. Not to mention modern aircraft.

You can argue about which came first, good cars or the Interstates, but most people would agree that the combination meant the end for the type of trips that gave birth to Route 66.

Even so, Route 66 will never die. It’s old and run down, but it’s out there. And discovering it can be truly memorable way to live an American dream.

Paul Gover

Paul Gover is Australia’s leading motoring journalist and has been on the car beat for more than 30 years. In that time he’s won at Bathurst, driven thousands of new cars, interviewed Jeremy Clarkson, and travelled to 45 countries. He says he still learns something new every day.