Following the bereavement of his wife, Chris Handy takes us on a journey along the famous ‘Mother Road’ of America, with advice on how to ride it for yourself…
“Do you know what I’d like to do? I’d like to ride down Route 66”. These were the words my wife, Simone, said to me while we were planning how to use money from an inheritance. “Wow!” I thought, “Now you’re talking!” What red blooded motorcyclist could pass up an opportunity like that? We started planning the adventure, but our plans never came to fruition as, unfortunately, my wife unexpectedly passed away before we could take the trip. Eighteen painful months later my mind returned to the adventure that never was and I decided to make the trip on my own in her memory.
Route 66 is an iconic road, steeped in folklore, myths and mystery. The truth of the matter is that it was the first major highway across America, running approximately 2,500 miles from Chicago to Santa Monica, crossing eight states and three time zones. Its first incarnation was completed in 1927. Since then there have been many revisions to the route, each revision giving rise to a change in a part of the directions, often where a town was bypassed. These ongoing variations are called ‘alignments’. Route 66 was officially decommissioned in 1985 so no longer officially exists. Some parts of the old pavement have been ripped up or covered over by interstate; couple that with the many alignments that exist in some sections of the route and it becomes a challenge to follow!
It is worth persevering and following this old route though. No matter what your interests are you’ll find many things to enjoy along the ‘mother road’. Most Route 66 enthusiasts seem to focus on kitsch ‘attractions’ such as the ‘Blue Whale’, a giant concrete whale built on the side of a lake in Catoosa Oklahoma, or the forty-two foot high ‘Worlds Largest Rocking Chair’ in Fanning Missouri. Whilst I did stop and look at these ‘attractions’ they don’t really excite me. I’m much more into countryside, natural scenery and the people.
I was delighted by the scope and variety of the countryside along the way. Illinois and Missouri are quite green and pleasant in an English sort of way. Texas is flat cattle rearing country with big skies. The scenery becomes much more desert like in New Mexico and Arizona, before crossing a ‘real’ desert, the Mojave desert in California. Finally there’s the Pacific Ocean waiting at the end of the road. Once I’d completed Route 66 I headed north on Highway 1, the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), to San Francisco and saw the stunning coastline and sea views of Big Sur before entering the city of San Francisco.
If the natural scenery was great, the people I met were even better. An English accent in America is an open invitation for the locals to strike up a conversation and every time I stopped someone would come up and chat. The enthusiasm that many of the local people have for Route 66 is unbounded and infectious. Just outside Miami in Oklahoma I was taking pictures of some of the original single track concrete road and Charlie stopped for a chat. He lived just up the road on Route 66 and was on his way to work. We talked about the history of the road and the people who now ran businesses along it. He was just so keen to share his enthusiasm. Gary, at the ‘Gay Parita’ restored Sinclair Gas Station just outside Springfield Illinois, drew me a map on a bit of paper to help me round some road works. The guy at the Afton Station gave me a free drink, as did a guy in a pick-up truck at a petrol station in California, just because he thought I looked thirsty. Then there were the four Norwegian rock stars I met at a bar just outside Winslow Arizona (remember the line from the Eagles song ‘Take it Easy’: “Standing on the corner in Winslow Arizona”?) who had shipped their choppers from Norway and were on a trip around America.
Matt and Mark, two American bikers riding up the PCH to avoid the heat further inland told me about the elephant seals on Piedras Blancas beach. I can’t forget to mention Angel Delgadillo, a barber from Seligman in Arizona, founder of the Historic Route 66 Association of Arizona, and largely responsible for the Route 66 revival. He is just so enthusiastic, friendly and approachable. Lastly I should mention Jules from Flagstaff Arizona and Christie from Half Moon Bay in California and thank them for their wonderful company. These are just some of the people that made my trip so rewarding.
My typical day started early, normally around 7am for breakfast, either a continental breakfast in the hotel or a more substantial breakfast in a nearby café. In New Mexico I developed a liking for breakfast burritos; these are burritos containing bacon, sausage, scrambled egg, hash browns and chilli sauce. A perfect way to start the day in my opinion! After breakfast I’d hit the road, stopping frequently to take pictures and visit roadside attractions. Petrol stops offered the opportunity for a quick snack and drink. As it was so hot I was freezing bottles of water overnight so I had cold water throughout the day as the bottle contents slowly melted. Petrol prices varied by state and how remote the station was. It was always much cheaper than in the UK though. You have to pre-pay and they’ll refund what doesn’t go in your tank. Current prices along Route 66 are around $3-$4 (£1.90-£2.50) per US gallon. That equates to about 0.50p–0.65p per litre!
I generally stopped for lunch around 12.30–1.00 pm at a roadside café, of which there are plenty, many of which have become Route 66 attractions. Cafés such as Joe and Aggies, Lucilles, Bagdad Café, Ariston Café, Midpoint Café and Roys Diner have become Route 66 ‘institutions’. The food on offer is typical American fare; burgers, tacos, steaks etc. All good value when compared to UK prices. After lunch it was back on the road until I started to look for a bed for the night around 4pm-5pm. Once settled into the hotel I’d find a local restaurant for dinner and then maybe explore the local area or have a drink in a bar before bedding down for the night.
Everyone asks, “What’s best bike to do the trip on?” I rented a Harley Electra Glide with 16,000 miles on the clock from Eagle Rider in Chicago. Other options are to hire a Japanese or European bike (eg. FJR1300, GS1200) or to ship your own bike (see following feature). There are alignments of the old road that have now become ‘off road’, but they are few and far between and it’s not necessary to ride them to complete the route, so there’s no need for a bike with off road capabilities unless you want to go looking for off road options.
It’s far easier, and cheaper, to hire a Harley than any other kind of bike in America. There is an Eagle Rider BMW in Chicago, but for a Japanese bike you’d have to travel a bit further. My calculations showed that shipping and rental costs broke even at around a three week trip (the exact duration of my trip), but you also have to factor in losing your bike for a week or so either side of the trip whilst it is shipped. On the plus side there is no need for a carnet when bringing a bike into America, which does make like easy.
I chose an Electra Glide because it came with luggage and, well, it’s America, so why not do the trip on an iconic American motorcycle? The twenty days I had it cost me around £3,600, which included a one way surcharge, Collision Damage Waiver and a sat-nav, which was a total waste of time and money; it even fell off the bike at 80mph on an interstate. Surprisingly it survived!
Renting couldn’t be easier. You can reserve online and all that’s needed on collection is a driving licence (both parts if it’s a UK licence) and a credit card. Although definitely not a Harley fan I was pleased with my bike choice. Most of the roads are straight so cornering ability isn’t high on the list of priorities, and since I wanted to see the country I was riding through, performance wasn’t crucial either. Whilst lacking in power, brakes and ground clearance the bike was supremely comfortable, a big plus on this trip! Any big tourer would have been fine but the comfort of the Harley, the voluminous luggage capacity and the instant acceptance by other riders would make me choose one again next time.
WHEN TO GO
Because of the length of the road, and the changes in elevation, it’s wise to think about what time of year to make the trip. Too early or late and Chicago will be snow bound. In the height of summer the Mojave desert will be far too hot for comfort. Therefore the best times are likely to be around April/May or September/October. I made my trip in August and was too hot all of the time (122F/50C at the hottest!). So much so that in Missouri I stopped and bought a mesh jacket and posted my ventilated leather jacket back home. Apart from that I wore boots and kevlar reinforced jeans. I always rode with summer gloves, but gave up wearing my full face helmet in states where I didn’t need to after I got so hot wearing it I started to feel faint and dizzy (careful this doesn’t void your travel insurance). I didn’t really experience any rain, but it can, and does, rain there, so take waterproofs!
My approach to trips is to research my destination so I know what to look out for when I’m there, but not to ‘over plan’ the trip. I calculate the duration by estimating how many miles I can cover in a day divided into the expected total distance. I don’t make firm plans about where to stop and, with a few exceptions, don’t book accommodation in advance. Accommodation in America is abundant and relatively cheap, and this holds true for the Mother Road. I stayed in motels with a few hotels thrown in where necessary. When I’d had enough of riding for the day I just kept my eyes open for a likely looking resting place and, if the price was right, checked in. I only had problems finding a room in one place: Pismo Beach California, and that was because the town was hosting its annual festival.
I soon found a room at Avila Beach ten miles up the road though. I did book hotels for the first couple of nights in Chicago, the last couple of nights in San Francisco and for the night I spent in the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, which is one of the Route’s iconic motels. If you want to stay in any of the famous Route 66 motels, such as the Wigwam, Blue Swallow, Wagon Wheel, or Munger Moss it’s worth booking a day or so in advance. Rates vary and I paid between $30 (£18) per night to $200 (£125) per night, but they average out at around $60 (£36) per night. It’s worth remembering that most American motels and hotels don’t have restaurants, so you’ll need to find a restaurant for your evening meal. Bear this in mind when choosing your motel or hotel.
I made my 3,362 mile trip in eighteen days. I rode every day apart from one day’s rest at Avila Beach on the PCH. This gave me an average daily mileage of 188 miles for the seventeen days I was riding. The 2,451 miles of Route 66 took me fourteen days riding every day, though I actually covered a few more miles (2,880) as I made a side trip to the Grand Canyon and multiple navigational errors! Given the choice I’d have taken longer and ridden fewer miles each day to allow more time for stops and sightseeing.
A month would be ideal for this trip, but there’s enough to see and do to fill an even longer trip if you have the time. If I repeated the trip I’d take more time in Illinois and Missouri. These are the first states that the route passes through and towns and ‘attractions’ are far closer together and more frequent than further west in Arizona and California, so more stopping time is needed in these early states.
Finding Route 66 can be difficult as it is no longer an official road. In some states the route is well signposted, but not so well in others, so a guide book is a good idea. The best is by Jerry McClanahan and is called Route 66: EZ Guide For Travellers. It’s spiral bound with directions and sightseeing information on each page and it fits well into the map pocket of a tank bag. The instructions on the top of the page are for west bound travellers and the instructions on the bottom of the page are for eastbound travellers. Jerry also has a website that he keeps up to date with changes along the route. The guide is not available from Amazon UK, but can be ordered from the US Amazon website.
The paperwork involved in entering many countries can be a real pain, fortunately American formalities are relatively simple for travellers from the UK (and 36 other countries) who have machine readable passports. For stays of less than 90 days eligible applicants can go to the US Visa Waiver Program Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) website, answer a few questions and pay the fee. One of the questions asks where the applicant will stay in the US, so it’s worth pre-booking a hotel for the first night and then using the address of that hotel. After a few days a quick check back on the website shows whether the application was successful. If so, that’s it, no further paperwork is necessary as the information is recorded on a computer which is accessed by the US Immigration people on arrival. Other than ESTA approval all that is needed is a valid passport.
I started the trip with some fear and trepidation because of the emotional circumstances surrounding it. I shouldn’t have worried because I had an absolute blast and loved every minute of it. Several times I did find it emotional, especially the night I sat in my hotel room overlooking the beach in Ventura California on the day I completed the route thinking about Simone and crying like a baby because she was only with me in spirit, but apart from that it was fantastic. I had considered making the trip as part of an organised tour group, but am so glad I did it on my own. Not only did it make it more personal to me and to the memory of Simone, but I found that people were more ready to talk to a lone biker, so it was easier to get to know ‘the locals’ and I could travel at my own pace.
I met some great people, not ‘great’ in the sense of ‘save the world’, but great in the sense of being gratifyingly human, people prepared to befriend, and help, a fellow human being. People interested, and intrigued enough with my accent to take the time, and trouble, to ask about, and engage with, my story. People of dignity, happy to share their lives with a person from another culture. Lastly the people enthused enough, and motivated enough, to promote, maintain and support ‘The Mother Road’.
I’m so glad I went. I’m sure you will be too!
Space prevents me from listing all places to stop off on the route and I couldn’t anyway as I bypassed some of the major towns on the route because I just couldn’t face sitting stationary in the traffic jams. Filtering, or ‘lane splitting’ as the American’s call it, is illegal in all states of America, except California, so bikers end up sitting, and sweating, in traffic with all the other vehicles. I totally bypassed Oklahoma City and Saint Louis. For me the ‘highlights’ of my trip were:
Blue Chicago on Clark, Chicago Illinois: A blues club with some great vibes. I thought I knew about modern blues until I visited Blue Chicago. I liked it so much I visited twice.
Abraham Lincoln’s tomb, Springfield Illinois: Appropriately sombre and impressive. As with other American national historic sites it is well maintained and guides are well informed.
The original nine-foot concrete roadbed, Miami Oklahoma: When the original Route 66 was built cash was short, so to save costs some of it was built with a nine foot concrete road in the centre with gravel strips on either side. If there was no oncoming traffic, cars could travel entirely on the concrete. If they met a car coming the other way each car had to put two wheels on the gravel. It was great to see the original roadbed!
Cadillac Ranch, Amarillo, Texas: Ten Cadillacs buried nose down in a field at the same angle as the sides of the Great Pyramid of Giza. People are encouraged to spray them with graffiti. Weird! Santo Domingo Pueblo, Santa Fe, New Mexico: The reserve of the Santa Domingo tribe of native Americans. I received a very warm welcome and bought some hand made jewellery direct from Lester Abeyta, the jewellery maker, in his home. Highly recommended.
Painted Desert and Petrified Forest, Holbrook, Arizona: Two adjacent National Parks. The Painted Desert is a sandy desert where there are different strata of pastel coloured sand that make it resemble an artist’s palette. The Petrified Forest contains thousands of pieces of petrified wood (kind of like fossilised wood). Sizes range from thumb sized to whole tree trunks.
Grand Canyon, Arizona: A must see! Even though it’s not directly on Route 66 it’s well worth the 140 mile detour. Sitgreaves Pass, Arizona: If anyone tells you that American roads are straight, refer them to these ten or so miles. Hairpins, curves, sheer drops and brilliant views abound.
Oatman, Arizona: A bit touristy, but fun. A preserved ‘wild west’ town complete with wild burros roaming the streets. Neptune’s Net, Malibu, California: A seafood restaurant set on Highway 1 opposite the Pacific Ocean. Good food, fine views and popular with bikers.
Hearst Castle, San Simeon, California: The opulent house of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. See how the ‘filthy rich’ lived in times gone by!
Elephant seals, Piedras Blancas Beach, San Simeon, California: Home to hundreds of elephant seals. They’ll melt your heart. Big Sur, California: The coastal region where the Santa Lucia Mountains rise from the Pacific Ocean. The road follows the coast, is full of twisties, and is a delight to ride on a bike. Stunning coastal views.