Author: Chris Bell

Fulfilling a dream: Riding a motorcycle on Route 66

It may be a little clichéd, but I’ve always fancied riding a Route 66 on a Harley-Davidson. However, along came the wife and kids, which led to holidays together in a car, and no chance of me hitting the open road on two wheels.

Would this be the end of my dream? No way!

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Realising a dream

To celebrate my 50th birthday, we planned a family road trip in a car from San Francisco to Los Angeles, then onto Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon, before finishing up back in Vegas. Whilst planning this trip, I couldn’t get my dream of riding a motorcycle in America out of my head.

The dream formed into a solid plan when a friend of mine, who lives on the other side of the USA in Indiana, told me he wanted to meet up, but he couldn’t get all the way out to Las Vegas. He suggested we meet in Memphis and then drive down to New Orleans to watch an American football game. This was my chance to finally ride Route 66.

Route 66

Route 66 is one of the most iconic roads in the world and top of many motorcyclists’ bucket lists. Linking Chicago and Los Angeles, it was one of the USA’s original highways. It became a vital artery for Americans migrating west across the USA to escape poverty in search of a better life during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

That mass migration helped establish the road in the nation’s psyche, representing freedom and independence during a time of struggle and great change. Route 66 linked many towns and cities along its route, which benefitted economically from the stream of travellers passing through.

The road and many of the communities along it fell into decline after the creation of the interstate system, eventually leading to Route 66 becoming obsolete. Despite being bypassed by faster roads, the name has become iconic around the world. To ride or drive along its length is a dream held by many, with many thousands of people fulfilling those dreams every year, keeping the legend of Route 66 alive.

Finding a ride

My wife and kids were booked to fly back to the UK from Las Vegas on the Sunday, which gave me five days to get to New Orleans to catch the Saints pre-season NFL game.

Looking at Google Maps, it was 1,584 miles via the interstate from Las Vegas to Memphis, and then another 394 miles to New Orleans. It was a long distance to cover, but one browse of a bike rental website and my decision was made.

In choosing a bike, I decided to ditch my dream of riding a Harley along Route 66 and chose a Triumph Tiger 800 instead. This is mainly due to the fact I’d sat on all the Harley’s at a dealership for a size test and felt like they wouldn’t be very comfortable for the trip I had planned. I then sat on the Triumph and it just felt right.

Pre-match nerves

On the day of my departure, I jumped into an Uber and headed over to pick up my bike. Suddenly, the voices of the people who had commented on my trip started playing in my mind. I’d been told it was a midlife crisis, that I was crazy, and that I’d never make it in time. One person simply asked why I wasn’t flying like everyone else?

I started to feel very nervous and I kept asking myself what the hell I was doing, especially as I hadn’t ridden a bike in six years. However, the doubts soon vanished as the excitement and the challenge of what was about to happen took over.

After filling out all the necessary paperwork, I climbed onto my bike and I could feel everyone in the shop watching me. I hadn’t ridden for a long time but thankfully I made a clean exit from the car park and joined four lanes of Las Vegas traffic. The adventure had begun!

Back in the saddle after six years

An adrenalin rush hit me instantly as I opened up the throttle for the first time. I sat upright with excitement, happy to be riding. I cruised out of the city and headed to Lake Mead. This large expanse of water is actually a man-made reservoir formed by the Hoover Dam. It’s located about 30 miles from the centre of Las Vegas and is a popular recreation spot for boating, swimming, fishing and camping.

I parked the bike up at a spot with a view of the lake and stopped to catch my breath. It was a chance to make a few adjustments to my gear, take a photo and soak up my surroundings. I then settled in for a fantastic ride over the Hoover Dam and out into the Arizona Desert towards the Grand Canyon.

As I got to know the Triumph, I knew I had made the right choice. It was so comfortable, had the level of power I needed, and it just felt solid and safe. It was the ideal bike to help me get back into the swing of motorcycling again.

The heart of Route 66

I made a stop at the town of Kingman which describes itself as the ‘heart of Route 66’. It’s a launching point for many people taking a road trip on the Mother Road and features a museum dedicated to Route 66. I found it to be a cool place with a massive steam train placed in the main park and a great little biker shop. It was there I spotted a leather waist jacket for sale with a pocket designed to hold a handgun.

Kingman was also where I picked up Route 66 for the first time. As soon as I hit the famous Mother Road, I said to myself: “Holy shit, I’m really doing this.”

I hadn’t left Las Vegas until 11.30am that morning so I needed to get some miles under my belt. My first scheduled stop was supposed to be Flagstaff which would have seen me ride around 270 miles that day.

However, as I approached the town of Williams around 30 miles from my destination, the skies opened and a massive storm hit the area. I decided not to risk riding through such bad weather and found a hotel in Williams instead.

I’d actually visited the town before with my family. It was during that trip we’d taken a steam train from the town, right up to the Grand Canyon, and on the way back local cowboys stopped and robbed the train in a fake robbery for the tourists. It was great fun.

A long day in the saddle

After stopping early in Williams, I knew I had to make up some ground the following day, so the next morning I got up at 5am, packed up the bike and settled down for a push on the interstate. One thing I wasn’t prepared for were the massive trucks and trailers which really travel at speed.

The road noise they created each time I rode past sounded like the roar of a dinosaur from Jurassic Park. And, just as I got past one truck, another came into view, then another and another.

After 90 miles on the interstate, I reached Winslow, Arizona, where I took a moment to stand on the corner made famous by the Eagles song Take It Easy. Each year, thousands of people stop on this corner, where Old Highway 66 meets North Kinsley Avenue, perhaps catching a glimpse of a girl in a flatbed truck, just like the one described in the song.

Ghost towns

At Winslow, I jumped back on Route 66 and I began to notice the affect the building of the interstate has had on the towns that line the Mother Road. It felt like being in a zombie movie as I rode through plenty of streets with boarded up hotels, restaurants and shops. These communities once thrived thanks to the stream of travellers driving along Route 66, but the building of the interstate took this traffic away, the road grew quiet and the towns suffered.

As I pushed eastwards, I found myself following a very cool biker for around 20 miles. He was riding a Harley-Davidson Low Rider with high-rise handlebars. He was wearing a stars and stripes bandana and sported a handlebar moustache, looking every inch the stereotypical American easy rider.

I left the biker when I pulled over for a break. As I finished up and rejoined the interstate, I noticed the chain on my Tiger sounded a little slack and skipped a few times. It seemed to settle down as I rode, but I made a mental note to keep an eye on it.

The Lone Star State

I rode 470 miles that day, before coming to a stop at Santa Rosa where I found a motel and headed out to look for some dinner. As I enjoyed a cold beer, I looked at the map and realised I had 891 miles to get to Memphis and meet my friend, and only two days to do it. The doubt really set in and I didn’t get much sleep that night thinking, what if I don’t make it?

The miles ahead were still playing on my mind the next morning when I got up before dawn. It was a beautiful ride watching the sun come up as I left New Mexico and crossed into Texas. I was flying along the road making good miles and almost missed the famous Cadillac Ranch west of Amarillo.

This piece of public art features 10 Cadillacs buried face down in the ground. It’s an unusual sight to see by the roadside and has become a must-visit landmark for anyone travelling along Route 66.

Chain issues

As I passed through Amarillo, the chain on my Triumph started to complain again. It was knocking and jumped a few times, so I asked for directions to a garage.

I was directed to Groom which was about 40 miles east of Amarillo. It seemed like a one-horse town in the middle of nowhere with a massive white cross by the road on the way into town.

The garage looked a bit dodgy but I decided to park up anyway. As I walked into the shop there were three men sat around talking in very hard Texan accents, or what sounded like Hillbilly to me. I suddenly realised how English I sounded when I chipped in: “Excuse me, could somebody take a look at the chain on my motorbike?”

They all looked up and I sensed them laughing on the inside. The boss man said something to the youngest chap who jumped up and said: “I’ll take a look for ya.”

He went to work and I stood there thinking of Clark Griswold in the movie National Lampoon’s Vacation. When Clark went to a garage and asked local mechanics how much it would cost to fix his car, they replied: “How much you got?”

The young chap finished with my bike quickly and I readied myself for the cost. The boss man turned to me and said to just give him 10 bucks. I couldn’t believe it, so I gave the guy $20 and told him to get himself a beer. He smiled like he’d been paid for the first time.

Turning off Route 66

I headed back to the interstate and the bike felt great. I pushed on towards Oklahoma City but decided not to stop there as I needed to get as far as possible to make the following day’s push to Memphis an enjoyable one. It was at Oklahoma City I left Route 66 behind. I had fulfilled my dream of riding along the famous road, but I now had my own route to follow.

I made it about 170 miles further down the road and checked into a hotel in Muldrow. I enjoyed a few cold beers and rang my friend to tell him of the day’s events. I was also able to give him the good news that I would make it to Memphis on time to meet him.

I made a chilly 5am start the next morning but I really enjoyed the ride. I travelled safe in the knowledge I was going to complete my journey on time and the bike felt great. I was full of confidence and looking forward to seeing my friend and exploring Memphis.

Arriving in Memphis

The ride into Memphis was fantastic as I rode over the mighty Mississippi river and into the city. When I finally found the hotel my friend and I had booked, I realised I had arrived before him. After a long shower and a cold beer, I finally got to see my mate.

We explored plenty of the local sights including Elvis Presley’s home Graceland, the bustling Beale Street which is known as the home of blues music, the Sun Records building, and the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was shot dead. We also visited a few pool halls where English snooker player Ronnie O’Sullivan had filmed a documentary. A few beers later and I was ready for bed.

On my final day on the bike, I got up at 5am again and hit the road, ready to enjoy the day’s ride. However, early on I noticed the chain had started to slacken again and was making a lot of noise. After a late night, I really wasn’t in the mood for it, so I just put my head down and plodded on. My SatNav was telling me to stay straight for the next 200 miles which suited me just fine.

Battling through the rain

Just after I passed Jackson, I was hit with the hardest rain I’ve seen in years. I decided not to stop and just keep going. I was soaked through within the first couple of minutes anyway. The chain was also knocking hard by this point so I thought it best to carry on to a more built up area and look for a garage.

I came off the interstate and found a petrol station but there was no mechanic or any tools. When I pulled out again onto the road the chain suddenly flew off, ripping through the chain guard and locking up the back wheel. Luckily, I was able to stop the bike from throwing me off.

I managed to put the chain back on and I limped down the interstate to the next junction where I found a garage and made a repair myself. I was soaked to the bone, tired and shook-up from the wheel locking up, and I was ready for the journey to end.

However, I still had 100 miles to go so I put my head down and got on with it. I was the happiest man alive as I headed over the long bridges that take you into New Orleans. My heart was racing as I rode up Canal Street where I finally handed the bike back, minus a chain guard.

I had travelled through nine states, covering 2,043 miles in five days. I had fulfilled my dream of riding a motorcycle on Route 66 and, although it wasn’t on the Harley I’d dreamed of, I was pleased I had chosen the Triumph Tiger 800 instead. It proved the ideal bike for my journey, despite the chain issue.

Six months after I returned home from my USA road trip, I just couldn’t get the Triumph out of my head, so much so I went out and bought one.

Who’s writing?

Chris Bell was born and bred in Southampton but had the pleasure of living in Australia for 11 years before returning to the UK in 2012. Now back in Southampton, he is happily married with two children and a Schnauzer dog. Chris is also a long-suffering Saints football fan.

His passion for bikes started when he was young, watching his cousin race motocross. Chris’ first bike was a Yamaha DT50 which he got when he was 16. His latest purchase was a Triumph Tiger 800 which he bought earlier this year.

He is a director of international construction recruitment firm PSR. He’s been fortunate to travel the world with work and family