Everyone should do a road trip across the US before they die. Preferably in an American muscle car or pickup.
Crossing the USA by car, especially something with a purring V8, is the only way to get a real taste for it.
Jetting in and out of different cities is better than nothing, but the most interesting people and places are always found between them, out on the road. Like the cattle farmer named Fred I met at a bar in the middle of Nevada on the perimeter of Area 51. Unlike some people around these parts, he doesn’t believe in aliens, but does get an awful fright when pilots of strange-looking military jets buzz him at supersonic speeds when he’s out on his tractor. Listening to Fred’s beer-marinated stories about life in America is much more interesting than a tour guide’s well-rehearsed lines in a big city.
Route 66 is the iconic path most people think of when considering a trip across the US. One of the original American highways, it runs from Chicago to Los Angeles, passing through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, and is close to 4000km long. It became the most famous road in the US as it assisted mass migration from the East Coast, and was central to America’s coming of age.
Author John Steinbeck called it the Mother Road, and while nobody can question its stature as a true cultural icon, Route 66 doesn’t actually exist as a highway anymore. In the 70s and 80s it was replaced by a web of massive interstate highways, leaving many of the towns on the original road to waste away. If that all sounds a little bit familiar, the fictional town of Radiator Springs in Pixar’s Cars was designed to represent the many Route 66 towns that have fallen on hard times after being bypassed.
You can still find several sections of Route 66 in good condition, but the road is often run-down. In one part of Route 66 in Arizona weeds grow through the tarmac, and in others the paved road is extremely narrow. It’s easy to get lost too, because the original road is often dissected by the big highways.
This author drove from Los Angeles to Detroit on a similar path to Route 66, driving a giant Dodge Ram pickup with a big V8 under the bonnet. I used the interstates close to Route 66 to cover some serious miles, but ventured off now and again to pick up sections of the old road and check out the 50s-style retro diners and hotels. You can even stay at the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, Arizona, where the motel units are shaped like Native American tipis.
It can be sad to see the dilapidated state of some of the abandoned service stations and other buildings, but they still have a kind of rustic charm. If you do make the journey, just make sure you stop at some of the diners or bars for a chat with the locals. Trust me, they have plenty of interesting stories to share.