You never need an excuse to take a road trip, something I’ve done many times in the trusty old General Lee(xus). To those who don’t know, the General is an old Lexus LS 400 that’s been very unsympathetically painted to (vaguely) resemble the famous orange car from the Dukes of Hazzard.
With Lexus now celebrating 25 years in the UK I wondered how far they might have come in that time, so pitched the idea of taking their current LS on a lengthy road trip. I just needed a destination.
While Route 66 isn’t technically celebrating any anniversary right now, the original LS was designed for an American audience so that’s a weak enough link for me.
Weeks of hard work later, I’m now sitting in a bar in Chicago while a Lexus LS 460 waits for me in the hotel car park. In just nine hours I’ll be taking the wheel and pointing it to the West…
One of the first stops along Route 66 you’ll find is Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket. Opened in the 1920’s, it’s one of the few places that’s seen every variant of the Mother Road, from the first tarmac being laid to the arrival of the Interstates.
We got there a little too early though, some way ahead of their 11am opening, so thought we wouldn’t be able to sample their famous fried chicken.
We hadn’t counted on the generosity of Dell Rhea’s owner Patrick. Kept in the family since 1956, Patrick is the third-generation to hold the keys, and is proud of both the restaurants history and hospitality.
Patrick welcomed us inside, thrust some special Route 66 soda in to our hands and proceeded to give us a tour of the site. From Ron the friendly ghost to ice skating on the roof, there’s been a lot going on over the years.
Then he fired up the fryers and served us a portion of their chicken, along with some baked biscuits and fries. Quite literally the best fried chicken we’ve ever had, with some lovely light and fluffy scone-like biscuits, this was a breakfast like we’d never experienced before.
If you make it over to Chicago, pop in to see Patrick and be prepared for some real US hospitality. But go there hungry!
We bid farewell to a misty Chicago and headed out along city’s section of Route 66, passing by Lou Mitchell’s diner – one of the oldest on the route – before leaving the city. Once on the open road our first stop was for breakfast at Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket. There we had the pleasure of meeting the owner, Patrick whose family have been on the route since the 1940’s, serving the most amazing fried chicken to travellers and locals.
Once we had eaten our fill (yes, we actually had fried chicken for breakfast) we headed out toward Joliet and its Correctional Facility made famous by The Blues Brothers, followed by the ‘Gemini Giant’ and the town of Pontiac with its colourful mural, before heading into Bloomington to discover the wonder that is Beer Nuts.
Funks Grove Maple Sirup was next, where we tasted some wonderfully pure maple syrup. Some miles later we entered Springfield. Not only one of the possible homes of the Simpsons, it’s also the final resting place of President Abraham Lincoln. His tomb is a stunning monument that also houses his wife and three of his four children, his eldest son having been buried at Arlington Cemetery at the behest of Mrs Lincoln.
The Mother Road then took us on toward the Mississippi River and the Chain of Rocks Bridge, where we arrived just in time to watch the sun go down over the swirling expanse of water – a truly beautiful sight. By the time we found our way to the final stop at the Gateway Arch in St Louis, the night had drawn in. The imposing arch was still impressive, even in the twilight.
Things took a brief turn for the worse as we tried to battle our way out of the unfamiliar roads of the city, thwarted at every turn by closed roads, dead ends and the most uneven cobbled roads we have ever come across. Eventually, after many false starts, we made our way out and found our hotel where a well earned drink was waiting.
All in all, it was a great start to the journey and there is still so much more to come.
Illinois provided so much in such a short time, so Missouri had a lot to live up to. Setting off from the outskirts of St Louis early in the morning, the first thing on the schedule, after passing by Ted Drew’s Frozen Custard store, was to drive 30 miles along a motorway…
The old Route 66 simply doesn’t exist in many places of the state, and what is left often stops at an abrupt dead end. However, there’s still plenty to see and do as the history of the route pre-dates Route 66 by some margin.
Oldest of the attractions is the Meramec Caverns, a complex that sits just three miles off the main highway and extends far further underground. Dating back some 400 million years, Jesse James and his crew used the bewildering array of caves to hide from the law.
Cuba, a small town rather than a Communist state, is over run with colourful and elaborate murals seemingly painted on any flat surface, while the world’s largest rocking chair gives you somewhere to relax. Sort of.
Totem Pole trading posts, the world’s largest gift shop, famous motels and even a replica of the Hubble telescope are dotted around the state, but the highlights are really the bits of Route 66 that still do exist.
Winding through rolling countryside, with barely another car in sight, the road takes you back at leats 50 years. You start the day resigned to taking too many miles on the Interstate, but end feeling like a westward-bound pioneer.
One of the first stops on our journey today was Baxter Springs. Monday saw a devastating tornado cut a huge scar into this Midwest community, leaving over 100 homes and businesses totally destroyed and 25 people injured – amazingly no one was killed.
The first thing that strikes about the town was that, at first glance, nothing seemed to be amiss, with people going about their daily business and the main street buzzing with traffic. It wasn’t until we reached the midpoint of the town that the scale of the storm became evident. As we drove along the street we could see what in the distance looked to be a building site, with piles of rubble and debris. As we got closer, we realised it was what remained of a roadside business.
While looking on in disbelief at the utter devastation, we turned into a side road. We were then confronted with one of the most moving sights I think either of us have ever seen. The street was virtually obliterated. It was almost impossible to make out where one house ended and the next began. The evidence of peoples lives lay in the rubble all around, with almost nothing salvageable. Yet, even more amazingly, a matter of feet away houses remained completely untouched.
The strength of human and community spirit was abundant with volunteer groups out in force clearing the debris and making safe those houses which are still standing. Local restaurants are offering free hot meals to those in need, along with the volunteers and shelters are available to those who have lost everything, of which there are many.
Baxter Springs will undoubtedly pick itself up, dust itself down and move forward, helping those victims to rebuild their shattered lives within this resilient community. Yet for those of us who are just passing through, it is a stark and harrowing reminder that we are all at the mercy of Mother Nature, a truly relentless and immensely powerful force which we can not accurately predict and will never control, but which can rip the heart out of a town and destroy lives in an instant.
The sun was shining brightly as we steered the Lexus away from Joplin and towards Oklahoma.
Both places are very much in Tornado Alley, a swathe of land that runs through the US that is particularly prone to tornadoes. Joplin itself saw 20% or so of the city flattened in 2011 in one of the most devastating tornadoes to hit the country, while Oklahoma experienced a twister a mile wide last year. Between the two of them, more than 180 lives were lost.
Our first stop of the day was soon after we left, at Baxter Springs. This small town of just 4,000 inhabitants had their own tornado earlier in the week, and words simply cannot describe the destruction that we saw. We spent some time in the town, doing what little we could to help, in an environment that was both emotionally trying but also positively uplifting – despite the loss of everything, spirits were high, the fight back had already begun.
Sam wrote about it all earlier in the day (see above) so I’ll move on to the more entertaining parts of the journey.
Cars, the now iconic movie from Pixar, has reignited interest in Route 66, but it was Route 66 that started the process for the movie itself. Lightning McQueen’s buddy Mater, a rusty old tow truck, is actually based on a real truck found on the route. Found in Galena, the truck still exists next to a recreation of Mater, and the likeness is uncanny. Sliding the Lexus alongside left it feeling somewhat out of place.
That out-of-place sensation happened again at Afton Station. Owned by the wonderful Laurel (and ably assisted by volunteer Ron), the station houses a small Packard museum, but there’s gems from other manufacturers too. Spend some time ogling the cars, but also spend time talking to Laurel and co – you’ll learn an awful lot and make a new friend.
The world’s tallest totem pole is exactly what it says, standing incongruously in a field outside Foyil, while the Blue Whale at Catoosa is an icon that you simply can’t miss. This fibreglass whale used to be a plaything in a pond used for swimming, but that’s long since stopped. Now it exists as a curio, but one that’s worth spending ten minutes on.
Only 24 minutes or so in to Tulsa lies the Golden Driller, a magnificent monument to the oil industry in the area. Looming large over the significant expo centre, it makes any of the ‘giants’ seen so far seem rather amateurish efforts.
Davenport is an old, almost ghost, town that boasts a magnificent brick broadway. Oozing history, but very little in the way of life, it’s a relaxing place to wander before heading for the big city of Oklahoma.
Fortunately as we approached, the sun was out, the skies were clear, and the winds were light. Long may it all stay that way, for us and the people of Tornado Alley.
Thoughts of tornadoes were far from the mind as we opened the curtains to an atypically bright and sunny day, with temperatures forecast to hit the low 30s.
Gleaming in the warm sun, despite the accumulation of countless miles of road grime, dust, mud, bugs and so on, the Lexus LS 460 was fired up and pointed towards Texas.
Fort Reno was the first destination, an old military encampment built initially to support the army following the Cheyenne uprising, but then used to protect the remaining friendly tribes from attacks from elsewhere. Long since abandoned in military terms, it still exists as a reminder of the troubles that can flare so easily – even now the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes are fighting to have the land returned to them.
The Route 66 Museum in Clinton was a far more upbeat place to spend some time. Celebrating the rise, fall and resurgence of the Mother Road, the museum doesn’t wallow in the past but brings the road alive in a modern setting full of easily digestible information and interesting exhibits.
Iconic in so many ways, Shamrock’s U-Drop Inn will be easily identifiable to any Cars move fans as Ramone’s body shop.
The art deco building stands out as unique, even amongst the oddities along Route 66, and really is quite beautiful.
Less beautiful, but just as intriguing, is the Devil’s Rope museum in the almost-ghost-town of McLean. This surprisingly large building played host to five visitors today, all there to admire the incredible collection of barbed wire.
Fortunately Amarillo wasn’t far to go from there, and we soon arrived at The Big Texan. This family owned motel and restaurant has existed since 1960, but is most famous for it’s food offerings, specifically its 72 ounce steak. Manage to eat the 2kg of meat, plus the potatoes, salad, coleslaw and bread, all in less than one hour, and the meal is yours for free.
I settled on a half rack of ribs. My arteries survive another day.
After spending an entertaining evening at The Big Texan Steak Ranch we headed out toward New Mexico, but before we could leave Texas we had to make a very important stop. We called in at Cavenden’s Boot City…
The array of boots, belts, hats and shirts at this cowboy outfitters was ever so slightly overwhelming, but luckily we had a very helpful shop assistant by the name of Eric to help. After only an hour (surprisingly) we left the store with two pairs of genuine cowboy boots which will of course blend right in when we get back to the UK.
Next stop was the famous Cadillac Ranch, a collection of various Cadillac cars, up-ended and half buried in the earth, ready for any and all who pass to leave their mark on with anything from spray paint to Sharpies. Originally built in 1974, but moved in 1997, it remains a popular stopping point for those on the route.
We hit the road again, with the next stop being Midpoint Cafe. This is, as you would imagine from the name, exactly half way between Chicago and LA. The cafe is the only attraction in and around the town of Adrian, yet the cafe thrives due to it’s heritage. The current owner, Dennis, is always on hand to chat to visitors and share advice and stories about 66.
The next leg took us through a number of deserted towns, with long since closed reminders of the road which saw businesses thrive in years gone by only to be sapped dry by the introduction of the interstates.
Outside of these ghost towns mile after mile of barren, dry yet beautiful plains surrounded us, as we climbed to around 7700 feet. Eventually we wound our way down into the old town of Santa Fe, with it’s 400 year history.
That’s impressive in terms of American history, but falls a little short of the 5,800 years or so of building history in the UK.
Route 66 has thrown up all sorts of surprises so far, but the run from Santa Fe to Holbrook has provided more than we could ever expect.
Just south of the town is La Bajada Hill, a steep run down a hillside that dates back to 1926.
Bypassing the road and turning round to head to the bottom of the pass, the tarmac roads give way to gravel roads and then simply flattened earth. Then the hill appears.
There are huge boulders, steep drops and insanely tight turns. A modern 4×4 simply would not make it up or down the hill, and there was no way we’d even try it with the Lexus LS 460. But this was considered normal for those in a Ford Model T of the era.
Getting back on to tarmac, New Mexico provided some of the most interesting and enjoyable sections of the old 66 so far. Vast plains ran between steep mountains. The road curved through the rocky cliff edges, providing something beyond more miles of arrow straight black-top.
The Route 66 casino gave a gaudy contrast to the 1930s Rio Puerco bridge directly opposite, while countless ‘authentic’ Indian trading posts balanced traditional styles with made-in-China low-cost production.
The continental divide, a point marked along the line where water drains either to the Pacific or Atlantic ocean, gave us a boost as we felt like we really were crossing the country. but it was a drive through the Painted Desert that really took our breath away.
With parts of Route 66 running through the park, we needed no excuse to take a detour and enjoy the sights of red, blue and white mountains changing colour before our eyes under the setting sun.
The 300 or so miles covered today appeared underwhelming when discussed over our normal planning/breakfast discussion. We were, fortunately, proved to be very wrong.
Waking up in a wigwam isn’t how I’d normally start the day, but then Route 66 tends to throw up some unusual circumstances. Holbrook is home to one of two Wigwam motels along the route, this complex built in 1950, and are true icons of the route; the Cozy Cone motel in Pixar’s Cars movie is modelled on these, and the site appears on the National Register of Historic Places.
Passing through Winslow, large groups of people appeared to be standing on a corner. Not just any corner, but the one the Eagles sang about in Take It Easy.
“Well, I’m a standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, and such a fine sight to see.
It’s a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford slowin’ down to take a look at me.”
Leaving Winslow, the desert starts to take over. Flat plains surrounded by rugged mountains are the order of the day, until you arrive at a meteor crater. Formed 50,000 years ago by a 50 metre wide meteor striking the earth at around 28,000 miles per hour.
What resulted was a 0.7 mile wide hole in Arizona that, amazingly, wasn’t accepted as being caused by a meteor impact until 1960. Now it’s one of the best preserved and most finely studies craters on the planet.
Less well studied is Two Guns, a true ghost town in the middle of nowhere. Once home to two zoos, there’s now little left standing beyond and old sign reading Mountain Lions and an abandoned gas station. Venture inside the restricted area and you’ll find underground rooms, old animal cages, a couple of bars and other random buildings. There’s also plenty of nails and broken glass around, so venture carefully.
From there it was past the iconic Twin Arrows (now barricaded off but accessible if you can find somewhere to climb over) to Flagstaff before turning north up some wonderful dirt roads towards the Grand Canyon.
The second big hole in the ground visited in one day needs no introduction, the 10-mile wide scar on the earth’s surface being one of the best known landmarks in the world. It’s also a beautiful place to be at sunset, the colours on the cliff faces changing second by second.
Route 66 has been extremely kind to us today. Tomorrow it’s California, and the Golden State has a lot to live up to.
After spending a blissful evening under the stars with a glowing campfire, we woke early to a bright sky – perfect for one final look at the magnificent Canyon. Once we had taken in the view, we returned the camping equipment we had rented and headed back toward the Main Street of America for the next leg of the journey.
The first town we reached was Williams, the home of the Grand Canyon railway station. The town hosts tremendous amounts of visitors each year as they take to train toward the Canyon to see the natural splendour of the area. Being quite early in the season the town was fairly quiet, but we did encounter a group of Australian’s driving the route in Ford Mustangs and a Chinese tour group doing the same in 4×4 vehicles. The appeal of the road really is world wide.
We passed through Kingman and on toward Oatman, with the route winding through the black mountains. The road was spectacular with tight bends and flowing corners to rival some Swiss passes. While there are many towns along the route which cash in on the heritage of the road, none do it quite like Oatman. Burros roam the streets, much to the amusement of the travellers passing through. They are so used to the easy tourist life that they are not remotely phased by traffic or people and will actively follow them to almost encourage them to visit the stalls selling feed for $1 a bag. The store fronts look more like a movie set than real life and are purely for the visitors. You have to applaud them for keeping the town alive, but unfortunately the falseness detracts from the sincerity which you find along the majority of the journey.
After the tourist trap of Oatman we passed through a section of the Mojave desert, toward the Colorado river, then made a detour to see a little slice of home – London Bridge. In the 1960’s businessman Robert McCulloch Sr had the dream of creating a city. Lake Havasu City was born in 1963, with the first 26 square miles providing an airport to help draw in prospective land buyers. His next marketing ploy was to buy London Bridge. It was put up for sale and in 1968 purchased by McCulloch for $2,460,000, dismantled brick by brick, shipped to Arizona and painstakingly reconstructed. The gamble paid off and today Lake Havasu City is a growing city with a diverse population, as well as an awesome bridge!
Back on route we made the short hop over the glimmering blue of the Colorado river into California, to the quiet town of Needles, our stop for the night.
The Mojave desert is big. Seriously, it just goes on and on. You see a curve in the road ahead and think it’ll only be a few minutes before you get there, but then it takes 20 minutes and 25 miles before you even get close.
It’s no wonder our first stop at Bagdad was so brief. The small town was bypassed in 1973 and dies almost instantly. Stuck in the middle of the desert, and holding a record for going 767 days without rain, there was no reason for anybody to visit and so the people gradually moved away. All that remains there now is a single tree, standing proud in the middle of the Mojave.
Situated elsewhere in the Mojave desert is Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch. Single-handedly defining ‘eccentric’, the art installation is made up of more than 200 bottle trees, along with an old Jeep, some missiles and road signs from nearby towns. The owner sadly wasn’t around to chat to, and I can’t help but think my life would have been richer if he had been.
Arriving at the outer edges of LA, we stopped at the other remaining Wigwam motel. Owner Kumar Patel gave us a tour, his knowledge and enthusiasm for Route 66 infectious and welcome after the long slog through the Californian plains.
Kumar warned us about the traffic in down-town LA, especially as President Obama was visiting for the day, but we had no choice but to press on.
We couldn’t grasp the scale of the Mojave desert, but the urban sprawl of LA blew our minds. We hit heavy traffic, dense urban areas and endless retail business; we were nearly there! Then we looked at the sat-nav and saw that there were still 70 miles left to cover. We were nearer Palm Springs than Santa Monica.
Deserts, dirt tracks, mountains, tornadoes, canyons, plains, ghost towns and interstates. We had seen everything America had, and got too close to some of it. We had also met the most interesting, welcoming and friendly people you could ever hope to come across.
After thousands of miles and what sometimes felt like endless days, we’d conquered Route 66. Now it’s time to find a bar…