Once stretching from Chicago to LA, Route 66 epitomises the American obsession with the road trip. WORDS: Elise Rana

With the hip city hustle of Chicago at one end and LA at the other, Route 66 cuts diagonally through America’s heart like an arrow, from the blue-collar grit of Missouri and Illinois through the wavin’ wheat expanses of Kansas and Oklahoma, on to the yawning canyons and arid desert lands of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas and the sun-ripened valleys and beaches of California.

More than just a figment of blues lore, this 2000-mile stretch is a line etched into the country’s history. Tracing one of America’s first transcontinental thoroughfares well before it was actually paved in 1926, for the first half of the 20th century Route 66 was the country’s ‘Main Street’. Reaching across the small towns and rural communities of the Midwest and south-west, during the Great Depression this was the ‘mother road’ taken by migrant families in their thousands, forced from their farms in the Dust Bowl to the orchards and orange groves of California in search of work – a harsh and often futile experience portrayed in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

Following World War II, another migration swept along the route as post-war prosperity lured the population from the industrial ‘rust belt’ of the east to new opportunities in the ‘burbs of Cali. As the traffic flowed, the Route itself flourished, and it was here along the wayside that the classic roadside Americana of legend was born: kitsch neon signs and giant billboards, themed motels, diners and lonely truck stops, and roadside attractions ranging from the quaint to the downright bizarre.

Of course, the twist in the tale of the world’s most iconic road is that most of it has been paved over and out of existence. Along Route 66, the great American love affair with the motorcar created the concept of the journey itself being the reason for going. America still loves getting behind the wheel more than anything else only these days, it wants to get there faster. So in the 1950s began the construction of the interstates, high-speed highways that by 1984 had rendered Route 66 obsolete. Signposted ‘Historic Route 66’, you can still more or less drive it – the longest remaining stretch of the old two-lane runs for 158 miles through Arizona, skirting the southern edge of the Grand Canyon – but more often than not you’ll have to make do with cruising along the distinctly unhistoric freeway built on top of it.

This also means that just as drawing people off the road was made into an art form – one Route 66 diversion, the Meramec Caverns, can lay claim to gracing the first bumper sticker – today, motorists must be lured onto the old road in the first place. Fortunately, though the road may have been consigned to history in practical terms, the hype lives on. Most travellers to America want to live the movie in some way, and our undiminished desire for this classic American road trip means that as long as those quirky landmarks, cafés and motels continue to work their Route 66 connections, they’ll always have nostalgic wanderers coming in the door. You may have to search a little harder for the Route 66 experience, but you can still get your kicks here if you try.

Other classic American drives

Pacific Coast
Travelling from temperate rainforest to semi-desert with the ocean at your side all the way, a cruise down America’s Pacific coast encapsulates the often unexpected diversity of the country’s scenery – and proves that there’s more to the West Coast than mall rats and health nuts.

Kicking off at the continent’s far north-western tip, the journey can begin amid the cool green lushness of Olympic National Park, travelling south through the coastal communities, industries and recreation spots of western Washington and Oregon. At the awesome redwoods of northern California’s ‘Avenue of the Giants’ you’re half-way to the Mexican border, and beyond lies Big Sur and its fabled So-Cal attractions of sand, sea and surf.

Most of the 1500 miles are two-lane highway through open country that’s often protected wilderness, with condors, whales and mountain lions among the local fauna. Punctuating the natural beauty are some of America’s buzziest cities: the coffee and politics of grunge birthplace Seattle, the gloss and glamour of LA, the loud and proud colour of San Francisco and the laidback cool of San Diego.

Border dash
Taking that taste of the continent’s extremes one step further, Highway 93 begins high in the Rocky Mountains, across the border in Canada with the invigorating alpine splendour of Jasper National Park. Passing Glacier National Park, Flathead Lake and the Bitterroot Mountains, outdoor recreation opportunities abound in the rushing rivers and valleys of Montana, along with important sites in the history of explorers Lewis and Clark and the struggles between white settlers and native American tribes. Crossing the Continental Divide into Idaho, nature’s beauty continues to reign along the Salmon River into the Sawtooth Mountains and on to the swish ski resort of Sun Valley.

Then, suddenly, comes the desert. The highway now traverses vast miles of arid emptiness across the Snake River plain and the Great Basin Desert, across Hoover Dam from Nevada into Arizona and into another kind of desert altogether: the Sonora, teeming with lushness and life, taking you to the Mexican border and beyond, still on the same US-93 you started on. Oh, and what will you have found along the way, in the middle of the road through all this rugged wilderness? The ultimate man-made wonder, the surreal neon playground of the flashiest city on earth. Vegas, baby, Vegas!

From sea to shining sea
Travelling 3200 miles through capitals, small towns and a total of 12 states, Highway 50 is a coast-to-coast journey along the timeline of the nation’s development. Commencing amid the colonial towns of the Maryland coast before heading through Washington, DC and its powers that be, the road becomes a long winding adventure through sleepy settler-ville, leading you up into West Virginia and the backwoods of the Appalachian mountains, then beyond through the fields and farmland of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, crossing the Mississippi at St Louis and cutting across Missouri to Kansas City.

Smalltown America continues across the Great Plains, picking up the historic Santa Fe Trail along the Arkansas River up into the Rocky Mountains. On the other side of the Continental Divide lies a playground of adventure amid the rust-coloured rock of Colorado and Utah, and with the Great Basin Desert begins a stretch of endless sky and sagebrush christened ‘The Loneliest Road in America’. From the scenic Sierra Nevada, the highway bisects California to arrive at San Francisco, squarely in the 21st century of Silicon Valley.

Atlantic Coast
With the spray of the Atlantic never far from your nostrils, the 2000-mile drive from New York City to Key West offers variations on a coastal theme from upscale resorts to briny fishing villages to swathes of windswept solitude. Beginning in style at the Statue of Liberty, the route takes you through Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida, vast stretches of which are backed by the scenery and wildlife of pristine shoreline and low-lying islands. Dotted amid these riches are the quite different charms of a string of resorts, varying from the genteel Victoriana of Cape May to the kitsch nostalgia of Myrtle Beach and Ocean City and the glitz of Atlantic City. Historic attractions include numerous Civil War sites such as Fort Sumter and the Hampton Roads naval battlegrounds, as well as the dunes from which the Wright Brothers took flight at Kitty Hawk

Choosing your chariot

Travelling in a hire car you’ll never be far from a motel or campground, but if your conscience can weigh the gas-guzzling and carbon emissions with the little extra comforts, you could consider hiring a motorhome or ‘recreational vehicle’ to open up the facilities-rich (if often ambience-poor) possibilities of the RV park.

Another popular option for budget travellers is the driveaway, whereby you relocate a vehicle from one place to another as required by the owner, and pay only for petrol, accommodation and a reimbursable deposit. To do this you’ll need adequate insurance and, usually, two licensed drivers over 21. Agencies exist in most cities – check the Yellow Pages under Automobiles – Driveaway and see what’s going, or register your details online at one of the larger companies such as Auto Driveaway (www.autodriveaway.com).

Restriction to a set route (usually interstates) and time limit means you’ll often have to curtail sightseeing or whimsical diversion, but if you’re flexible it’s a very cheap way to get around.

Highway code

Roads in the US tend to be wide, straight, well-maintained and easy to drive – so much so that on long unbroken stretches you must remember to take regular breaks to stay alert.

Be aware that each state has its own traffic rules and regulations, including speed limits.

Don’t drink and drive. In many states it is illegal to visibly carry alcohol or even to have an opened container of alcohol in the vehicle.

Turnpikes are toll roads, charging by distance travelled. You’ll usually be issued a ticket as you enter that records the time – if your time of exit indicates you’ve been breaking the speed limit, you could get a ticket.

Turn on your headlights when driving in rain or reduced visibility as this is a legal requirement in many states.

Always come to a complete stop at a stop sign, even if the junction is clear.

Unless otherwise stated, you are allowed to turn right at a red traffic light if safe to do so.

Where there are multiple lanes, vehicles may overtake on both the inside and outside. Be sure to get into the right lane at junctions as drivers are unlikely to let you cut in.

Even if you’re approaching on the other side of the road, when a school bus stops to load or unload you are required to stop and remain stationary until all passengers are clear of the road and the bus has moved off.

If pulled over by the police, don’t get out of the car. Stay in your vehicle until the officer comes to you and have your driving licence and rental agreement to hand, as without them you can be fined. Do not presume the officer will have a sense of humour.

If you are involved in an accident, you are obligated to report it to the local police. Ask for a copy of the report for your car rental company.

If you belong to a motoring association such as the AA or RAC, carry your membership card with you as you may
qualify for benefits through the US equivalent, the American Automobile Association (AAA or ‘Triple A’).