Lost Highway

It’s the original road trip but is it the best? With an Acura NSX and a dog-eared copy of Kerouac for company, Matt Prior finds out

If you want to know what Route 66 is like but you don’t have time to drive 2500 miles, visit McLean.

The town of McLean, Texas, was founded at the start of the last century because there was a railway cattle loading yard nearby. It grew quickly. Oil, cattle and livestock were all freighted through it and, in 1926, when America introduced its highway system, the most famous one of all, Route 66, passed through its centre. In the 1940s, 1500 people lived in this bustling small town.

Progress, though, did for McLean what it has for so many other towns in America’s heartland. Industry centralised around fewer, bigger hubs, trains a mile-and-a-half long and 75mph trucks meant McLean was bypassed. Interstate 40 rounded it in the 1980s when McLean was already in decline, but while a bypass can rejuvenate an English country town centre, America’s Interstates do precisely the opposite. It sucks people out and leaves a vacuum.

Guidebooks say allow a month to do it properly. We’ve got eight days

Today, then, McLean has the world’s most over-specified two-lane one-way system, a square mile or so of gridded housing occupied by fewer than 800 people, a derelict motel, a sign for rattlesnakes that don’t live there any more and, weirdly, a barbed wire museum.

Among the background thrum of tyre on concrete from the Interstate, you’ll find empty building upon empty building, giving McLean the empty vessel vibe of a northern industrial town, only here it’s warmer. It’s desolate and quaint at the same time.

And, of course, there are Route 66 signs. A refurbished old gas station. These, plus antique shops, are becoming staples of the old Route 66, now often badged Historic Route 66, as small towns trade on nostalgia to revive the good times.

Experience it a little and it’s as comforting as an American breakfast. Do it day after day after groundhog day on the original American road trip and, by the time you reach McLean – more than 1000 miles out of Chicago and still another 1500 before Santa Monica pier, Los Angeles – you’ve got to really want to be driving Route 66.

I do want to. For why? Intrigue in the backstory, I’ve always fancied a cross-America drive and when I asked people at Honda if they’d lend us an NSX – strictly, an Acura NSX here – they said yes.

An American car for an American road trip, then: the NSX factory is in Marysville, Ohio, close enough to Chicago for photographer Luc and I to collect it from the factory. I say close – it’s four hours away. At home, that’d be like collecting a car from Sunderland for a drive in Hertfordshire. Out here, it’s just round the corner.

The NSX is terrific: a 300-mile-plus range, a compliant ride, width that matters not a jot here

I like the NSX in the UK but, in its width, in its demeanour, it sometimes feels not strictly for us. It’s distinctly, intentionally, not a McLaren 570 GT or Porsche 911. So after a factory tour (see below) and a cross-state journey, a mid-evening start in a freezing-cold Chicago, Illinois, is ours.

Around 85% of the ‘original’ Route 66 is drivable. The guidebooks say to allow a month, perhaps more, to do it properly. We’ve got eight days. We’re going east to west because that’s how Route 66 found its fame. That direction has always been a migratory path, never more so than in the 1930s when repeated droughts in prairie states (dust even fell in Chicago and New York) drove millions west towards California.

Out of Chicago, Route 66 city roads become suburban ones, which become highway, and we get as far as Dwight, two hours away, by nightfall.

click to enlarge

Don’t do as we do. Late, tired, unplanned, we find a terrible motel and a fast-food joint is the only open place to eat. I am not exaggerating, it features the least healthy looking people I’ve ever seen. Poor start. Sorry, Luc. My bad.

The morning gets better. Dwight is one of those bypassed towns. Quaint, quiet. We find Paul, a volunteer at the old filling station, a museum yet to open for the season. Driving by, he sees us taking pictures and pulls in – in England, a prelude to “what the hell do you think you’re doing?” Here, it’s a warm invitation to talk about the route and the NSX. Which, as it goes, is turning out to be terrific: a 300-mile-plus range, a compliant ride, width that matters not a jot out here and a nose that just about copes with America’s ludicrous driveway ramps.

From Dwight, Route 66 picks up parallel to the Interstate, then dips off again as the Interstate veers around town after town. Highway, town, highway, repeat. Next to Dwight is Odell, where there is a sweet café that wouldn’t look out of place in San Francisco or Shoreditch, except for the tremendous size of the omelette and that it’s accompanied by chips and gravy, what with this being breakfast time. Weird.

America’s car culture means almost everyone you meet is curious

It only takes a couple of these to realise that if you stopped at every coffee shop on old Route 66 and mooched around every town, you could spend a year doing this trip. Some people do. I’d try it but at some point the editor would stop signing off my expenses.

So on we go. To Atlanta, Illinois and, er, that’s strange: a large statue of a man holding a hot dog. There are a few of these blokes holding different things: a rocket, a tool and so on. You get used to it. Atlanta is like Back to the Future’s Hill Valley from 1955, only quieter. All you can hear are songbirds and the occasional V8 pick-up truck. Everywhere you go, the background muzak in America is V8 pick-up truck. Which is fine by me.

More driving, more signs – for the ‘historic’ route and the retail that modern America is built on. More motels. More antiques. Never more so than at the Pink Elephant Antique Mall, a mecca to tat, and a flying saucer the size of a comfortable flat – which, to be fair, I’d quite like to take home.

Route 66 can get a bit confusing around big cities. St Louis is America’s central port, because the Mississippi river is massive here even though it’s still a thousand miles to the sea, and the original Route 66 route varied year on year before it was replaced by Interstates. Sometimes there are signs telling you which Route 66 years you’re driving on. You kinda pick one and run with it. I guess the Fosse Way is similarly vague where it started, which is probably Britain’s closest parallel: a migratory route upon which towns sprung up. We make a big thing about castles on it; America has a sign for a motorhome retailer called ‘RV There Yet’ and a novelty village called Uranus.

“That’s just stupid,” says Karen, hotel receptionist in Lebanon, Missouri. She doesn’t like Lebanon that much, either. I like Springfield (not that one), Missouri’s third largest city where there’s a great car museum, more. The absent owner – only ever referred to as Milky – just has an eclectic, but very cool, taste in unusual cars. If you’re anywhere near, you should go. Michael, who works here, is more interested in the NSX.

What’s it like? Well, most amazingly it fits the four bags Luc turned up with, but I’m taken with its ability to shorten distances and slink onto electric power only, for short, quiet spells around town. And because everybody loves it, regardless of whether they know what it is.

Sitgreaves Pass in Arizona is like Wales, only warm and with 3G

America’s intrinsic car culture, which I’m envious of, means that almost everyone you meet is curious. Nobody thinks you’re a tosser. In one town, we’d have unembarrassedly turned up to a drive-in had we not arrived two weeks before the first showing of the year. It doesn’t matter where you go, in an interesting car it feels like you’re among friends. In Kansas, which doesn’t get much of Route 66 – merely 11 miles of it nips through the top of the state – Luc is on top of a beautiful old bridge, a one-way road since bypassed, and I’m stationary, or reversing the wrong way, in a £130,000 supercar, when a police car drives past on the adjacent causeway. We just get a wave.

I know not all of America is like this, and that it helps to look wealthy and, well, let’s be blunt, white. There’s grimness here. The radio news tells me Oklahoma has approved nitrogen gas for executions, followed by a chat by the three most right-wing people I’ve ever listened to on the radio.

But look, this is a feelgood road trip and what we’re looking for is – bloody hell will you look at that whale! Oh my. A steel and fibreglass anniversary present, apparently. The bumf doesn’t say how it was received. Luc thinks it’s the best thing he’s ever seen. On the right day, it’s top three.

It’s better, by miles, than the famous Route 66 landmark – Cadillac Ranch, the ten half-buried cars near Amarillo. There are lots of abandoned cars in the US, so actually seeing ten of them in a field is only unusual in that they’ve been buried up to their middle. Originally an art installation, it now feels like a shrine to consumerism. It’s filthy, and there are scores of mildly embarrassed-looking parents whose kids scour a stubble field littered with thousands of discarded empty spray cans, in hope of one that has a few squirts of paint left, before tossing away the empty cans into the dusty evening where they become somebody else’s problem.

It feels like you’re almost home at this point, but actually you’re not even at McLean. There’s mile after mile after mile of being on, or near, the I40, with individual trailers and single houses dotted to the side. Sometimes Americans are mocked because only 40-odd per cent of them have a passport (83% do in the UK). But everywhere, even other bits of America, is a long-haul flight away. You can’t go to Marbella for 30 quid, so the standard recreation is an RV, 4×4 or pick-up towing something with an engine for having a laugh in the wilderness. Fair enough. Hell, it’s what I’d do.

There’s a lot of wilderness to see. Monument Valley isn’t exactly on Route 66 (as in it’s a seven-hour round trip off it, so all of those pictures you see of it, including in this feature, I suppose, are a total con) but if you have time, it’s worth it. It’s more interesting than Route 66 and you’ll have had enough of the antiques shops by then anyway. You can even take in the Grand Canyon. A lot of people do, and then head up to Las Vegas.

So the further west you go, the less it feels like Route 66 is being traded on. There’s more to see. Route 66 used to spear right through the Petrified Forest, and look closely and you can see a small crown in the bush next to a line of disused telegraph poles, but it’s the forest that’s the star.

Arizona, meanwhile, has a bit of road called the Sitgreaves Pass, where at least I can put the NSX in manual for a moment. It’s like Wales, only warm and with 3G, a road so good that they’ve put a 20mph limit on it that everyone ignores. Having driven 2000 miles in mostly a straight line, it’s like they put all the corners in one place. The steering’s directness is terrific. It’s the first time in a week I notice the gearshift paddles are attached to the wheel, not the column, and you finally realise that there’s real sports car chassis beneath this thing. We spend quite a long time on this road.

It leads to Oatman, where somebody must have had a flash of marketing genius, or was very stubborn, 130 years ago, because they left things exactly as they were. Now it’s full of donkeys and shops selling precisely the kind of tat that you’d expect them to: Route 66 plaques and numberplates and firefighter-honouring penknives.

And now we are nearly home. From Oatman, it’s a relatively quick run into California (America lets you cover tremendous distances in no time at all) and the Route 66 theme begins to dry up. I suppose these towns depended on it less back in its heyday – and certainly do now. Or maybe most Route 66ers have had enough of it by now.

So the signs begin to thin out, and Route 66 ultimately ends with a fizzle, rather than a bang, as you head into, and across, Los Angeles. You pass the skyscrapers and the road falls westward on Santa Monica boulevard, where a sign signifying the end of Route 66 used to sit.

Only it doesn’t now. A couple of years ago it was relocated to Santa Monica pier, because Los Angeles doesn’t shy from a marketing opportunity, and to hell with tradition. But it’s fitting: they’re all trying to make something out of Route 66.

Is it a trip worth taking? Yeah. If I drove America again, I’d do a different route; maybe only start on 66, maybe only finish on it. If you want to see the real America, I’m not sure this is better than driving Bournemouth to Hayling Island to Bognor to Brighton and thinking you’ve seen England. But you see a lot of America, which is something in itself. Mind you, imagine getting to the end and remembering you live in New York. A

PHOTOGRAPHY Luc Lacey