There’s a chance that when US Highway 66 was completed in 1926, the minds behind it didn’t realise that they had created a future novelty goldmine for avid roadtripper tourists. They thought the road they had built served a geographical purpose. “Rejoice!”, they said, “for now we can traverse these great lands all the way to the West Coast and escape the dust bowl!” And they all left Oklahoma in a pickup truck.
Nowhere in The Grapes of Wrath does it mention that in order to get there, they would pass by sixty five giant plastic dinosaurs and the World’s Largest Rocking Chair. Route 66 is truly juxtaposition between manmade insanity and natural wonders. I drove down it in a Ford Xcape in late 2014. Let me explain what I discovered.
Landscapes larger than life
One of the most beautiful things about North America is the way the landscape constantly changes, and this is especially apparent when you drive down a road that traverses almost the entirety of it.
Once you leave the lightning rod adorned skyscrapers of Chicago behind, you enter the cornfields of the Midwest which gradually give way to the sweeping prairies of the Great Plains. Here, the humidity will turn your hair to feathers. The air is thick with the sound of crickets – giant crickets that will send you running back to the car in fright. And the insects are not the only giant things you’ll see here.
Somewhere in the Missouri wilderness I find the town of Fanning, and a trading post that has a gift shop in the front, a taxidermy studio in the back and the World’s Largest Rocking Chair sitting outside in the car park, without explanation (but with a sign saying you must not climb – or presumably rock – on the rocking chair).
Neighbouring Oklahoma plays home to The World’s Largest Totem Pole, another large thing that I excitedly ticked off my to-see list. After Oklahoma comes Texas, where the skies are big, and there are great expanses of flat, scrubby grassland covered in cows. There’s one more ‘world’s largest’ thing here, and of course, because this is Texas, it is a giant cross. My friends and I stop here to join the Last Supper that is permanently taking place in stone beneath the cross, offending a coachload of religious tourists in the process. Then it’s onwards towards the horizon.
Once you cross the border into New Mexico, the terrain changes again and flat land becomes sweeping mesas and mountains. The green turns to burnt orange and plant life shrinks and eventually disappears, giving way to desert.
Heading into dinosaur country
In northern Arizona, the road stretches off into the distance until it becomes a dot on the horizon. Stepping out of the car here feels like climbing into a fire. The Arizona desert is where many dinosaur skeletons have been discovered. The neon signs of Route 66 start becoming interspersed with giant dinosaur models and suddenly the roadside is Jurassic Park. And I love dinosaurs, so I am now childlike with glee.
I approach the desert town of Holbrook, and the volume of dinosaurs increases until there are more dinosaurs than people. That’s when the wigwams appear on the horizon. Rolling into the parking lot at sunset, I am surrounded by dozens of other Route 66 tourists. Most of them are only stopping to take photos. Perhaps they were sensible enough not to get carried away by the novelty value of staying inside something where all the walls slant towards you and creature comforts are replaced with approximately a square inch of space and a shower that resembles a cave.
I am not this sensible – I am staying in a concrete wigwam. There is no Wi-Fi in the wigwam and while we may be retracing the steps of a thousand Americans in the 1930s, we haven’t yet learned to survive without Internet in this wilderness. Wigwam dwellers congregate outside the main reception building, and we all ignore each other as moths fly at our phone screens and we update Facebook. Later on, my friends and I will sit outside our wigwam, staring up at the enormous star-filled sky, with two bearded bikers from Oklahoma, who smoke weed and ask us if those pesky Germans are still giving us trouble. We tell them the Germans are our friends now. They look confused.
From wigwams to train carriages
The next day we leave our wigwams and the half-baked bikers behind us, to go find the next novelty on our adventure. And it’s true that every single place has some kind of novelty value now. The desert is a weird and barren place, dotted with neon against the dusty burnt ground. I’m headed in the direction of the most neon, novelty and insane desert-surrounded place of all – Las Vegas. But before I can reach the slots and the steak buffets, it’s time to temporarily swap the desert for pine forest, as I approach my next odd destination, near Flagstaff, Arizona. I am about to spend the night in a converted train car.
My friend Erica and I are initially very excited about staying in a train caboose, and I am in a state of excitement not befitting a 30 year old, because there is a bunk bed. What should be happening is an all-out passive-aggressive ‘no you take it, no you take it’ style battle between two adults over the adult double bed.
What is actually happening is that I am climbing into the top bunk, shrieking. This is where I realize that it is a thousand degrees up here, which really, is to be expected when you plonk a metal train carriage down under a blazing sun and then expect people to go and live in it. I climb down, feeling deflated. We abandon the train and go next door to see the giant crater in the ground otherwise known as the Grand Canyon. Novelty value is all very well but this thing has been sitting here for millions of years, not altered by humans much at all – and it’s doing just fine.
When we return to the train that night, it is colder than the Arctic inside, and also full of moths. I huddle up in the bottom bunk under my inadequate blanket and consider waiting for Erica to fall asleep and then steal her covers as well. Moths fly into my ears and nostrils (or so I imagine). In the morning I am a block of ice. Outside it is 30 C but I am shivering.
It is okay, though, because that night we roll into Vegas and stay in a luxury hotel along with several thousand others, including Katy Perry, and it is boiling hot again. And then we are surrounded by so much tackiness that everything from the last few days seems like a trivial joke. Because here in Vegas, there’s an Eiffel Tower. And an entire New York City. And a seven storey store dedicated to Coca Cola merchandise. I briefly consider buying a T-shirt that purports to smell like Cherry Coke when sniffed. Everything here has been taken to the nth degree in terms of novelty insanity.
The dazzling, disorientating lights of Vegas
The next few days will be spent in a haze, shuffling up escalators and down walkways alongside eleven thousand stag parties. It will take seventeen hours to get down the street. A taxi driver will point out the spot where Tupac got shot. We’ll gamble and lose more than we win (although there is the CRAZY night in which I win $60 at a Wizard of Oz themed slot machine and then find a balloon which will come with me everywhere I go) and then leave this 24 hour party behind us to head west again, towards the ultimate sunset: the one that happens above the Pacific Ocean.
The last days of this voyage yield less tack, because the desert has become really barren now and it’s almost as if the road is as tired as we are, and can’t be bothered to be ridiculous anymore. We drive into California and soon hit the traffic that continues all the way into Santa Monica, our last stop. We stay in a bright turquoise art deco style hotel named The Georgian, which proudly displays the names of the 1930’s movie stars that slept in each room. This last gasp of novelty value is a fitting end to a 3 week journey that has been filled with very little else. I try to enjoy it but am now exhausted.
It’s time for a day lying on the beach, and so this is what I do. It is October, it is 32 C in the shade. It still doesn’t feel real but that’s the point. Route 66 is about suspending real life and your disbelief and jumping headlong into 2,400 miles of natural beauty contradicted by absolute nonsense.
I cannot recommend it enough.