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Have you ever dreamed yourself an adventure, one so exciting you wake sighing, 'If only....?' I'd cherished such a one for years. I never particularly wanted to navigate the Nile in a felucca, or see the jungle when it's wet with rain, or anything so lyrical. No - ever since I could reach to put coins in a juke box I've wanted to make the classic rock n'roll journey, and travel the length of old Route 66, '...from Chicago to LA', as the famous song by Bobby Troupe puts it.
Countless singers have recorded the simple enough lyric, which lists a few place names, tells you to 'get your kicks' - and that's it. So why such resonance? Because the road Americans used to call 'Main Street America' is itself a highway of dream . It carried travellers from Lake Michigan to the Pacific, from the Windy City to the City of Angels, from pines to palms, snow to sunshine. It was the fabled highway to heaven during the Depression, when over 200,000 penniless dirt farmers migrated in their clapped out old jalopies, in search of the good life in California. Poverty awaited them, as anybody who has read John Steinbeck's 'The Grapes of Wrath' will know. To cruise the 2,500 mile highway Steinbeck called 'The Mother Road' would be to tune into part of America's history, as well as countless songs. But my fantasy didn't stop at the road itself. I love the USA, so what better way to trace small town America than on the back of a great American icon, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle? A great family friend, photographer Robin Allison Smith, would drive the glorious, rumbling monster, while I perched on the pillion having fun. 'If you ever plan to travel west.......'Oh yes, I planned all right!
We picked up the bike from one of the largest Harley dealerships, at Woodstock Illinois, and soon I was on my knees on the floor, trying to work out how to pack the panniers - much to the amusement of the friendly staff. Surrounded by rows of gleaming motorcycles, I surveyed my pitiful collection of clothes for one month, and wondered where to stash it. With cameras, laptop, guide books and shoes, the brand new, 1450 cc Road King was soon laden, and we set off to ride into Chicago - the magificent city where Route 66 begins. When the skyscrapers loomed on our left, flashing sunlight, my spirits soared. This was the start of the month-long journey.
You could spend a week in Chicago, but all we had time for was a whistlestop tour of shops, the elegant architecture of the financial district and the fine collection at the Art Institute. We took in night-time blues and Cajun food at Buddy Guy's own club, 'Legends', but the road was already beckoning - and we forced ourselves to leave, knowing there was a lot of it ahead. Incidentally, people often ask me how you plan a trip like this one. The answer is - with difficulty. Whether you're travelling by motorcycle or by car, you still need to work out how many miles you can do in one day, looking ahead and working back from your flight home. It is tedious, but unavoidable - or else you'll find you're rushing dangerously at the end. A little time spent planning means you can choose special places to linger.
South of Chicago, Illinois is dull; the small towns merge - Joliot, Bloomington, and the aptly-named Normal. It was grey and chilly, and started to rain. Hopping around by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, trying to get your legs into your rain gear, while water splashes on the Harley seat - then, believe me, a car sounds a good option. But you forget the discomfort when you see famous Route 66 landmarks, like the crazy 'Gemini Giant' spaceman, outside the Launching Pad Drive-in at Wilmington. Such eccentricities were designed to catch the eye of travellers in the days when the road was really busy, not just a heritage route..
The sign above the entrance to Dixie Truckers' Home, on the way to Lincoln (birthplace of the great President) is suitably retro. The Dixie was established in 1928, when a certain Mr J.P.Walters bought a garage and turned it into a cafe, serving fod to weary Route 66 travellers. Now the diner is run by the fourth generation of the same family, which makes it one of America's oldest truck stops. The breakfast buffet offers all you can eat for $5.99: crispy bacon, hash browns, fried potatoes, sausages, eggs, french toast, tomatoes, beans, pancakes - you name it. You soon put on weight in America. 'Live the Legend' invites the menu, trading on nostlagia. And that's the point about Route 66.The thirties architecture you see along the way, zappy neon, and fabulous 'fifties motel signs, make you think you're starring in your own black-and white movie.
You meet living legends too. One of them is Bill Shea, who has dedicated his life to offering nostalgia to 66ers. He's 74 now, and landed at Normandy in the Second World War, returning to run a garage at Springfield, Illinois, for fifty years. When he retired he decided to turn the place into a museum, complete with vintage petrol pumps, 'fifties and 'sixties clothes and signs, and other memorabilia. It's his private passion, he charges nothing, and loves chatting to travellers - who stop by in scores. As we were leaving a french family pulled up, saying 'Oh regardez!' in high excitement at the vivid, vintage spectacle of Bill outside his beloved garage museum.
The first highspot after Chicago is St Louis, Missouri , birthplace of TS Eliot and Chuck Berry. It's a handsome city, distinguished by the world-famous arch which curves gracefully over the skyline, dwarfing even the Mississippi paddle boats. The waterside area buzzes at night, but equally good is the old Soulard Market, full of funky bars and restaurants, with musicians jamming in corners -and a completely unthreatening atmosphere. In town, the Forest Park neighbourhood is packed with late night drinkers and diners - and you know you could spend ages in St Louis and not run out of things to do.
But not us. This first part of our journey was to take us down through Illinois and Missouri, and into a small corner of Kansas. At times it is hard to find the old road, with the Intertstate thundering nearby. By 1970 the end was in sight for Route 66, as almost all the old segments were replaced by the wider, faster freeways, and as the main route moved away, many of the old towns just died. It was like a light being switched off: no visitors, no business. Things got worse. In 1985 Route 66 was de-commissioned, and entered the realm of American myth. The tarmac was left to the potholes; in places the undergrowth actually grew across the road. But nowadays the Route 66 Historic Association is doing its best to preserve what's left of the route, and in many places business is booming again. But when it's not, there still poetry in dereliction. You pass through little ghost towns in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, thinking of what it must have been like when these deserted diners and gas stations flourished along with the dreams of the people who built them.
Rain, rain, rain....stinging, spattering, slicing across your skin. Still we rolled on, into the wide plains of Oklahoma. On a motorcycle water will always run down the back of your neck, no matter how high you zip your rain-gear. Yet the air was soft, and the grey-green colour of the landscape were beautiful. Travelling this way you're in the air, you smell the grass, you feel the wind on your face, you're a part of the land you're travelling through. And it is wonderful. But during our month we were to encounter chilly breezes, drenching rain, blazing heat and (worse of all) savage, battering cross winds, making it an endurance test, as well as an adventure.
We rolled into Tulsa (famous to me because of the Gene Pitney song, 'Twentyfour hours from Tulsa'), and admired the towering art deco architecture - which wasn't at all what I expected. So many American cities are ugly sprawls with dead centres, but Tulsa was a delight, with plenty of good restaurants and one of the best small art galleries I have ever visited - the Philbrook, an elegant mansion set in romantic garden. Outside the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame is the most stylish wall art I've ever seen, and the display inside tells you about the terrible race riots that destroyed the Greenwood area in 1921, as well as celebrating all the briliant musicians who hail from the State. So much to see....yet after two nights in Tulsa ever we had to hit the road again to Oklahoma City, which in the words of the song, 'looks mightly pretty'. Ha, I thought, I bet it's ugly...
But it wasn't. Anyway, one good reason to visit the State capital is to see the Oklahoma National Memorial, commemorating those killed in the 1995 redneck outrage, when the Murrah Building was blown up by Timothy McVeigh's bomb. The memorial garden on the site is impressive - two huge dark walls (one marked 9.01, the other 9.03) stand each end of a thin black lake of water, which represents the 'dead' time when the bomb went off. And on smooth grass to one side are the chairs, made of perspex and glass, one each for the American citizens of all ages who died in the outrage. There's a solemn, intensely moving atmosphere of respect, and people travel for miles to share it. For me, since Route 66 is a journey into the heartlands of America, seeing the Memorial was one way of sharing the grief as well as the fun of this great, complicated nation.
After a while the great distances of Oklahoma grow tedious, and I was looking forard to entering another State. But at Clinton we stopped at the Route 66 Museum (many more of these are springing up along the route), opposite the Trade Winds Motel where they say Elvis once slept. There's an original Wurlitzer in the Museum's foyer, plus a scarlet Thunderbird - and again I was in retro-heaven. The exhibition takes you through decades of 66 - a roadie's dream, complete with buttons to push to access music of the time. Americans do these things really well - and here I have to add that everywhere we went people were warm and friendly: 'We're so pleased t'have y'all visit', and so on.
We'd been on the road for 9 days when we crossed the state line into Texas. By now I felt as if the Harley and I were one, and was used to packing and repacking my 'half' with skill, everything in place. You wash clothes as and when you can, and don't care too much about being scruffty. After a long day's ride your bottom feels as if it's died, but a shower and a beer soon revive you, and the motels are fine, with no need to book ahead. The cheapest place we stayed was $18.50 for a single room. As we cruised around Amarillo, wearing bandanas and waving at other bikers, I felt part of a very special club - wild and carefree. All my responsibilities had receded, although because of the mobile phone and the laptop I could be in touch with home most days. No matter - riding out of town to find the world-famous installation called Cadillac Ranch (set up by the millionaire Stanley Marsh 111 as a comment on car culture), I felt I could roll on forever, with only a small bag of clothes to my name. A sign said, 'Jesus is King of the Road'. OK, I thought- but I'm the queen.
We were about to hit the halfway mark. Emptiness for miles under big blue skies and clouds driven like a flock of demented sheep by the hot wind. In the middle of nowhere, Adrian, Texas, consists of the 'Route 66 Midpoint Cafe and Gift Shop' and nothing much else, exactly halfway between Chicago and LA. You pose by the sign and they give you a sticker - and yes, childish though it is, you feel a sense of achievement. In the cafe sat a gentle-looking old hillbilly, wearing a baseball cap which said, 'No More Gun Laws'. That, I thought, is one side of America. The other side was the beaming owner who assured me they would mail whatever Route 66 souvenirs I chose, since there was no room to carry them on the bike. She guessed at a miniscule amount for postage, and I wondered if the package would ever get to England. How could I go back to protest if it didn't?
It did; my trust in human nature vindicated. But that was much later - after the next, most seductive lap of the great road journey which is a destination in itself.
Click here to go straight to Part II: Santa Fe to Los Angeles.