Get your Kicks
Mail on Sunday
The chic blonde 'greeter' at one of the best restaurants in Santa Fe, La Casa Sena, looked at us slightly snootily when we turned up at her desk in our motorcycle leathers. She said, 'Well, we have the cheaper Cantina over there, where the staff sing, or here..which is fine dining.' Her emphasis made it very clear which direction she wanted to push us. 'Oh, I like fine dining', I smiled.
And indeed it was good. But that made a change. Travelling Route 66 from Chicago to LA we faced some truly disgusting meals and realised why so many Americans are so horribly overweight. Small town, blue collar America munches on mounds of steak, hash browns, fries, eggs, salad, cottage cheese and gravy - al l on the same plate. I wondered why Americans seem so greedy, and also why they choose to wear shorts day and night, no matter what age, or to what extremities their eating habits have pushed their shape.
But all such curmugeonly thoughts were banished once we'd crossed the Texas border, through more melancholy derelict towns, into New Mexico. This was to be my favourite state, full of sultry, hispanic glamour. Before we reached Santa Fe we'd stopped in Tucumcari, a small town famous for the number of its motels, dating back to the fifties when Route 66 was a thriving highway. Now you can get a cheap room in Tucumcari very easily, the most popular landmark being the Blue Swallow. Tucumcari is paradise for the connoisseur of neon, but that's the only reason you'd go there.
Ah, but Santa Fe... You'd want months to appreciate the atmosphere, the adobe architecture, the Cathedral, the Georgia O'Keefe Museum, countless small art galleries - and the shops. Oh, the shopping....Santa Fe is a cornu copia of Navajo turquoise jewellery, inlaid and silver-studded belts, tinware, pueblo pottery and funky clothes. A sort of madness overtook me, especially once I decided to mail a pile of shopping home since it couldn't possibly fit on the Harley. Travel route 66 by car and I guarantee the boot will be full to bursting once you leave Santa Fe. Around the pretty main Plaza native American craftspeople sell their wares - and you want to buy everything.
Yet New Mexico retains its spirituality. America's foremost woman painter Georgia O'Keefe chose to live there and DH Lawrence visited Taos, north of Santa Fe, three times. Taos isn't on route 66, but creative travelling must mean diversions, and so we set off on the Harley early one morning, heading for the hills, shivering with cold under a pale golden sky. In Taos the temptation of more wonderful shops and galleries is offset by the church of St Francisco de Asis. This is a perfect example of the adobe style, but you find the 'miracle' in one of the church offices, where there is a painting of Christ on the shores of Galilee by a French Canadian artist. This, we were told, changes its nature in a way not yet explained by science. When the lights are out the painting glows, and Christ is seen to be carrying a cross not visible in the light. My photographer friend Robin is a total cynic...but even he could not deny the evidence of his own eyes. I was disconcerted by the whole experience. Why does one long for miracles?
The most astonishing thing about travelling across route 66 is the bizarre familiarity of places you have never been. Albuquerque, Gallup, Flagstaff....for me they always conjured up small town blues, with the 'lonesome whistle' of trains hooting mournfully through the night, going somewhere, but leaving you behind. Staying at the El Rancho hotel, Gallup - a magnificent edifice stuffed with signed photographs of all the film stars who've stayed there, from James Cagney to Jane Fonda - I experienced once again the sensation of taking part in my own dream scenario as the mystery trains kept rollin' all night, evoking country and western angst. These small towns can't disappoint, because disappointment and loss are an intrinsic part of the mythology of 66 - when getting your kicks becomes an act of defiance.
It would be crazy to travel west in search of the American dream, and not make two big detours to iconic sites: Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon. It's three hours from Gallup to 'Four Corners', where Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado meet, the landscape becoming increasingly scrubby and wild all the way. And it was hot. When we reached Monument valley, mute 'star' of countless westerns, I was moved to think of the thousands of Navajo who were driven off their land on the 'Long March' and suffered cruelly. Now this parched landscape of pink, ochre and orange strata, and vermilion buttes rising like fingers into the azure sky, belongs to the tribe once more, the jewel of Navajo nation. The route through the valley is for four wheels drive only - but still, in keeping with the rock-hard biker image, we did some scrambling on the enormous Road King, sending up clouds of dust. The air shimmied. I couldn't believe I was actually there.
The next day we spent a bottom-punishing nine hours on the Harley, getting lost in Navajo Nation, trying to find our way back to Route 66, in search of more landmarks. It was rather like being a child again with an 'I-Spy' book: 'Oooh - there's the Elvis mural in McLean!' - tick; 'There's the Jack Rabbit sign!' - tick. And here's Winslow, Arizona! - tick. Anybody who loves 'seventies rock will know that this town's one claim to fame is a song by the Eagles called 'Take It Easy'. It begins 'Standin' on the corner in Winslow, Arizona....' Each year the people of the town gather to sing it by the commemorative 'park' - complete with a statue of a guitar-toting young man.
Our second 'must see' detour was an hour and a half's ride due north of Flagstaff. The Grand Canyon lives up to all expectations. Nobody could feel let down by the first glimpse of those eons of rock layers, the dizzy depths and the impossibly misty distances, while majestic eagles whirl overhead above pines and ancient junipers. Awed silence is the only suitable response. At its widest this gash in the earth is 18 miles across; at its narrowest 600 feet. The Colorado river churns 3,000 feet below. You can take a bus along the south rim, alighting to walk for a while, then picking it up again to reach a different vantage point. Mercifully, tourism has not spoilt the Grand Canyon and its wonders remind you why so many people come to America for holidays. Route 66ers are, by definition, captivated by the past (why else travel an historic route when the interstates are so much quicker and easier?) but recent human time is a grain of sand compared to the deep history of the Canyon. I contemplated it to a mental accompaniement of Navajo flute: mystical and timeless.
With one week to go, we had to cross the rest of Arizona, makig the obligatory Seligman where the Route 66 association was started by a charismatic ex-barber called Angel Delgadillo. Outside his shop are lifesize images of Elvis and James Dean - in fact the whole place is another nostalgia trip. Angel is visited by coach loads of Europeans and Americans who shake his hand for refusing to accept the death of Route 66. A living legend of the road, and 'star' of radio and TV he beams, 'I'm so happy Seligman didn't die and we helped save a bit of American history, and people come in here smiling because they've found Route 66'. I was smiling too, heading onwards to the Garden of Eden and my 'California Dreaming'.
But there's an obstacle to conquer first. Those dustbowl refugees who managed to come this far during the great Depression, seeking a better life, must have been desperately downcast to see the Mojave desert stretching ahead. Monotonous and bleak, it glitters pitilessly: a wilderness of rattlesnakes, petrified larva, and empty, retro eateries like 'Roy's' and the legendary 'Bagdad Cafe' in the middle of blazing sand and rock. Mouths parched, eyes dazzled, we yearned for Los Angeles.
The city sprawl is daunting. On and on along Santa Monica Boulevard we rode, past the famous Hollywood sign on the hillside, always thinking we would crest the next brow in the road and glimpse the ocean - only to see miles of skyscrapers stretching ahead under a suggestion of smog. Traditionally, 66ers fixed on Santa Monica Pier as the end of the road, although there's no logic to it. So that was our destination. We'd travelled in eight states, and although the song describes Route 66 as 'More than two thousand miles all the way', we'd done over 4,000 miles on that beautiful red Harley because of getting lost, cruising around, and making detours. Now - there was the Pacific at last. The journey was over.
I felt quite emotional - sad that we would have to deliver our fabulous red steed to the Harley dealership at Marina de Rey, to be crated all the way back to Illinois. Listening to the waves and the fairground sounds from the pier, I perched on the bike for the obligatory snap which says, 'Made it!' . It was the day before my fifty fifth birthday, and I rejoiced that I was still learning, as well as having fun. Travelling Route 66 for a month taught me how much power can reside in crumbling concrete, and that bothering to stop, look and chat in small town America can bring you closer to the life of the nation than a New York weekend. Route 66 is still the highway of my dreams, but now I know for sure that the 'kicks' are out there for the getting. You just have to believe it , then do it. Hit the road.