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Journeys : Oct Nov 2011
It’s been eight days since we hired the car in Chicago. We turned our faces west and our sat-nav off – because our road is not the most efficient route between destinations, but the destination itself. Venerable US 66, John Steinbeck ’s ‘Mother Road’, stretches from east to west across the U.S. heartland, traversing eight states from Illinois to Califor nia. Created in 1926 and travelled by generations of Americans until it was erased from official existence in 1985, it’s no longer marked in the U.S. road atlas. Yet today Route 66 brings together a global community of travellers and locals who refuse to let it die. The satisfying clunk of its cement slabs under the tyres is the sound of freedom, signifying escape from the speed and homogeneity of the modern world. Navigating the remnants of chopped-up 66 is a puzzle and a game. Unlike the faster, sometimes parallel interstate freeways, old 66 wanders through ever y small town that once lined America’s ‘Main Street’. With three weeks to travel the full 3850 kilometres, we need to average 180 kilometres a day. But we’ve lingered in leafy Illinois and Missour i, stopping at Art Deco diners for hickory-smoked r ibs, cor n bread, and pumpkin pie. The road here is lined with classic kitsch – like the Gemini Giant, a seven-metre figure created around 1960 to advertise automotive mufflers. And it’s inhabited by proud locals like inveterate collector Gary Tur ner of Paris Springs. “Well, I never did meet nobody from Tasmania before,” he marvels. “Is there really a Tasmanian devil?” The question will become familiar – across the U.S., the Looney Tunes character has preceded us. The man in the hat sets us straight and we roll through the Bible Belt to Oklahoma City. The Museum of Art houses a permanent collection of glass by celebrated Seattle artist Dale Chihuly. Enter ing the foyer, we’re dwarfed by a writhing three- storey column of his weightless vessels. Next stop is Earl’s Rib Palace in the former warehouse precinct of Bricktown. The original Earl purportedly served as Elvis Presley’s chef for fifteen years, with catastrophic results for the King’s waistline. After a giant meal of pulled pork, fried okra and Texan toast, we’re convinced. The road draws us inexorably on to Texas. Near Amarillo, we spot long-horned cattle and spend a day hiking red and green Palo Duro Canyon. In New Mexico we opt for the pre-1937 Route 66 loop to vibrant Santa Fe. It’s the annual paint-out, and dozens of artists have set up their easels along the galler y strip of Canyon Road. Dazzling polished metal sculptures catch the fall sunlight. The adobe galler ies are full of exquisite canvases and jeweller y in Santa Fe’s signature colours of turquoise and red. As we continue west towards Ar izona, driving through a late rain shower, our dreams of freewheeling Route 66 are fulfilled. The landscape is vast. Shafts of sunlight pour through dramatic clouds onto gold plains studded with purple and blue mesas. The open road is straight and silver, empty but for the occasional roadr unner. Route 66 in Arizona twines through painted deserts and surreal filmscapes littered with mine shafts, trailers and cacti. A ghostly shape trots across the road in the heat shimmer – a white burro, wild descendant of the pack animals used here in gold mines till the early 1940s. We reach the classic Western town of Oatman at noon on a Saturday. It’s overf lowing with motorbikes and vintage cars. Day trippers love this section of old 66, and we’re just in time to catch a staged gunfight for charity. We see our first tattered palm trees and cross the Californian border. On the outskirts of Los Angeles, the spirit of Route 66 deserts us as we navigate 50 miles of treacherous, tangled freeways in crazed traffic. Dumping our bags at the Hotel California, we head to our endpoint – the salty Santa Monica pier. Home lies west beyond the haze of smog over the blue Pacific Ocean. As a final hurrah, we visit friends and cycle to Venice Beach. Back home, I send postcards of Tasmania and the devil to assure Gary Turner that our stories were true, and he w rites back. We’ve become part of the Route 66 community. From above left: Diner signs festoon the highway; The Lighthouse, Palo Duro Canyon; classic adobe architecture of Santa Fe Destinations October / November 2011 17
MNJ Aug Sep 2011