Monday 20 May 2019

Around the world with Francis Brennan

In his new book, A Gentleman Abroad: Francis Brennan's Travel Tales, the much-loved hotelier recounts his journeys across the globe and the adventures and mishaps that ensue along the way. From Vietnam to the Vatican, India to Australia, it is a grand tour of his best travel memories, inspiring you to see the world in a new light. In this exclusive extract from the book, he recounts his recent bucket-list trip along America's great Route 66

Francis Brennan on his travels
Francis Brennan on his travels
A Gentleman Abroad: Francis Brennan's Travel Tales

I have only just returned from the trip of a lifetime, driving the legendary Route 66 in an RV motorhome. I have read about this iconic road many times, and, of course, I remember the famous Nat King Cole song (Get Your Kicks on) Route 66. The song was written by a man called Bobby Troup, who packed his car and headed west along the famous route to make his name in Hollywood, just as so many had before him. As you can imagine, I was absolutely delighted when my nieces and nephews gave me a present of this trip, because, in spite of all my travelling, I was dying to get a sense of the real America, driving west to the Pacific Ocean.

Built in 1926, this road became known as America's Main Street, or the Mother Road and is 3,940km in length, running from Chicago through the states of Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and finally into California, where the route ends on Santa Monica pier on the shores of the Pacific. Along the way, it throws up a variety of landscapes, from the flat plains of the Midwest, to the desert landscapes of Flagstaff and curious town names like Cuba, Lebanon, Chelsea, Yukon, Clinton, Groom, Vega, Grants, Scallop, Winslow, Essex, Barstow and Beverley Hills until finally, the vast Pacific opens up in front of you.

I could write a whole book on the trip, but for the purposes of this little essay, I'm going to offer just a few highlights of my own three weeks spent on the road: they may not always feature on other people's itineraries, but I think that they offer a real flavour of this all-American experience, with a few little diversions to visit places of interest along the way.

I began in Chicago, Illinois, where I and my travelling companion, Frank, picked up our RV, and had a good nose around its roomy interior. It was very spacious with two double-bed sized bunks, one behind the driving seats and one that pulled out of a little shelf above them. It also had all mod cons, from a cooker and fridge to ample storage space for me to store the bright orange camping pots and pans that one of my nieces had given me for the trip. Now, I feel that I should add here that while the RV is a classic and comfortable way to drive Route 66, it certainly isn't the cheapest. RVs eat petrol - the Americans don't do diesel or any biofuels - and we found that a day's driving cost a pricey $160. Our RV was part of the package, but I think that if you're doing it yourself and are in a little group, car hire and motels might well be cheaper. Heading south from Chicago sees you on the start of the Route and Springfield, Illinois, the state capital.

Just north of Springfield lies Funks Grove, the next stop for Frank and myself. It's the home of Funks Grove Maple Syrup, but it's also of great interest to Irish visitors, because of the Celtic cross built there to commemorate a group of Irish emigrants. The monument is in a lovely wooded area and its inscription tells you that these 'more than fifty souls' helped to build the Chicago and Alton Railroad 'far from the old homes of their hearts, yet forever short of the new homes of their hopes'.

The story goes that when these men died, the bodies of these poor souls were simply piled up by the rail tracks as no one would take charge of burying them. That is, until a local farmer of German ancestry, by the name of Funk-Stubblefield, offered to bury them in a mass grave on his own farm, which later became a cemetery. I learned that the Funks were no ordinary farming family but one of the wealthiest in Illinois and Isaac Funk was a friend of none other than Abraham Lincoln.

The Irish emigrant story came to people's attention in the late 1980s and the McLean County Historical Society researched it and decided that it was time to commemorate the event with the fine inscription. While we were there admiring the monument, a lovely lady came up to us, asking if we were Irish. "It's so nice to see Irish people come by," she said. "Because they'd never be remembered otherwise." I found it very moving to think of these 50 souls, some of whom might be my ancestors or yours, travelling over the Atlantic to the Midwest, in search of a new life, only to die there. We were very moved by it.

Wonder of engineering

Travelling south of Funk's Grove, you come to St Louis, Missouri, on the banks of the great Mississippi River, with all of the history that city offers. I was delighted to visit it because of my old friend, Shirley Dooley, whose funeral I had tried too hard to attend, and was warmly welcomed by her daughter, Peggy and son-in-law, Tony.

In St Louis, be sure to visit the Gateway Arch, built to commemorate the great push westwards in the 19th Century, even if only to experience the unbelievable lift system to get you to the top. It's brilliant - as you might expect a lift in an arch to be. You sit into a kind of pod, your knees touching your fellow passengers, and this pod zig-zags up the arch, like the steps of stairs, until it reaches the top. A wonder of engineering.

This area has undergone a huge regeneration, with the road being dropped to run below ground and a lovely new park being built in time for the July 4, 2018 celebrations. We also visited Ted Drewes famous frozen-custard shop, which is legendary, with a huge queue outside. You can't call it ice cream, though, even if I couldn't tell the difference, or Ted goes mad! Whatever it was, it was delicious, and I got a Ted Drewes T-shirt as a souvenir.

On to Branson, Missouri, we drove. It has to be seen to be believed! It's a resort town in the Ozarks, a picturesque area of forest and lakes that stretches across Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas. My friend Frank declared Branson to be "like Bray on steroids!" I mean this in a good way, that it's a mixture of entertainment and pizazz.

This resort grew out of humble beginnings when the singer Andy Williams, of Moon River fame, got tired of touring and decided he wanted to find a place where he could perform year-round. For some reason, he picked Branson, this little town in Missouri, and built a theatre there, aptly called the Moon River Theatre. It quickly became a destination spot and the highlight of Andy Williams' performing year was his famous Christmas special, broadcast live from Branson.

I suppose it'd be a bit like the Rose of Tralee mixed with the Eurovision Song Contest - huge.

Nowadays, Branson is home to over 50 theatres with the likes of The Osmonds, Tony Orlando and Dionne Warwick performing regularly. We even saw billboards advertising Nathan Carter and Daniel O'Donnell! They come for a month each and fill a theatre of 600 seats twice or three times a day - I was told that they are very popular because of their clean-cut image. There are no punk rockers in Branson! There are also shows with a religious format, like the epic Samson, a story to delight residents of the Christian heartland of America.

Family fun

Frank and I wondered where the huge crowds thronging this isolated spot came from and we learned that the whole town was built on the premise of 'build it and they will come.' Promoters visit homes for the elderly and clubs around the States and thousands of people are bussed in from all over the place to this little century-old town, which, thanks to some clever marketing and promotion, has become a place that attracts over 7m visitors a year. Visitors will often attend three shows a day, with performances at 2.30pm, 5.00pm and 7.30pm, and even though they can hardly remember what show is what with all of the excitement, they all seemed to be having a good time.

Frank and I went to see Clay Cooper, a country and western singer, just to say that we'd taken in a show, and he was actually very good. He had some great stage banter, Joe Dolan style - at one point, he asked the audience if they needed some refreshments and someone piped up, "A Bud Light!" Well, there was audible gasp from this conservative audience, as this is not a drinking place. Clay Cooper gave out to the poor man, but when the second half opened, true to his word, Clay said, "I have a surprise," and he produced two cans of Bud Light. "I ran out to the garage at half-time and got them for you." He probably had, or someone had anyway, because there was absolutely no bar in the theatre.

Clay Cooper is a married man in his 50s, and his wife is a dancer and his two children also perform in the show, so it's very much family fun. It has to be said, there was a touch of the school concert about the whole thing, but I found it highly entertaining.

Our next stop was Oklahoma, a nice mid-western city that has sadly become best known for the terrible 1995 bombing by the anti-government terrorist Timothy McVeigh, when 168 people were killed, including many young children. There is a very moving monument to those who lost their lives at the spot where the bombing occurred, a park full of sculpted empty chairs going from big to small, one for every person who died. The museum is also a must visit, as it tells the story in a straightforward and engaging way right until the execution of McVeigh. A really moving place.

On a happier note, Oklahoma is also the home of the Will Rogers Memorial Rodeo in Vinita. Known as the Cowboy Philosopher, Will Rogers was once one of America's biggest movie stars, one of the heroes of the vaudeville years. This actor of Cherokee stock is remembered fondly in Oklahoma, not least because of his many funny quotes. One of my favourites is, "I don't make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts," which has a certain resonance these days. I also think that this saying of his is very apt: "Do the best that you can, and don't take life too serious." True.

Gas stations and diners are scattered all along Route 66, many restored to their 1950s glory, with Coke machines and their original gas pumps, which really add atmosphere to the drive, even if some of the old route actually runs alongside the new interstate, which surprised me a little. However, there is still a lot of genuine Route 66 to be seen, from motels, many with their original signs 'out front' and truck stops to bridges, such as the famous William H Murray bridge near Bridgeport, Oklahoma. It's a prime example of a 'pony truss', for you bridge enthusiasts, and its 38 truss arches are very impressive as you drive over the South Canadian river.

The way to Amarillo

As you go through Oklahoma towards Texas, you wander in and out of Native American territories, and road signs tell you that you are entering Cherokee or Muskogee or Cheyenne lands. In fact, there are 39 tribes in this part of the route. A look at the very helpful website americanindiansandroute66.com informed me that Oklahoma is a combination of two Choctaw words: 'ukla' which means person and 'huma' which means red. I also learned about famous Native Americans such as Will Rogers, but also a man called Andrew Hartley Payne, a Cherokee who won the inaugural 3,400-mile road race to celebrate the opening of Route 66. He won $25,000, which must have been an enormous sum at the time and, like a good son, he paid off his parents' mortgage with the proceeds.

Amarillo, Texas, was our next stop. It's known as the home of the largest wind farms in the country, but also home to the biggest steak house, The Big Texan Steak Ranch. Built on Route 66 by a man called Bob Lee in the 1960s, it soon became an iconic stopping-off point for travellers, and the sign, held by a giant cowboy, became famous. Bob Lee was clearly a canny man, because when Route 66 was replaced by the new interstate in the 1970s, he had a bigger restaurant built beside the motorway and moved the cowboy up there for good measure. He was obviously a born entrepreneur.

Our RV stop was a short drive from the ranch, and they sent a huge limo bedecked in steer horns to bring us there. The driver told me that they take up to 600 people a day to the restaurant in limos like this. Imagine if we ferried everyone to the Park Hotel, Kenmare, in a limo. If we did, our guests might well get notions!

Amarillo is also home to a rather strange attraction, the Cadillac Museum, which consists of a row of Cadillac cars, half-buried in an open field, which you can decorate with spray paint. It's an art form of a kind, I suppose, and I did make my mark on it, even if I thought "only in America" while doing so!

New Mexico, the next state on our drive, has some lovely all-American diners and motels, such as the Blue Swallow in Tucumcari, which still proudly displays the original road sign, as well as bedrooms with vintage furnishings and my favourite, the El Rancho in Gallup, which has the most fantastic facade with Greek columns and a huge pink neon surround. It was originally a film location, so many of Hollywood's finest, from Kirk Douglas to Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, even Ronald Reagan, stayed there, and the lofty interior, with its dark wood, is a sight to behold.

Cowboy movies

Bard, New Mexico, is best known for Russell's Travel Center, a diner and truckstop, which also has a car museum, and you don't have to be a car nut to enjoy it. I certainly admired the huge Cadillacs, Corvettes and Chevrolets with their fold-out trays for your popcorn at the drive-in, or the roof that slides back under the trunk of the car.

They are testament to the American love of the car and also to a time and a place when America did everything bigger and better - it truly ruled the world, and on Route 66, you can see just how. New Mexico is where the desert landscape really unfolds and as we drove on to Arizona, rock formations and mountains began to appear, which reminded me of all the cowboy movies I'd watched as a child. I could just see Gary Cooper standing there, guns at the ready.

The nature in Arizona is unbelievable. Of course, there's the Grand Canyon, which was a bit far north for us to visit this time, as was Monument Valley, the backdrop to many a cowboy movie, but Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest National Park were new discoveries. Painted Desert has remarkable colours in its layers of rock, laid down over millions of years, and the Petrified Forest, with its thousands of fallen trees filled with a myriad of colours, felt like something from a science-fiction novel.

Our guide told us that over 200m years ago the forest was buried in volcanic ash, then slowly the wood was embalmed with silica and then in essence became stone. Nature is unbelievable. We also went to the site of a huge meteor crater, near Scottsdale, one mile wide and four miles in circumference, which apparently is very recent in geological terms at a mere 50,000 years old! All I can remember is that it was absolutely baking and watching in astonishment as a group took a tour down into the crater - they'd boil alive, I thought.

One little side trip took us to Sedona, Arizona, and if you want spectacular mountain vistas, then this is the place for you. I drove Frank mad with all the ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the scenery! Sedona is lovely, but you'll need plenty of money, as this is the most expensive stop on the trip. I paid for a smoothie and a two-scoop cone there and the server said, "That'll be 21 dollars and 85 cents please." For a smoothie and an ice cream!

My advice would be to enjoy looking around, but keep your money in your pocket. Sedona has a big New Age movement in it and offers lots of spiritual courses for those - with money -who are into soul-searching.

We then travelled over the mountain to Oatman, Arizona, another cowboy town, but with a simpler feel than that of chichi Sedona. It made its mark as a producer of large quantities of gold, but those years are long gone and after falling into decline, it is now a real-life, Wild West town. It feels very authentic, with the little clapboard houses and wooden store fronts, and people wear vintage clothing, clearly dressing the part. They have a number of daily 'shoot-outs' on the main street, which are highly entertaining.

Oatman is also famous as the honeymoon location of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, two of the stars of Hollywood's Golden Age, who spent the first night of their honeymoon in the Oatman Hotel. The room is perfectly preserved, including the tiny bed - they really were much smaller in those days, unless one of them slept on the floor!

Today, the town is also famous for its many wild donkeys or burros, as they are also called. These donkeys were left behind after the goldmines closed and they took up residence in the town, wandering the streets and being fed by the locals and by visitors. You can buy special packs of food which have been prepared for donkey diets to feed them, and they all look very healthy on it.

Lake Havasu City, our next stop, was a very modern town, which grew up in the spot where a local entrepreneur recreated London Bridge, having imported an actual bridge from London that had once crossed the River Thames. This man, Robert P McCulloch, bought the bridge and had it moved, lock, stock, and barrel to this spot in Arizona. Lake Havasu City is also a hot spot for the famous, or infamous, Spring Break, when the students get their holidays in America. They all flock to this town and London Bridge itself is a huge tourist draw.

I have to say, I found the bridge to be very impressive, but a bit out of place in this setting surrounded by tacky 'English pubs' and tearooms. A touch of Vegas here, I think! A final interesting stop in Arizona was a place called Winslow, which was immortalised in the Eagles' song Take it Easy. They haven't been slow to capitalise on the connection and you can have your photo taken in the exact same spot that songwriters Glenn Frey and Jackson Browne immortalised in the lyrics.

When we reached Carson, California, we returned our RV and rented a car to head to San Diego for two nights before returning to it and finally reaching the end of the road at Santa Monica pier.

I had been there many times but after a journey of 4,000km, including our little diversions from the main route, this was a special homecoming. The pier is so vibrant with the big Ferris wheel, guys doing three-card tricks, juggling, fire-eating and the throngs of people from all over the world, all enjoying the Californian sunshine. We had our picture taken in front of the iconic Route 66 sign.

I spend a lot of my time in aeroplanes, but there truly is nothing like zipping along, the wind in your hair, the road stretching in front of you. I can see why it appealed, and continues to appeal, to so many Americans. It really embodies the spirit of the country, that sense of hopefulness and a brighter future, and, of course, the freedom of the open road. An unforgettable journey.

If you would like to read more of his travel tales, 'Francis Brennan's A Gentleman Abroad' is out now, published by Gill Books

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