Sunday 15 December 2019

Route 66: In search of America's Mother Road

A father and son hit the Mother Road.

The iconic Gateway Arch beside the mighty Mississippi river welcomes visitors to the city of St Louis, Missouri
The iconic Gateway Arch beside the mighty Mississippi river welcomes visitors to the city of St Louis, Missouri
Dermot Gilleese and his son Mark
The Big Texan Steakhouse, Amarillo
Seligman Sundries store - a real slice of vintage Americana
The Grand Canyon
Cadillac Ranch

Dermot Gilleece

Looking for all the world like a local bus-stop, it seemed a remarkably modest starting-point to an epic journey of 2,500 miles. Still, there was no doubting a sign in downtown Chicago which read "Begin Historic Illinois US 66 Route."

Keen to observe a time-honoured tradition, our original plan was to breakfast at the renowned Lou Mitchell's Restaurant on West Jackson Boulevard, but it being Sunday morning when just about everywhere else in the city was closed, lengthy queues caused us to think again. So we hit the road.

It was September 7 and my son, Mark, and I were undertaking a classic road trip. From early last summer, Mark effectively made it his project and to my delight, most details of what would become the trip of my lifetime had been worked out by August.

We flew to Chicago via Atlanta, arriving there on Friday evening. Then, after a lunch date with American friends on the Saturday, followed by a boat trip up the Chicago River, we prepared for some serious driving.

Dermot Gilleese and his son Mark

Purists will claim that the only way to travel Route 66 is the American way, by Harley Davidson motorcycle. Taking a more pragmatic view, which included shared driving, we decided on a sturdy, American SUV in the shape of the Ford Edge, a splendid machine of 3.5 litres and endless space for our luggage.

By this stage, I had become slightly apprehensive about the undertaking. Though we had driven from Salt Lake City to San Francisco four years ago, this would be the first time in Mark's 36 years that we would spend such an extended period together. In those moments, I silently pledged to be on my best behaviour, while hoping he had made a similar vow.

Our first day's itinerary would take us the 300 miles to St Louis, Missouri. From the outset, we discovered that the notion of sticking rigidly to Route 66 was fanciful, given our schedule of reaching the Pacific coast by the following Saturday evening.

The fact is that much of this once-great highway, the fabled "Mother Road", has been buried under the Interstate system which was embarked upon after World War II. And notably, Glenrio on the New Mexico border, became a ghost-town when bypassed by those developments.

The compromise would be to pick up the old route wherever we could, while visiting the more celebrated stops such as Clinton and Seligman along the way.

Pontiac was the first, and the name is its only link to the famous car marque. Still, two Pontiac coupes - "coops" as the Americans call them - seemed charmingly appropriate, sitting proudly in the town square.

The approach to St Louis in late afternoon was quite stunning. With a dazzling sun low in the sky, our first sight was the iconic Gateway Arch: the Mississippi River would be viewed in special circumstances the following morning.

By way of celebrating the city's strategic location for pioneers travelling west, the Gateway Arch was constructed 50 years ago as an engineering marvel which still takes one's breath away. Rising 630 feet on the west bank of the mighty Mississippi, it was attracting numerous visitors, even at nine o'clock on Monday morning.

Finding courage in numbers, I decided to make the internal, four-minute trip to the top with four other passengers inside one of 16 cocoons, eight on each side.

It was a fascinating experience, like an enclosed helter-skelter though not nearly as nerve-wrecking. Windows at the top offered panoramic views of the river to one side and the famous city hall and downtown St Louis on the other. At the top of the Arch, I got talking with a visitor from Minnesota who posed the disturbing question as to the likely consequences if the structure were targeted by terrorists. His words came as a chilling reminder of America's very real concerns about terrorism, even 13 years after 9/11.

At midday, in glorious sunshine, we headed south-west for Oklahoma City on Interstate 44, where parts of old Route 66 were visible in an advanced state of decay, no more than 20 or 30 feet beyond the grass fringe of the motorway. Further to the south-west, rich pastureland had replaced the dust-bowl of the depression years, drawn so graphically by John Steinbeck in his novel The Grapes of Wrath.

Cheap petrol and speed limits of 70 to 75mph, made for splendid progress across largely flat countryside where up to 500 miles per day was no real problem.

Indeed there was ample time for stops, like in the extraordinary city of Shamrock, Texas, where its population of 2,000 appear to adore everything Irish. From the "Shamrock Inn" and "Blarney Inn" they also boast a nine-hole golf course grandly named Shamrock Country Club. And at 175 feet, Shamrock has the tallest water-tower in Texas.

Cadillac Ranch

Beyond Amarillo, there was a visit to the Cadillac Ranch, where the eccentric owner has buried 10 Cadillacs nose-first into a field, all reportedly at the same angle as the Great Pyramid at Giza.

Soon we were on our way to Albuquerque and from there, to the truly wild west of the Navajo native Americans in Arizona where bleak, desert scrubland seemed endless. Yet there was stunning beauty in rocky outcrops the colour of terracotta and faraway mountain-ranges which must have provoked contrasting emotions in the early pioneers. And in the middle of this wilderness was a sign: Land for sale, $295 per acre.

Lunch on Thursday was in Dar's Diner in Winslow, Arizona where across the street stood the bronze figure of a musician, guitar by his side. This was Jackson Browne, who penned the ballad Take it Easy made famous by the Eagles and starting with the line "I was standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona …."

From there, our journey west took us to the Meteor Crater, the site of a prehistoric meteor strike which left a huge depression in its wake. And while our destination that evening was Flagstaff, Mark had earlier planned a detour which would take us to the Grand Canyon. He also deliberately timed our arrival for the half-light of evening, when stunning images of light and shadow lent a magical quality to this extraordinary spectacle.

Initially, its vastness was difficult to comprehend, especially the 18-mile chasm to the other side and the sight of the Colorado River like a tiny stream, one mile down. Having paid $25 for access to one of the main viewing areas, we understood why it attracts five million visitors each year.

As twilight closed in and we prepared to leave, both of us instinctively went back for one more look. That was when I noticed the tears in Mark's eyes, prompting us to embrace in a shared moment of profound joy.

After that, everything seemed somewhat anti-climactic, even Las Vegas to where we took another detour, this time to change our transport for an open-top Ford Mustang.

Sin City had changed quite a lot from my last visit 10 years ago. A welcome constant, however, was the Bellagio Hotel where, at 7.00pm on the dot, the famous fountains sprang into life to the strains of Rachmaninoff's seductive Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Gushing water, surging, swaying, dancing, all in perfect time to the music.

After an hour of open-top driving under a burning sun, we bowed to sanity and had the hood up when taking in Baker in southern California in a sweltering 109 degrees. By evening, we were negotiating manic traffic through Los Angeles and on to Santa Monica. There on the pier the following morning, a modest booth carried a sign proclaiming: "Santa Monica Route 66 End."

While stocking up with souvenirs, we were presented with an end-of-trail certificate. That was when a Norwegian beside me remarked loftily: "We did it by bike." Which Mark and I graciously acknowledged.

Later, at the junction on Santa Monica's 3rd Street Promenade, we observed on the pavement a woman in a long, green skirt and flamboyant hat, sitting at a little table set for tea. In front was a placard: "Enchantment unlimited. Perfect Family Entertainment. Irish tea-leaf readings. 'Only lovely fortunes are found in my teacups.' Patricia McCarthy Donnelly. Phone readings available." And we thought of Shamrock, Texas and the small world we happen to inhabit.

Next morning, we were homeward bound from LAX, at the end of an adventure we knew would live long in the memory.

The Grand Canyon

Getting there...

Flights were with Delta, Dublin to Chicago via Atlanta and return from Los Angeles, again via Atlanta (

We picked up the Ford Edge at Chicago O'Hare, having booked it through, which offered the best value. Their out-of-state surcharge of $500 was significantly cheaper than the established companies despite working through Alamo.

Renting a Ford Mustang from Hertz in Las Vegas was not a good idea, given that the cost for two days was almost as much as the Edge was for seven.

Combined overall cost of the trip was roughly €6,500.

Where to stay...

For accommodation, we used the Best Western chainTIt had hotels at every destination. o allow for a change of plan, we booked each stay on-line, only 24 hours in advance, the standard order being a room with separate queen-size beds, or two queens, which became a joke between us. Prices varied from $100 to $250 and none fell below the expected standard. As a treat on our final night, we stayed in the heart of Hollywood, just off Sunset Boulevard in the Sunset Marquis, frequented by movie people and rock stars.

Good value at about $400.

The Grand Canyon

Just like Niagara Falls, it was the actual scale of the Grand Canyon which had the greatest impact. And the sense of anticipation. We were driving for some time, wondering when it would eventually come into view. First, there was a sort of teaser in the distance, an apparent split in the landscape which disappeared in an instant. Then, with the sun low in the sky, it finally revealed itself in all its majesty. And we immediately understood why it has been described as one of the few things in life which doesn't disappoint.

The Big Texan Steakhouse, Amarillo

In Amarillo, the Big Texan Steakhouse seemed too good to miss. That was where our concentration on the succulent house 12oz rib-eyes was broken by the sight of a solitary diner on a prominent dais. The establishment has an all or nothing challenge that you consume 72ozs of steak and this particular candidate clearly wasn't large enough. Given an hour to do it, he admitted defeat about 15 minutes from time, with a sizeable amount of steak uneaten. Whereupon to loud cheering from his friends, he paid the stipulated forfeit of $72.

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