Route 66 through Bagdad and Siberia
Trip Start Jul 2003
50Trip End May 2005
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Singapore airport is apparently the world's finest, and so with our relative inexperience the standards have now been set. The flight took us over a few amazing looking Japanese islands and deposited us in Osaka for a few hours. Then it was the long haul east, across the Pacific.
We had Friday the 4th of February twice. When it should have come to an end, it simply started again. It seems simple at first but the longer you think about it the more confusing it becomes, particularly if you completely miss out 2 night's sleep and have a 48 hour day to think about it in. On the day Emma should have celebrated her 28th year on earth it was only the 5th February, whereas last year her birthday was on the 6th
Approaching Los Angeles, endless freeways blended with runways, and after landing on one or the other we arrived at our greatest challenge yet. After being promised difficulties having (a) arrived without a return ticket, and (b) having travelled through so many 'difficult' countries in the last 20 months, the ethnically diverse customs department bundled us through and we found ourselves on a sidewalk. Briefing ourselves, as usual, with the local pleasantries and greetings, "Gee thanks" and "How are you today, sir", we set off on our US adventure.
Los Angeles is probably a shock to the system coming straight from the UK, so after more than a year in Asia we didn't know which way to look. Feeling Lillipudlian amongst the hugely oversized cars, food and people we were forced to order everything in the small size. We also started ducking into shops to appreciate the heating rather than the air conditioning (it's freezing here). Picture the scene in a coffee shop. With a "What's up daug?", the man serving has wild, curly black hair sticking out from a 90° baseball cap. In one corner is a beach ball shaped, middle aged man wearing shorts and has white socks pulled up to his knees. In the corner is a guy talking to himself. Outside, palm trees and cold weather make it feel like Newquay, with the addition of overly hairy men climbing out of jalopies and ordering the biggest, greasiest food ever seen. We cruised through Beverley Hills with a 'Homes of the Stars' map, peered in Keanu Reaves concrete windows and wondered what lay behind Leonardo's hedges.
Finding a suitable vehicle, we stocked up on grapefruit and set off on the legendary Route 66 to Chicago. Suburbs became very pleasant (Pasadena), and continuously rung movie bells (Sam Dimas, excellent). Houses were eventually replaced with Joshua Trees, cacti and pastrami, and Redneck bars greeted us on arrival with, "hey, it's the English folks!" Route 66 and the parallel railroad created towns as families during the depression, couples who survived the Second World War and tourists in the '50s were dropped off on their way to a better life in the 'newly opened' West. However, with the creation of the bypassing interstate most settlements returned to the desert, leaving ghost towns and long deserted gas stations creaking in the bitter desert wind. There are some fantastic stretches of cracked tarmac open road through California, lined with overgrown 1930's garage forecourts and silence. It's difficult to imagine the quantity of packed cars which creaked and groaned their final run to the promised land of sunshine and sea and a new life. As the road wound up into the high desert it was difficult to imagine the summer egg frying competitions on the sidewalk in Needles: the ice would have to be chipped off first.
The problem with Route 66 is that there are too many tempting things 'just off' the road. During a hunt for the Hoover Dam (the side overflow 'pipes' are terrifying) we found ourselves in Las Vegas, Nevada. It's a bit like driving through Norfolk and suddenly finding Great Yarmouth. The casinos have a cleverly designed lobster pot feature of not letting you find the exit, and do they really pump oxygen into the air to keep everyone awake? Free beer whilst gambling doesn't help the search for the way out. There are a lot of people in expensive restaurants who can't use a knife and fork properly. If this place had sprung up at home there would have been an uproar, but local people here consider it a wonderful place with 'all those pretty lights'.
Now this is the start of 'real' Indian territory. We cruised in armed with the PC phrase of 'Native American', only to find that nobody actually uses it. All the tribes actually have names. The strange thing for us was that most of the cheaper motels on Route 66 are owned by Indians, but Bombay ones rather than Apache. No jokes were attempted here. Back on the 66 we swept past more fantastic 'high desert' scenery with winding mountain passes, wild west towns, huge caverns and the world's biggest meteor crater. And that doesn't even mention the awesome Grand Canyon and numerous Indian reservations.
New Mexico has several fascinating ancient ruined cities and some great unpaved stretches of Old 66. Very scenic mud adobe houses create very picturesque villages (no photos allowed) and some of the towns are amazing. The 'other' Las Vegas where Doc Halliday and Butch Cassidy once tended bars was a real find.
One feature of the straighter, smoother parts of Route 66 is the RV (Recreational Vehicle). It's difficult to understand the size of the living quarters pulled around the USA. About the size of a bus we shared with 100 others in Asia, these RVs tow a SUV (sports utility vehicle) with bikes atop, all usually driven by an elderly couple. In Texas, a horse or two is usually squeezed in somewhere.
Most of the old Route 66 has now been completely bypassed by Interstates, and in places the 1926 construction of Route 66 bypassed even older roads. In one lonely spot, the Jericho Gap, we stopped at an old ranch to see just how lost we were. A strange conversation ensued, with the old couple complaining that the new fangled Route 66 (post 1930's) had taken all the traffic away from them. We were lucky to drag ourselves away, agreeing that we'd speak to the Queen on their behalf (?)
One cattle auction and barbecued beef later and we were off. In one particularly classy restaurant if you could manage a whole meal of prawn cocktail, potatoes, bread roll and steak within the hour it was free. Unfortunately the steak was a substantial 72 ounces (that's over 4lb, or 2kg).
By now the music had moved from west coast rock to fairly consistent country and western, and apart from a few Journey and REO Speedwagon tracks little else short of a two step could be found on the radio.
The flat plains of Texas suddenly became spooky tree and church filled hollows. More woods seem to mean more scared people and therefore more churches. The Bible Belt through Oklahoma (we passed over 50 different types of church, drive-in churches, and the unusual sounding Erick's Church of the Nazarene). Instead of the 'World's Strongest Man' we had 'Team Impact' - extremely large men snapping handcuffs and other large things with the power of their faith alone. Oral Roberts is a serious TV evangelist who has a huge retro university built by and named after him. The space age buildings were amazing but we failed to get on one of his TV programs for a spot of healing (probably for the better). Instead we found a motel where Elvis had stayed a few times (good furniture) and saw a huge, blue concrete whale by the side of the road.
Route 66 jolts through Kansas for 13 miles. Every bank has a history of being robbed by at least one cowboy, and tornado shelter adverts dominate the TV.
As we passed through hunting country, prophylactic machines were gradually replaced with 'live bait' dispensers. We met too many country folk in a frightening combination of camouflage jackets, hats, ginger beards and guns living in places with names such as Whispering Forest. It was, however, relieving to find some slack in the 'social laws'. People behaved normally, lighting cigarettes and not pretending that they were counting the 'carbs' in everything they ate. Local TV was excellent, with fiddle bands in local bars providing the movie advert break entertainment. Deciding we needed another night out, we selected the 'Cowboy 2000' nightclub in Springfield, Missouri.
Will, "We hear there's live bull riding here this evening"
Unexpecting barman, trying to swallow something, "Yup"
Will, having not planned for this response, "Er, do you do food?"
Barman, still swallowing something, "Well we've got some pizza. But it's mainly just beer. And dancing."
Will, "And bulls"
We were in a minority not in big hats, and the only ones not in jeans. A huge warehouse contained a serious dancefloor at one end with a pattern of: lights lowered down=disco; lights raised up=country & western slow dance followed by a line dance; video screen down=karaoke; repeat. Every hour or so this was all replaced with an ACDC/Gn'R warning that full lights were coming on and all attention was to be focused towards the other end of the warehouse where a huge and ferocious bull was released into a heavily barred corral, quickly shedding a local cowboy into the dirt to the roar of the crowd. A couple more were discarded before the lights were dropped and the disco/C&W loop recommenced. And just what is a 'Baldknobbers Jamboree'?
As the 'Gateway to the West', St Louis was the first real sight of city buildings as we know them. Huge, old, solid brick banks and office blocks create atmospheric dark streets and the radio started playing blues and jazz. The temperature just dropped and dropped and as the snow started again we had to abandon the in-car sleeping and shell out for a old motel.
We huddled round the zoo, surprising a few animals not expecting to receive visitors in the snow. The Anheuser-Busch brewery (Budweiser) is fantastic, with a selection of their 250 Clydesdales living in luxury in the stunning on-site brewery stables.
Full of blues, jazz and frozen custard we headed off on the final leg across the frozen Mississippi towards Chicago.
In the dark we were stopped twice by the police, the first warning us not to stop for anyone in the area, and the second taking us on a guided tour down to the river to the see a particularly famous bridge of Madison County.
Chicago is an impressive city, and the accents dragged us right back into the world of TV again. With Al Capone and his chums now chased away, local folk apparently engage in free-for-all, un-metered crime sprees. There are some beautiful areas filled with huge, old, slowly decaying mansions, and the massive old cast iron aerial train lines running above us throughout the city as steam pours from manhole covers below are very picturesque. It was a great finish to a great old road, the Mother Road, the Route 66 (apparently 2,200 miles long, although it took us well over 4,000).
A short run took us through the luxury-free Amish communities of Indiana. Huddled in blackness in their windscreened, horse drawn 'buggies', small families trotted past us in the freezing mist. Simple, home produced, sensible-size meals were a welcome change. Amish B&Bs are touted as being perfect for 'scrapbooking groups', and with hosts going by names such as Herb + Treva how could you fail from having a great time.
Michigan became more northerly, with flashing warnings on the highways that 'large animals have been spotted in the area'. Arriving in Detroit, we raced round the city responsible for millions of motor cars (the Ford museum is fantastic), and Motown. Some more great aesthetically run-down buildings were admired.
It's only a short tunnel to Canada, we'd better go.
Billy-Bob and Emmy-Lou
p.s. Food, food, food on Route 66....this month we have been mostly eating
- monster burgers (was the cheese burger really invented in Pasadena?)
- pastrami (California)
- home smoked ham 'sandwich' (at 12 inches tall it contained more meat than most delicatessens stock)
- beef tripe and corn (New Mexico)
- fajitas, quesadillas, burritos, etc (New Mexico)
- at least 30 major fast food chains (eg the world's largest McDonalds)
- cherry dump cake
- biscuits & gravy (breakfast favourite everywhere)
- a float
- a malt
- frozen custard
- cornbread (best in Missouri)
- hominy (Kansas)
- fine steaks (Porterhouse, KC strip and T-bone)
- barbequed beef (awesome in Texas)
- rack of hickory smoked ribs (best in Missouri)
- pumpkin pie and pecan pie (best in Missouri)
- horseshoe (toast, beef, chips, cheese sauce; why?!)
- corn dog (Illinois)
- calf fry in Oklahoma (look this up)
- Beer Nuts (Illinois)
- Buffalo wings (no buffalo)
- Chicago pizza pie
- Apple butter
- Chicken fried steak (with no chicken)
- Maple sirup (note the 'i'; best in Illinois)
- beers (micro-brewery beer in the US is excellent whilst Budweiser at the brewery in St Louis can convert any non-lager drinker)
- Sage dressing and giblet gravy (Illinois Amish)
- Cider-baked hickory smoked ham (Illinois Amish)