Tracing Route 66 - Blackbourn 399

By: Rob Blackbourn

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route 66 route 66

Rob comes out as a card-carrying member of the 'Romance of the Road' club. Is anyone surprised?

A little ray of sunshine has just burst through the pall of Trump-fog currently blanketing Washington DC. Legislation now before the Congress proposes more robust protection for what remains of the historic Route 66, along with federal funding for the move. As an old-roads fan, I wish the bills safe passage through the congressional minefield.

I can’t remember whether it was the Kerouac-inspired Route 66 TV series or Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath that introduced me to the ‘Mother Road’. Either way exploring it sat high on my to-do list for many years until the co-pilot and I finally found ourselves pointing a car south out of Chicago. Interestingly we were following in the long-faded tyre tracks of one Alphonse Capone’s early V8 Cadillac. The colourful businessman apparently used his ‘influence’ at City Hall to have this initial stage of Route 66 properly paved to facilitate his activities in the Chicago-St Louis region.

While they used early-60s Corvettes to make the TV series, no one stepped up to offer us a tasty example for our little re-run. Them’s the breaks… A rental company did however have a little retro-styled PT Cruiser.

Chrysler

I like the nod the PT’s styling gave to the Airflow Chryslers and the Ford Tudor Slantbacks of the 1930s. I later learned that I wasn’t alone in seeing a Mother Road connection with these otherwise unremarkable but competent little cars – Chrysler produced a limited run of Route 66-badged PTs, one in a lovely lurid yellow. But we made do with a standard white one.

The challenge on a Route 66 trip is to minimise time spent on mind-numbing interstate highways (the roads that flicked much of Route 66 into history’s dustbin). Even with serious pre-trip research you inevitably miss some poorly sign-posted turn-offs to remaining old road sections. And sometimes you just get it wrong, as I discovered near Daggett in the Mojave Desert. Having just enjoyed the way the PT sat nice and flat through a right-hand bend at speed we found ourselves apparently rushing the closed main gate of a US Marine base at around 140km/h (the base had been built straddling old Route 66 – now its entry road). Fearing that we potential suicide bombers risked copping a burst of M2 machine-gun fire from the guard-house, I executed my neatest ever crash-stop/U-turn/full-throttle-retreat combo.

We didn’t mind getting back on the highway for a while that time.

Then there’s remembering the drive-on-the-right thing after a break on a lonely stretch of rural two-lane. Entering a blind left-hander near Oatman, Arizona, after just such a stop I had to dive off into the scenery to avoid a guy coming at us head-on. ‘You damn fool, Rob.’

Texas -numberplate

As the dust settled with no harm done the penny dropped: I was in the right lane. The other bloke, now long gone, was the dumb klutz – probably a bloody Aussie or Brit or Kiwi. Some people…

At about 4000km all up from Chicago to Los Angeles, it’s a decent drive. For comparison you’d clock up similar kilometres from Tennant Creek to Brisbane, then on to Melbourne via Highway 1 – which incidentally would provide equivalent landscape and culture shifts to those you experience on Route 66.

To be fair it’s not just the Yanks who make it tough for history-minded motorists to follow historic highway routes. Consider driving from Melbourne to Brisbane via Highway 31 and the Pacific Highway these days. Try crossing the timber-truss bridge over the Murrumbidgee at Gundagai. It’s still there, but only just. And it’s closed. And how about the NSW ferries that carried all Pacific Highway traffic over the Clarence and Richmond rivers not so long ago? ‘What ferries?’ I hear you ask…

 

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