Is This The Way To Amarillo? (and St Louis?)

Is this the way?!

I might be getting further from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood on Route 66, but I have just met my first movie star.

Well, I say movie star – she was actually the inspiration for a movie star, in the form of Sally, the blue motor from the film Cars.

Dawn – a movie star. All will be revealed!

Her name is Dawn, the owner of the Rock Café, about an hour north of Oklahoma City, but her story of determination and achievement rivals that of any great movie happy ending. So much so, that John Lasseter, the movie great behind Pixar, Toy Story and Monsters Inc, was so moved by her tale, that he based a complete character in his film Cars on her.

New Mexico-bound

It was one of many stops during two long days of driving that have taken Ian and I from the outer edge of the Grand Canyon in the west, through the Indian Navajo regions and deserts of Arizona, across New Mexico and now more than halfway along the famous route 66 towards Chicago.

It has been a journey of contrasting landscapes, mixing between wide expanses of nothingness, interspersed with a few hills, to mountainous regions of forests, rivers and greenery that glide by the windows of our Ford Fusion as we make our way east.

Navajo land

One of the interesting stops was at a Navajo village, set beside a rocky outcrop which was adorned with old paintings and advertisements from the glory years of Route 66. Around a giant tepee and set in wooden shops and stalls, Navajo Indian families tempt tourists in with typical headdress and moccasin souvenirs. For the next couple of hours, we would see many typical Navajo homes and ranches dotted alongside the road, taking us on to Albuquerque and a lunch stop for some typically Mexican food.

New Mexico was an interesting state to pass through, and very much a place where, for the first time, it no longer felt like I was in the United States.

Cacti and little houses – New Mexico

The typical American wood-clad houses and neighbourhoods had changed into much smaller and low-rise homes with a far from typical American appearance. They reminded me of the small terracotta-coloured homes you would find in Mediterranean or Morocco, and I’m presuming what you would find in Mexico, although I have never been there to back up that assumption.

Either way, travelling through the state at times felt like we had been transported to another country somewhere, but with Texas on the horizon, it is only a matter of time before the big, brash normality of the USA is restored.

The continental divide – where rain drains to Atlantic or Pacific either side of the line

Life on the road is becoming increasingly normal as we eat up the miles. Ian and I are sharing the driving, doing anything up to five or six hour stints behind the wheel. It is not uncommon for us to fill up the tank, sit behind the wheel and drive until the gas has all been burnt, only stopping again to fill up once more or grab a bite to eat – or to top up on the caffeine levels thanks to copious amounts of cheap coffee you can buy at the service stations.

Not only that, you get a wide range of different flavoured creams to pour into it. So far, the ‘chocolate, Irish Cream, hazelnut and French Vanilla’ concoction I produced during one particular coffee chemistry routine at the pumps has been my favourite – and you get a bucket-sized cup of the stuff for less than a pound. Take that, Starbucks!

Thumbs up on the road!

Much of the driving in the early part of the roadtrip was done along the Interstate system to save a bit of time and keep to our tight schedule, but thanks to some long drives into the night, we’re now dipping on and off the old Route 66 much more.

Woaah, we’re halfway there….

One of those drives took us through Texas in complete darkness, including a point where we crossed the halfway point on the route at Adrian. With 1,139 miles either side of us, the Pacific to the left, Chicago and the lakes to the right, we knew that we were making good progress.

There were lighter moments too, including our arrival into Amarillo. Sadly, with it being so late at night, we couldn’t stop properly to have a look around at the town made so famous by ‘that’ song. We did, however, find a copy of the single hidden in my iTunes library on my laptop, and thanks to a double-ended headphone jack, played it on repeat a few times as we cruised through the centre of the town. Well, it would have been rude not too.

We found it!

With no sign of sweet Marie waiting for me, or Ian for that matter, we continued on to Oklahoma, a state where we use much more of the original Route 66 thanks to the tolls introduced on its turnpike and highway system. Besides, it gave us many more chances to see the beautiful old towns and villages that this famous road passes through, many of which were founded purely to service the traffic that once made its way through in such large numbers.

An old Route 66 gas station being restored

Originally known as the Will Rogers Highway, Route 66 was built to serve as a major path for those who migrated west at times of great hardship, looking for a new future and money away from the populous cities in the east.

People doing business along the route became prosperous thanks to the growing popularity of the highway, and up sprang huge numbers of service stations, cafes, restaurants, truck stops and diners. But, with the rise of the Interstate Highway System, traffic was gradually taken away from the 66, and with it the livelihoods of thousands of people who made a living and depended on the through trade.

Some originals still survive

Many of those former businesses now stand empty, disused and dilapidated along the roadside. Once busy villages and towns full of neon signs and life have become empty shells, a ghostly reminder of how the boom and bust lifestyle of those times still have an impact even now. It is a sad sight to pass by former gas stations and diners where the signs have faded, the roof has caved in and windows have long been smashed. It is impossible to pass by and not think of how it all must have been during the Route 66’s heyday.

But there is a growing band of people now fighting to keep the highway alive, and indeed, in many villages, those sites of historic interest – the former gas stations and eateries that once fuelled a migrating nation – are being restored and repaired as a lasting attraction and reminder of the road’s importance.

The Rock Cafe…and Sally!

Which brings me on to The Rock Café, which was established in 1939 at the dawn of the motor age and a time when Americans were starting to move around their country. The venue is even built with rock excavated during the building of the road.

Dawn Welch bought the struggling café in 1993 as visitor numbers dwindled when traffic on the 66 began to dry up. But where other small towns and villages along the famous road were being deserted, Dawn went against the flow of businesses heading back to the big city. She turned around the café’s fortunes, serving good food, a big welcome and plenty of nostalgia and memories for people making the long trip.

Just one of Dawn’s messages and gifts from John Lasseter and Pixar

Indeed, it was her passion and commitment that inspired John Lasseter and his team when they stopped by while researching for the film Cars. So taken by her personality and dedication, they would go on to visit many times, basing the character Sally Carrera, the blue car, upon Dawn.

“When you watch the film, there are so many little things that they picked up on from me and included in the plot, even right through to problems with my neon sign,” she says, smiling at me from an opposite table.

And so all was going well – the walls were full of momentos and nik naks from the glory years of the 66, celebrities would have their photos on display, and for anyone who was travelling from west to east, the venue became a ‘must visit’ before or after hitting Oklahoma City’s busy streets.

Heartbreak

But disaster struck in 2008. Her entire livelihood burned to the ground in just a few hours. All that was left standing was the original stone walls, a few charred remains and the trusty original grill, affectionately known as Betsy, which defiantly remained in situ in the kitchen where it has prepared more than five million burgers since being put in place in 1939.

Firefighter tributes and thanks on the wall

For most people, the nightmare of that night would end the dream, but not Dawn. When most experts were telling her to bulldoze the remains and start again, Dawn was defiant.

“It was just a fire, not the end of Rock Café,” she told one reporter at the time.

Tasty lunches being served again

A year later, she proved good to her promise of rebuilding the café within the original walls. A broom, almost worn to a stump during the clean-up, frames photographs of the damage and helmets worn by firefighters as they tackled the blaze on the wall of the new café. Some of the charred Route 66 books sit on shelves as a reminder of the inferno which once took hold on the spot where they now stand. Betsy the grill is once again cooking some of the finest food around, to the delight of diners from across the world.

Betsy the grill still churns out the tasty food

“Which t-shirt do you think we should sell?” Dawn asks me soon after I have taken my seat at the dining table, pushing her laptop under my nose.

There are two designs – a red shirt with a white motif depicting the grill, Route 66 logo and ‘Betsy’ draped across a grill. I told her to go for the one including the grill – with the advice that it is a major selling point of the café that she should embrace and make much more of a feature of.

“You’re right,” she beamed. “That t-shirt it is,”

With Dawn at the Rock Cafe

And so somehow, I had now decided which t-shirt one of the most famous cafes on Route 66 will be selling from now on. Dawns enthusiasm for her business, her customers and the famous road that passes by the window is infectious. It is easy to see why one of Hollywood’s most famous film producers wanted to include her in a movie, and Lasseter’s personal messages around the restaurant are proof of their close friendship.

Messages in the bathroom

After a very good cheeseburger and fries, prepared on Betsy of course, it was time to move on. As is tradition, and indeed encouraged by Dawn and her team, I signed my name on the wall of the bathroom, a lasting mark of my journey that joined the countless others who had passed through before me.

Leaving my mark…

From Oklahoma City, Route 66 turns north and up into Kansas, although not for long. Infact, we took more time taking photographs to document our arrival in yet another state than we did actually on the move through it – just 30 miles or so meant we left almost as quickly as we arrived.

Kansas…briefly

It was about an hour in the state, full of farms and rural fields evoking memories of the Wizard of Oz. Thankfully, there were no tornados, but sadly no yellow brick road either – just another long leg of driving through Missouri and up to St Louis.

McDonalds logos are a bit different in St Louis…

The skyline is dominated by the Gateway Arch, which at 630ft, is the tallest man made monument in the United States. Built on the west bank of the Mississippi River, it commemorates Thomas Jefferson and St. Louis’ role in the westward expansion of the United States.

Top of the arch

With just a couple of hours in the city, we decided it was the main attraction to see and bought a ticket for perhaps one of the strangest forms of transport on my trip. Thanks to the narrow design of the arch, you are transported to the top inside a peculiar monorail-type machine, where groups of four are ushered into pods that somehow stack up on top of each other as they cleverly move around the structure to the top.

St Louis from above

Every few moments, the pods are all mechanically moved to keep them upright, jolting and rocking as the four minute journey inches everyone to the top for spectacular views across two states. Below, paddle steamers that once filled the Mississippi sail around with a few tourists onboard, taking in the views from the brown-coloured river.

Long way down

The windows at the top were small and narrow, affording just enough room to look straight down below for a strange feeling of suspension, with nothing directly below us thanks to the clever design. Headroom was limited at times, but it was definitely a great half an hour of taking in the vista.

Mud pie, anyone?!

Heading back to the car, we stopped to touch the Mississippi, only to be surprised at finding a number of dead fish on the banks of the river. It turns out the waterway can be particularly polluted in places, and it was sad to see so much wildlife suffering the effects. We turned around and headed back to the car, looking back at the arch. From the bottom, it can look like some kind of futuristic space vehicle, something from a science fiction movie that has landed in the centre of the city.

Back at the car, the final leg of this long road journey to Chicago was upon us. We could almost hear a groan from beneath the Ford badge as we approached to wake our transport from its brief slumber. Either that, or Ian’s getting hungry again.

Getting Our Kicks On Route 66

The start of the Grand Canyon

Five hundred miles into the world’s greatest road trip, and already the landscape that surrounds the western end of America’s Route 66 has provided plenty to smile about.

From the swaying palm trees of LA, the baron plains of the Nevada desert and the bright lights of Las Vegas, its been an exciting few days – and today gave us perhaps one of the most spectacular natural features on Earth to look at.

The Grand Canyon was a must-do for us, despite time being against us if we are to reach our goal of the East Coast within six days. Its one of the planet’s most powerful and inspiring landscapes, created completely by Mother Nature, and somewhere I have always wanted to visit. There was no way it was going to be missed off the trip for the sake of the extra five hours it would take to make the detour.

Lake Mead comes into view

But first there was a wonder of another kind to visit, and this time its one of a manmade variety. The Hoover Dam is just 30 miles south of Vegas, and is one of the world’s greatest engineering feats. It pauses the Colorado River in its tracks, provides irrigation, helps prevent flooding and enables a huge swathe of the western United States to draw power from the phenomenal power of water.

The magnificent Hoover Dam

Built between 1931 and 1936, 21,000 workers helped construct the huge dam. It came at a huge cost, both financially and in human life – more than 100 people died during the building phase. Its sweeping, arched wall rises 726.4 feet from the base, topped off with what was once the main road between Las Vegas and Phoenix. Now, a new bypass goes over a breathtaking bridge which links both sides of the deep canyon. Its known as the Colorado River Bridge, and takes traffic across with both sides blanked off to prevent motorists becoming distracted by the impressive dam that dominates the view from whichever angle you look at it.

Passing under the huge new bypass bridge

And as we passed underneath the mammoth bridge to our right, the huge dam came into view on the left. At first it didn’t seem as huge as I remember from looking at photos or watching it take a starring role in the Transformers movie, but then I could only see a tiny part of it from the passenger seat of our Ford Fusion.

First glimpse of the dam

After parking up the car and stepping into the searing desert heat, we walked down to the road and along the top of the dam. It was surprising how low the wall was which separates the walkway from the sheer drop down the entire side of the structure to the pumping and generator stations at the bottom. Around them, the water visibly swirls as millions of gallons of H2O makes its way through the pipes and turbines at up to 85mph, generating up to 2,080 megawatts in the process, before reforming into the Colorado River and ultimately making its way towards the coast. There are 17 huge turbines, providing an annual power output of around 4 billion Kilowatt-hours to cities as far away as Los Angeles.

A long way down

The dam is also where two states meet, with clocks on the main inlet towers showing the local time for both Nevada and the neighbouring Arizona. At the centre of the dam, a plaque marking how it is officially classed as a modern wonder of the United States. The point offers perhaps the best view of Lake Mead, America’s largest reservoir created as a result of the dam being built. It was clear how the drought in the area had taken hold, with a white deposit on the rock faces, a bit like a bathtub mark left behind by minerals, showing the usual level of the water.

Lake Mead. Dam it.

It led me to think about what would happen if there was a sustained period of heavy rainfall, and the water level was to rise above the watermark to the height of the dam. Apparently, an overflow system, known as spillways, have been built into the design, a bit like the little overflow hole you find in sinks to stop you flooding the bathroom. Obviously, its on a slightly bigger scale, with millions of gallons of water being allowed to flow through special channels to bypass the dam. The system has only been used twice apparently, and that’s probably a good thing – the force of water gushing through the world’s biggest overflow pipe apparently wrecks the concrete and rock linings inside, leading to a fairly hefty patch up job afterwards.

It took five years to build the colossal structure, and when finished, the Hoover Dam stood as the largest electric-power generating site in the world, as well as the largest structure made out of concrete. Its an amazing thought when looking from above that what we were standing on contained enough concrete to build a road from San Francisco to New York, a fairly hefty six and a half million tonnes of the stuff.

Behind the dam

After an hour of wandering around the top of the dam, marvelling at the work that had clearly gone on many years ago to design and build it within the rock formations around it, it was time to move on. We left the car park and drove along the road across the top of the structure, thinking it would lead us out and away, only to come to a dead end.

The Colorado River continues on its way…as do we

“Oh well, I can say I drove across it as well as walked it,” joked Ian, looking for a place to turn around. We’d momentarily crossed into Arizona, but were soon saying hello to Nevada again as we searched for the road to take us across the new bridge and on towards the Grand Canyon.

To make up a bit of time, we cheated a little. Of course, the old Route 66 isn’t recognised anymore, with the road being declassified, but the giant Interstate system which took over does closely follow the old route. Infact, parts of it were built over the old 66, and for the hundreds of miles in the West until we reach Oklahoma, the Interstate 40 follows the old roadway, frequently crossing or going under the motorway of yesteryear. It means we can make up time by nipping on and off the Interstate to visit places of interest along the way, such as the countless small towns and villages that came into existence purely because of the through trade given to them by the 66.

Former Route 66 town

One of them was the town of Seligman, halfway between Vegas and the Grand Canyon, and so a great little place for us to break our journey, stretch our legs and take in a bit of nostalgia. It has the feel of a town whose heyday was a long time ago, yet is still dining out on its Route 66 past. There is an abnormally high number of shops and stores, still plying for the trade afforded to them by people like Ian and I, who have stopped off to have a look at what the R66 towns used to be like.

Its as if many of the store owners set out to have theirs as the quirkiest, most photographed outlet in the town, with anything from wacky signs to half an aircraft fastened to the wooden cladding and beams. On one building, a mileage chart showing how there was still 1,737 miles to go before we reach Chicago in a few days time. Right now, in the intense heat and dust of the Arizona desert, the Windy City seems a long way off.

Seligman

We stopped for a couple of drinks and snacks at one of the shops, opting to give them some of the trade they seem to so desperately need, as opposed to the countless multinational petrol stations dotted along the Interstates.

A quick breather!

It was another two hours of driving along endless straight roads through deserts and very flat scrubland before we reached the south rim of the Grand Canyon National Park, pulling up at a window with a very cheery park ranger and handing over the $25 admission fee. The road carried on to a car park, full of campervans and other motorists from across the States and as far afield as Argentina.

Heading to the Grand Canyon

We followed signs to Mather Point, which apparently gave a view of the canyon. I say apparently, because up to now there has been no sign at all that we were anywhere but a flat part of the Arizona countryside. With mountains, you get to see the land changing, gradually getting more and more mountainous. When you approach a major river, more often than not you’ll get a glimpse of it somewhere as you get nearby. A volcano usually has a conical appearance that you can see miles away – you get the picture. Here, there was nothing.

Breathtaking

Nothing, that is, until you reach a railing and some trees. That’s where the ground, terra firma, the rock I am standing on, just falls down to a mile below me. A huge expanse of the Earth’s crust appears to be missing, instead creating a strange, sub-ground level mountain range. As holes in the ground go, this one is certainly something to behold. I was in awe. Most people I had spoken to who have visited this huge crack in the ground had all told me the same, that is something hard to understand. It was certainly the case.

The Grand Canyon

My head was struggling to work out exactly what was going on in front of me. It was telling me I was at the top of some sort of mountain, looking out over a range below me, yet I had not climbed any mountains nor noticeably gained any altitude. Instead, far, far below and in the distance, the sun was glinting off the surface of a river, the Colorado River, and the creator of this incredible natural wonder.

Ian and I taking in the view

It’s the mind blowing scale of the Grand Canyon that has the effect on anyone who visits. Walking to a pinnacle that juts out just enough to enable you to look straight down into the bowels of the earth, I looked out ahead of me. Across the other side of the canyon, the north rim, some 10 miles away as the crow flies, but what would require a drive of more than 200 miles to reach by road.

The giant scale is pretty hard to show…

I couldn’t stop looking out, trying to comprehend the scale of what sprawled out in front of me. It was one of those moments when, as a mere human being and as a guest on the planet, you can feel very, very small and insignificant. A bit like when you try to get your head around how many stars and potential for other planets there are in the Universe, this was something that can almost mess with your mind.

Colorado River flows far, far below

Thankfully, there was plenty of information on hand to explain how a giant crack can seemingly appear in the surface of the earth the way it has. In a nutshell, its all down to the way the plates that form the Earth moved together, creating the layers of different rock, which were then cut away by the eroding force of the river over millions of years.

Shadowlands

But the information can just baffle your mind even more, like the fact that the rock you can see in the lower layers can be up to 1,840 million years old. Hard to get your head around the time involved.

Driving further along the south rim afforded us more spectacular views of the Grand Canyon, and as we progressed a few miles east, the valley widened slightly to give more expansive views of the river which over the millions of years before has cut its way through the rock.

A bit close to the edge!

With the sun beginning to get lower in the sky, we knew time was getting on and we still had the most substantial part of the drive ahead of us.

The sun begins to set over the Canyon

We thought we’d be on our way by the mid afternoon, but as we’re finding along the way, sometimes the journey can take a lot longer than planned. There was a growing concern we might struggle to make it across to the east coast in the timeframe we’d set, and so we knew we had some long stretches of driving ahead to make up time. But we said farewell to the Grand Canyon and watched through the window as the Arizona landscape showed us the start of the fantastic feature, with the canyon stretching out like veins across the surface. Memorable.

A good view of the Colorado River on the way out

We set off towards the Interstate, aiming to reach a point of interest marked on our map as ‘Meteor Crater’. Now, its not everyday you get to see a meteor crater, and with two blokes on a road trip, of course we had to go and see it. We were determined to get to see it before darkness fell completely, but by the time we reached Flagstaff, still some 40 miles away from said crater, the sun was rapidly disappearing over the horizon. But still we pressed on, arriving at the turn off with just about enough light to see over the surrounding fields. Unfortunately, it was also a quiet country road at about the right time of the evening for the local rabbits to be out and about looking for dinner.

Never tired of views like this

Sadly, one of them, a young looking little thing, went looking for food far too close to the front of my oncoming car. I could see there was a brief moment of confusion from the animal, a fleeting thought of ‘left or right’ before making the fatal mistake of trying to run back to where it had come from. Bad move.

With a thud, it disappeared underneath me. I immediately put my head in my hands on the steering wheel, trying to see in my wing mirror if by some miracle the rabbit had made it out of the back without being squashed by a wheel. I couldn’t see. I felt awful.

I know that from time to time, these things happen – after all, I never set out to be a rabbit killer. But I love animals, and its always hard knowing something has just met its end thanks to me. Unless it’s a wasp or a mosquito, because they don’t count.

We continued following the signs to the meteor crater, with Ian telling me not to worry about the rabbit. By now, its getting properly dark, and arriving at the gates to the crater, the place had closed an hour earlier anyway. We did, however, get to see the outline of the mound of earth created by the impact. Whether the view was worth the life of a poor baby rabbit was debateable. We turned around and headed back to the Interstate.

“Now just go careful, we don’t want any more casualties,” Ian joked as we set off back in the opposite direction along the single lane road, knowing we’d probably have to pass a horrible mess in the road that I had created.

“Knowing my luck, I’ll wipe out mum as she’s out investigating where her little Johnny has got himself to,” I joked.

It was a joke I was I hadn’t made. Approaching around the same point that I had wiped out baby bunny, suddenly a large grey figure jumped out of the bushes to the right of the road, about five metres in front of me. There was no time to react.

Thud.

“Woah, there goes another one,” laughed Laingy in his brilliant Aussie accent.

I have to admit, I laughed with him, mainly out of surprise at the chances of such a coincidence happening. I felt, and still feel, dreadful about what happened, but there was genuinely nothing I could have done. And now, according to Laingy, I’m a rabbit serial killer.

We stopped at a Dennys a few miles down the road, mainly to eat but to also inspect the car for any damage. Thankfully there wasn’t any, and we tucked into a huge meal. We’d originally planned to reach New Mexico by the end of the day, staying around Albuquerque, but progress was slow thanks to our sightseeing. Time was getting on, and we’d eaten far too much, yet again underestimating American portions. Ian came up with a great idea.

“Shall we just stay somewhere around here, have an early night and get away early in the morning?”

I agreed, and we found ourselves a motel in Winslow, Arizona. Tomorrow will be a very long day of driving.