A Giant Drive to the Windy City

Reflecting on a long drive in Chicago

Driving into Illinois, the final state for us on Route 66, it soon became clear that this was a part of America that is very proud of its links with the famous road. Much of the original route is still intact, providing the opportunity to drive along much of it while the masses of cars and lorries speed along the Interstate 55 which runs parallel just a few metres away.

Route 66 – and its replacement alongside

After lunch in yet another historic venue, the Ariston in Litchfield, believed to be the oldest café on Route 66, we were heading north on the final leg of this particular part of the journey, aiming for Chicago and the shores of Lake Michigan, the historic end of the road.

The Ariston, one of the oldest restaurants on Route 66

It was a drive that gave us many opportunities to stop and take in the some of the historic locations along what was, many years ago, the start of the route for people heading to better times in the west.

Stepping back in time

Its for that reason, perhaps, that the state of Illinois celebrates Route 66 with such vigour. All along the route, signposts, information boards and points of interest are clearly marked, a huge contrast to some areas we had passed through where at times it was difficult to even work out if we were on the right road due to a lack of signage.

We arrived in the town of Atlanta shortly before nightfall, the quiet streets bathed in the soft yellow and orange hues of the setting sun. A town of just over 1,600 people, the town is very much preserved as it was in the good times gone by, when thousands of people would pass through every year on the road.

Atlanta’s old Greyhound stop

As Ian and I wandered through the small gardens in the town, looking at the relics and paintings that adorn the walls, we were approached by a young woman who was also taking photographs.

Her name was Stacy, and she told us how she works for the Illinois Route 66 Scenic Byway organisation, dedicated to preserving, restoring and promoting the famous American road. The fact that there is such a group is perhaps why the journey was noticeably more enjoyable through the state. We chatted about where we had already been, the places where we had stopped, and Stacy gave us tips on where to stop off.

Big man and a big sausage

We said farewell, and Stacy continued taking photographs while the two of us went to see the giant. That’s right – a giant. Its known as Bunyon’s Statue, a 30ft tall man holding a giant hotdog. He once stood for 42 years in front of Bunyon’s Hot Dog stand in nearby Cicero, but moved to his current site a while back. He now stands tall, if you pardon the pun, in the middle of the town, close to the old Greyhound bus stop.

Bunyon’s Statue is one of the old ‘Muffler Men’, fibreglass statues designed to be used as advertising around the United States in the 60s. The original design was of a man holding an axe, but that got changed over the years so he could be appearing as anything from a Viking to a chef and holding anything from tyres and exhausts, to, well, hotdogs, depending on the business.

As we made our way back to the car, Stacy came back over to us. She could tell we were so genuinely interested in all that Route 66 had to offer, that she had been back to her car and brought us both a gift – a Route 66 registration plate. There was also a chance for a few photos with a genuine Rt 66 sign, before we said a final goodbye and headed back out onto the road, complete with our special mementos.

With Stacy, my gift and a famous sign!

By now, Chicago is firmly on all the roadsigns, the hundreds of miles slowly ticking down and the end of this long drive is in sight. We stopped for coffee at the Dixie Trucker’s Home in McLean,

Mixing it with the truckers in McLean

another famous stop along Route 66 which has featured in many guides, books and historic accounts. Its still very much a popular stop for trucks, with the colourful cabs all lined up perfectly as the long distance drivers took some refreshments onboard. They seemed to be a friendly bunch, peering out of their cabs and waving at me as I snapped away, clearly proud of their mammoth machines that they call home. Its one thing to be doing this journey for fun, but a whole new ball game to be doing it for a living. I could tell there was a great camaraderie between them.

Mean machines at Dixies

But we still had some serious distance to travel if we were to have a decent amount of time in Chicago the following day, and we drove on into the night. At Wilmington, just a couple of hours away from the end of the 66, there was one more sight to see – yet another giant. This one, another ‘Muffler Man’, is the famous Gemini Giant, named after the space programme and standing outside the Launching Pad restaurant. His space helmet may look more like a welding mask, but that is all part of the appeal.

Gemini Giant

After a stop at an old motel in Joliet for the night, it was just over an hour before we began hitting the outskirts of Chicago, and soon we spotted the famous SearsTower.

At the wheel into Chicago

Except, its not called the Sears Tower anymore – it was renamed the Willis Tower in 2009. For me, it was the most recognisable structure in the city, having seen it on so many films and television programmes over the years. We knew the Route 66 ended somewhere near it, so we used the towering structure as a point of reference to guide us into the city centre.

The Sears Tower guiding us in

It was strange pulling into the multi-storey car park we found, close to one of the city’s elevated railways with the noisy trains clattering by. We pulled into a space, and turned the engine off. For us, and the car, Route 66, bar finding the final sign, was over. A huge drive across the United States, from the southwest corner to the north east, had clocked up 2,789 miles on the car since I reset the trip computer as I pulled out of the hire car centre at LAX.

Some serious miles are clocking up!

We let the car have a well-earned rest as we set off to see the sights of the Windy City for the day, starting off with a search for the end of the 66. It was a walk that was to take us to the edge of Lake Michigan – as that’s where I had been told there would be some form of sign or plaque – but to get there we had to walk through the main gardens where there was a huge food festival taking place. Amid the smells and sounds of cultures from around the world, Ian and I set about trying to find both the official end to the road, but also to find the silver ‘bean’, a nickname given to Cloud Gate, a sculpture by British artist Anish Kapoor.

We made it to Chicago!

Both were difficult to find, and we both found ourselves walking around for a while, asking police officers and marina officials for directions. There were conflicting views on where the official end to Route 66 was located, but firm directions to the ‘bean’ structure.

A dip (of the toe!) in Lake Michigan

After dipping our toes into Lake Michigan, marking the furthest point we could go from Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles to the end of the road in Chicago, we followed the crowds to Millennium Park and easily spotted the shiny silver structure.

The Bean

It really is quite a spectacular structure. Its far bigger than I imagined, the backdrop of skyscrapers seeming to dwarf if, but up close it towers above the hundreds of tourists who gather below. Its impressive for more than just its size and appearance, which raises questions as to how such a shape could be built, seemingly without joins and construction marks, but also because of the unique views of the city reflected on the surface. As a result, from some angles the sculpture appears to blend in to the background, the edges blurred as the reflection blends into the horizon.

Weird reflections

Underneath, you can walk through and take in the way the polished surfaces distort the reflections, sometimes making it hard to actually work out where you are when it comes to spotting yourself on the structure. It also provides for some peculiar photographs.

Big bean

Said to have been inspired by liquid mercury, to me it resembled something that had landed in Chicago from outer space, something more fitting to a huge prop from a sci-fi movie blockbuster, but I loved it. It was welcomed by people in the city from the moment it was unveiled, and overall its loved by tourists. And that’s one of the reasons why it has to be cleaned down and polished twice a day – trying to find a nice spot for a fingerprint-less photo was easier said than done. But we’ll let Anish Kapoor off for that – he had other things to get on with, including a design for the huge red tower at the Olympic Park in London.

A storm brews over the Windy City

As we took the walkway towards the Art Institute of Chicago, we noticed the sky was rapidly turning a deep, dark shade of grey. A view down one of the long streets stretching into the distance revealed a bright haze at the end of it. It was a sheet of rain, accompanied by a loud clap of thunder. We knew it was time to move, and quick. We headed back to Grant Park and towards the huge water fountains, the wind picking up rapidly and ensuring Chicago lived up to its nickname. Suddenly, another loud succession of thunderclaps, flashes of lightning, and huge blobs of rain began to fall.

Thunderbolts and lightning…very, very frightning!

It was a storm that came from nowhere, but drenched anyone without cover. The busy park quickly emptied of food festival-goers, all of whom had no dived for cover under marquees and tents set up around the site. Ian and I joined them, watching as wave after wave of heavy rain lashed down, and forked lightning lit up the sky. It was a storm that seemed to hover over Chicago, swirling around the skyline for around half an hour before slowly drifting away.

Grub up, under a shelter!

It was time that Ian and I didn’t really have to waste, but we made the most of the predicament by buying a couple of burgers from one of the park stalls and doing the best we could to shelter out of the storm by cowering under the small shelter provided by the stall’s roof and guttering.

As the rain slowed, our search for the end of Route 66 continued, again with various people struggling to show us the right way. After crossing the busy Lake Shore Drive for a second time, and with no sign of the elusive sign, we gave up and decided to head back towards the Willis Tower. We walked back up the road where we’d walked along a couple of hours before after leaving the car, and we paused to use some free wifi outside a coffee shop to do one last search to see where the road officially ended. After all, we probably won’t be completing the drive again anytime soon.

“It says its down here, in this street,” I said to Ian, trying to juggle a laptop, a phone and bag in the middle of a path full of business people and tourists.

And then we saw it. Up on a lamppost, about 12ft above the path, and what we’d managed to walk underneath completely oblivious just a few hours before.

“END – Historic Route” it said, the familiar brown sign we have been following from the Pacific Ocean.

We’d done it, we’d completed one of the most famous drives in the world, and we marked it with a photograph below the famous roadsign as proof. Our destination was reached, and we celebrated with a trip to the top of the Willis Tower.

Officially at the other end of Route 66!

It was yet another tall building to add to my list of tall buildings visited during this trip around the world, but this one is among the most impressive. At 1,730ft tall, it’s the tallest building in the United States, and with it being just a bit taller than the World Financial Center in Shanghai, it’s the tallest building I will have the pleasure of visiting during this trip around the world.

View from the former Sears Tower

Particularly enjoyable as part of the visit is the history of the building, being fed to visitors from the moment you first walk through the doors. There are a number of incredibly high speed lifts that whiz you to the top, to an observation deck 103 floors above the city. The view is understandably spectacular, offering views across Illinois and Lake Michigan to Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin on a clear day. Amazingly, people at this height can even feel the building sway on a windy day, but thankfully the earlier storm had well passed by the time we reached to top of this iconic building.

Now, I’ve previously mentioned how the novelty of going to the top of tall buildings can wear off after a while. Well, the Willis Tower has done something to interest even the most hardened observation deck visitors – they’ve installed retractable glass cubicles that jut out over the ground some 412 metres below.

Sitting on top of the city!

And, even better, it costs no extra to step out onto the glass, watching as the edge of the building disappears below you, leaving just a thin surface of transparent molten sand between you and certain death. It is quite a feeling to actually step out, mainly as, with a fully transparent glass canopy around you, it genuinely feels like you are stepping out of the building and into thin air.

Vertigo, anyone?!

It provoked some humorous, staggered, nervous walks from others as they gingerly walked out over the drop. I looked down as the edge of this famous building stretched down to the ground below me. Ian managed to overcome his apprehensions about it too, and we got some great photos of us both in opposing pods. Stepping out of the side of the third tallest building in the world was certainly a memorable experience.

Ian on the Ledge

But we had to get back down to Earth. Our journey along the Route 66 was complete, but our roadtrip across America was far from complete. The Atlantic Ocean beckons – and there is plenty of driving to do if we are to make it on time.

We got back into the car and set out through the Chicago rush hour to meet the Interstate, and a long drive into the early hours across Indiana and Ohio. But on the way to the East Coast, there’s a special place that’s close to our hearts we need to visit…

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.

Viva Las Vegas

Meeting my mate Ian in Las Vegas

I hit the jackpot in Nevada, and it wasn’t because I’d run into some luck on the roulette wheel.

It was where I met my travel buddy Ian, a good mate of mine known as Laingy, who had arrived on the Las Vegas strip in style – in a convertible Mustang.

It had been some journey for him too. While I had been driving through the night to this bright light city, Ian had been flying through the night to Los Angeles from his native Australia before hiring a car and making the same journey through the desert.

It all followed on from a conversation we had on my last night in Melbourne, where I’d been talking about my onward journey and how I’d quite like to complete the trip with an overland stretch going from coast to coast in America. One of the only problems back then was finance and the fact it would mean spending a long time on my own.

“I might be up for a bit of that – its something I have always wanted to do,” Ian said over a pint.

Meeting Ian – Mustang Laingy – in Las Vegas

And from there, the idea snowballed. Fast forward a few months, and in the searing Nevada heat, I’m walking across a dusty car park just off the Las Vegas strip to once again shake Laingy’s hand.

“Welcome to Las Vegas,” I said, laughing.

“Bloody hell, 24 hours ago I was scraping ice off my car, and now its 45 degree heat,” he laughed back in his usual Aussie accent.

It was a slightly surreal meet-up, orchestrated through free wifi spots and Facebook messages thanks to the lack of a mobile phone, but we’d managed it. I’m well on the way home now, but to have a good mate with me with similar interests will make this leg all the more memorable.

The end of Santa Monica Boulevard – and the ‘official’ end of Route 66

While Ian had to travel to Vegas the quickest way possible, I had begun my Route 66 adventure from Los Angeles by starting at the end. Officially, Route 66 was the way the population migrated west from the Chicago and eastern states following the war and great depression. Known as the ‘mother road’ it was built to help people make their way towards the Pacific in search of work and riches.

Santa Monica Pier

As a result, California is often seen as the end of the road, with Santa Monica pier the finishing point for this great American journey. And so it was only natural, making the first leg of Route 66 solo, that I took our car to the far end of the road, to Santa Monica Boulevard and to Santa Monica Pier, complete with its markers that this was, indeed, as far as you can go on the 66. Any further, and you’d end up wet, which is precisely what I did.

Touching the Pacific for the final time – next ocean, the Atlantic

Having spent six months with the Pacific being the ocean I have looked at off the coasts of Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, it was time to finally say goodbye to it. I had learned to surf its waves, been washed up onto its shores at Bells Beach in Oz, spent countless hours gazing at the horizon over its glinting waters and bobbed around on boats upon it, and now it was time for a final paddle and a photo. After all, you cant make the coast to coast trip over the States without the obligatory proof shots  touching the opposing oceans of the Pacific and Atlantic.

I’ll become familiar with signs like this over coming days

I walked to the end of the pier, taking in the street entertainers, music and atmosphere along the way. The mist and smog which had shrouded LA during my three day stay began to lift, revealing the beaches of Santa Monica to be just as stunning as they appear on the big and small screen in movies and television programmes back home. They were full of people enjoying an extended holiday period, families from across the States who have made their own epic journeys to the coast. Now it was my turn to head east, and ultimately, back home – from now on, every mile I make in the car is a mile closer to home, and the end of an unforgettable nine months.

Tribute to Route 66 at the end of Santa Monica pier

The 66 starts at the junction with Ocean Boulevard, and after one last photo of the Route 66 marker tribute to Will Rogers, one of the world’s greatest celebrities back in the Twenties and Thirties, I got back in the car, took a last look at the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, and set my horizons to the Atlantic, more than 3,000 miles away.

Have map, have badge, and at the official end. Just 3,000 miles to go

It felt completely normal to be setting off, pulling away from a parking bay, knowing that there was such an epic drive ahead. It was slightly surreal if anything, getting into a car and turning the radio on as if I was just popping down to the shops. Yet for me, this was a one-way journey east.

‘Turn left at the traffic lights…and just keep going’

The drive through LA took me all the way through Beverly Hills and past the Hollywood Sign, where I stopped for one final look at the nine famous letters, before heading out to the Interstate 210 north.

Santa Monica Boulevard

Its not quite following the exact route of the 66, but then its impossible to follow it all of the way these days anyway, as much of the route has been repaved, re-routed and re-classified. Besides, passing so close to Las Vegas, it would be rude not to pass by and spend a while amid the bright lights and high rollers.

First, there was another minor detour. There was an interesting place I wanted to visit on the way, a place that I had seen on a Discovery Channel programme a few years back, and was amazed by the scale of it. All I will say is have you ever wondered what happens to aeroplanes when the airlines either go bust, cut routes or simply retire some of their aircraft?

Aeroplane boneyard in the Mojave

Well, they get sent to California and to the Mojave Desert, a place that I have to drive through in order to reach Las Vegas. Because the air is so dry, and days of rainfall are so few and far between, metal doesn’t rust. And a Boeing 747 is made up of a lot of metal, which if left sitting in the elements for too long without maintenance, will corrode and render hundreds of millions of pounds worth of plane useless.

Scores of planes doing nothing

So they get flown to the aircraft graveyards and boneyards of the Mojave Desert, where attempts are made to remove or disguise logos and distinctive paintwork before the planes are left to sit in the sun on an extended holiday of their own.

Mojave Airport

They are easy to find, with the bright metal fuselages and tails sticking out for miles in the flat desert plains. During the airline slump post September 11, hundreds of aircraft were once stored here as people stopped flying and airlines cut costs. While the numbers are nowhere near as high now, it was still quite a spectacle to see so many perfectly good aircraft simply sitting on the sand instead of cruising through the skies filled with hundreds of people.

The famous Rotary Rocket on display at Mojave

After being spotted by a security van taking photos, it was time to disappear, so I took off down the road towards the famous Edwards Air Force Base, a giant development that takes up a significant proportion of land, around half the size of LA, alongside the dual lane route 58 to Barstow, one of the first major towns on Route 66 outside of Los Angeles.

Cruising through the desert

From here, I picked up the interstate 15, a motorway that shoots straight up to the Nevada border and on to Las Vegas. While Vegas was never on Route 66, most people who make the journey divert themselves to the gambling and entertainment mecca for a few days, if anything just to experience it. It only adds a couple of hours onto the journey, to and from the city, but it was a definite huge tick on the bucket list to visit the place.

Watching the sun go down in the West, behind me

I had timed my journey to arrive in Las Vegas at night, driving for some five hours through the pitch black desert with a couple of coffees and a bar of Hershey chocolate for company. I watched the mile markers tick down to just 100 to go, while hundreds of Californian registered cars would fly past me, no doubt full of LA residents and workers desperate to get to the fun-filled spot in the desert for a weekend of excitement.

I was still 60 miles out when I first noticed the sky ahead changing. There was a distinct glow up ahead, while the blinking lights of aircraft began to appear around me as they circled before landing their Vegas-hungry payload at the purpose built airport by the main strip.

Driving into Vegas

With two long drags up some incredibly long hills, complete with warnings to turn off air conditioning to prevent engines overheating in the scorching desert heat, the glow started to get brighter, and with a final push over the hilltop, suddenly my windscreen was filled with the millions of dazzling lamps from the desert oasis known as Las Vegas.

It was incredible how the city seemed to appear from nowhere, and seemingly stretching for as far as the eye could see. It was a moment that I wished I had someone with me to share it – an almost magical time at getting my first view of one of the world’s most famous playgrounds, and a sense of achievement in the fact I had managed to somehow navigate there without the help of a satnav (paper maps – how retro!)

New York, New York – my first glimpse of the main strip

I continued driving, arriving on the outskirts of the city knowing that somewhere amid the neon glow was my hostel, which according to its website was near the famous Stratosphere tower on the main strip. I saw a sign for Las Vegas Boulevard, and knowing that was the main strip, made a left turn and headed straight onto it.

It was hard to concentrate on the road ahead. As I passed the huge, mock,  New York skyline that marked the New York New York casino on one side, the famous MGM Grand on the other, I slowly made the stop-start drive along the main street. It was a Friday night, and I found myself caught up with scores of other Californian-registered cars that had clogged up the road as people made a similar getaway for the weekend.

Joining the jam with a view

For once, though, I was glad to be in a snarled-up traffic jam. It was the perfect way to take in my first Vegas experience, a place that was alien to me having never visited before, yet felt so familiar having seen it so many times in films or on television.

The names of the casinos alone roll off the tongue, mentally ticking them off as I made my way from intersection to intersection. The Mirage, Monte Carlo, Paris, The Venetian…and then on my left, the huge dancing fountains and music of the Bellagio, followed by the gigantic area taken up by Caesars Palace.

Everywhere I looked, there was something going on. From street performers to musicians, magicians and tourists all jockeying for position on the sidewalks, to fellow wide-eyed motorists driving along, taking photographs and smiling as this adult wonderland we’d suddenly found ourselves in.

It was quite a spectacle outside!

And still the familiar names passed by the window – Treasure Island, with its pirate ship frontage, Circus Circus with the huge clowns and big top, or the sleek-looking Wynn complex. In fact, while I was expecting a substantial amount of neon, flashing lights and huge, money-no-object structures and hotels, the overall size of the place was the main surprise for me. It took well over an hour to make my way in the car from the south end of the strip to the north, finally spotting the familiar mast-like Stratosphere structure, and eventually, after a couple of stops outside McDonalds to use their free wifi, pulling up at the Hostel Cat. My $19 bed couldn’t have come soon enough.

Friday night, my first night in Las Vegas, and I was in bed by 2am!

I’ve arrived!

The earlyish night, by Vegas standards, paid dividends the following day however. For one, the heat in the Nevada desert can sap the energy out of you – the thermometer hit 47 degrees, and just walking outside the air conditioned comfort of the hostel was enough to send you running for immediate shade. Door handles become red hot, the metal panels on the car could quite easily double as a griddle plate, and a day of sight seeing was out of the question.

“We’re going to the pool at the Monte Carlo,” came a cry from reception, raising a cheer from the fed-up looking hostel guests who were clearly sick of the heatwave gripping this part of the States.

It sounded like a good idea, and besides, it meant I would see some of the Vegas strip during the day, even if it was from the window of the hostel transport.

Erm, this could be a squeeze

Except, what the guys from the hostel failed to explain was that we’d be sneaking-in to the Monte Carlo casino, to use their pool, and that the transport was a beaten up minivan without any seats. And when they said it would be a hostel outing, it really was, as 26 hot and sweaty backpackers began the difficult job of packing into a van the size of a small Transit.

“Let me just close the anti-police device,” said Chandler, from the hostel, as he pulled a cloth curtain across the windows to stop authority eyes from seeing just how many people had been crammed into the back.

They’ll be my hands then…and i’m probably gasping for air

And still more people were climbing in through the door. I’d wedged myself into a back corner, where gradually the air began to thin and sweat began to drip from the mass of packed in bodies amid the heat and the greenhouse effect that the van had without a breeze. Thankfully, and with a record of 29 people once stuffed into the van, someone was prepared and brought along a water spray to cool us down as we made our way to the far end of Vegas.

And out everyone gets!

“Right, we can’t all go in as one group,” said Chandler as a steady stream of people clambered, fell and dragged themselves out from the back of the van, resembling something from a game of Twister that had gone badly wrong.

“They won’t let us in, so we have to pretend we’re going to the bar. Look at the menu, then just drift through the door to the left, grab a towel from the guy at the towel stall and meet back over to the right,” he continued.

Having sneaked into a fair few VIP areas over the years, I can honestly say this was the most blatant blag I have ever been a part of. Standing outside the glass windows of the bar, a group of 26 was whittled down into a few separated groups of threes and fours. Within a couple of minutes, we’d more or less tripled the patronage of the bar, yet nobody had ordered a drink. The barstaff looked confused at this mass of new customers, yet had very little to do. And as quickly as we’d all appeared, we’d all disappeared through a door and into a pool, amid a variety of excuses. I opted for the ‘I fancy a hotdog outside on the terrace,” excuse, before exiting stage left.

We’re in! Vegas pool party!

Somehow, we’d managed it. We had access to a huge pool, posh deckchairs, a river rapids area and even a DJ putting out some of the latest tunes for us all to listen to. It was a great pool party that we’d crashed, and all for the price of a dollar towards the hostel van’s gas account. I guess this was all part of the Vegas vibe.

Bright light city gonna get my soul…

After a few hours of doing everything I could to avoid the attractive, bikini-clad waitresses who were offering to fetch me a very expensive drink, I made my way to one of the casino halls to use yet more free wifi. Ian had arrived, according to Facebook, so I caught one of the Vegas buses and managed to spot where to jump off. As if by magic, and standing by his jet black Mustang that he’d hired for the same price as a flight from LA, was Ian. We headed straight to the airport, so he could return his car, get him signed up as a driver on ‘our’ car and headed back for more free wifi to book some accommodation.

Following Mustang Laingy down the Vegas freeway

Here came another surprise. I knew hotel rooms could be cheap in the city, but I had no idea just how cheap. For just £5 in the week, you can secure a double room near the strip. It was cheaper than my hostel, and I’d had no idea. It was partly down to this that we made a snap decision.

“I think we’re going to need longer in Vegas,” I said, knowing there was far too much for us to see in just the few hours we had initially put aside after Laingy’s arrival.

Brilliant rooms for peanuts

The fact that we could book a double queen bed room at the Stratosphere for just $35 was another factor. It would mean that we’d now just have just five days to drive the entire length of Route 66 and make the 12 hour trip from the end of it in Chicago to the east coast, but we’d calculated it was just about achievable.

Ignition on, aircon cooling the car – was a tad warm!

There had been a few people in recent weeks who acted with surprise when I told them about the short time frame we had to complete the journey. “You’ll never get to see anything, or stop anywhere,” was the usual word of warning.

But Ian and I were in agreement that driving the Route 66, and making a coast to coast journey and seeing all the changes in scenery along the way, was the experience and what we were both in the States to do.

Beautiful Bellagio gardens. Impressive, considering its next to the lobby!

It gave us a couple of days and nights to explore this magnificent place. From wandering around the incredible malls and hidden cities that lay at the base of all the casino resorts, to taking in some of the free shows on the street, to losing the obligatory few bucks on the casino tables and putting a couple of dollar bills in the penny slots, we pretty much managed to ‘do’ Vegas.

The Strip

It is a place that I am finding difficult to describe in words, which for a wordsmith, I know, is a pretty poor show. But Las Vegas is simply one of those places that it is very difficult to comprehend unless you experience it with your own eyes, ears and senses. We spent our sightseeing day visiting as many of the casinos as possible, and when I say ‘casino’ I don’t necessarily mean the gambling halls.

Film-set feel to malls in Caesar’s Palace

For Vegas is more than just Blackjack, Poker and Roulette, or placing bets of up to $15,000 on the roll of a dice (and that was just the top maximum bet we’d managed to spot) Deep in the bowels of the towering hotels and casino complexes, I was surprised by how much there was to do aside from feed money into machines. There are, of course, the glitzy big money shows featuring anyone from Celine Dion to David Copperfield, a whole range of restaurants and dining facilities, exciting white knuckle rides and experiences, but for Ian and I, the fun was in just being in Las Vegas itself.

Vegas -it even has curly escalators!

It was about walking around the streets and through the blissful air conditioned malls, complete with clever sky effects on the ceiling to make it feel like you’re outside, and the famous canals of the Venetian. It was wandering around and suddenly stumbling across statues that move and breathe fire as part of an hourly show. Or looking closely at the incredibly intricate detail on the walls, decorations, ceilings and décor that, at times, makes it feel like you are sightseeing on a big budget film set, rather than browsing through a shopping centre. Even the security people in each casino wear different outfits to match the surroundings.

And they sing on the gondolas too!

For people watching, soaking up the atmosphere, smiling at the power of the Bellagio’s water fountains as they thunder into the sky, watching the free shows such as the Sirens pirates at Treasure Island or marvelling at the fire and water show at the Mirage Volcano, there really was plenty to do – and on the whole, it doesn’t have to cost a penny. And, another surprise for me, was just how many families were in town on holiday to enjoy the experience with young children, even toddlers.

You don’t get this in Grimsby’s Freshney Place Shopping Centre

Infact, after hours – and miles – of walking around the desert delight, I think Ian hit the nail on the head when it came to describing what Vegas feels like.

“It’s like being part of a huge theatrical production,” he smiled as we dived for another blast of air conditioning in one of the malls.

The Stratosphere, my home for the final night in Vegas

He was right. It was so easy to lose all sense of reality here. There are very few clocks around, so time is no issue – as Elvis said in his song about the place, ‘turning day into nighttime, turning night into daytime’ – is a Vegas speciality. And the casinos have a very clever way of making sure everything is on hand, should you need it. The fact that most resorts have a McDonalds, Starbucks, Burger King or Subway incorporated somewhere within them is, of course, great for convenience, but the simple fact is that it’s a deliberate ploy to keep you in their four (or many more) walls for as long as possible. The longer you are, the more you spend, the happier the casino boss is and the bigger the next construction project for the brand will no doubt be.

Bellagio by night

You see, Vegas is a city built on gambling. It is only as stunningly impressive as it is, thanks to countless millions before me making a journey to the desert, and leaving with pockets and bank balances empty. It is a strange thought to look around and wonder at all the fortunes lost – and being lost at any one moment – which in turn will be put back into building bigger and even better resorts for future generations to enjoy. For this small part of Nevada, the recession is merely a word under ‘R’ in a dictionary.

Famous fountain fun

I could write for hours in depth about all that there is to see – in just a couple of days, we barely scratched the surface. My top tips will always be to make use of the free parking underneath each casino, and not to be afraid of driving half a mile down the road to the next complex. It really is a deceptively huge place, with the scale and size of the hotels proving deceptive when it comes to walking around.

And I could write all about the free shows too, such as the fountains set to music outside the Bellagio every 15 minutes. But I did very little research about attractions like these, and to be honest, it came as more of an enjoyable surprise when I watched them. I wasn’t expecting the fountains to be powered so high by some of the most sophisticated water jet systems in the world – the ‘boom’ that comes out of the fountain as air powers gallons of water into the sky is impressive, echoing around the strip and rattling through your body.

The Volcano erupts

The impressive jets of fire from the volcano, which erupts every hour outside the Mirage at night, combined with atmospheric music and lighting, attracted hundreds of people even late at night, while the Sirens pirate show at TI, complete with cast, fireworks, cannons and a sinking ship, brought the feel of a West End show to the street – and for free, four times a night.

Driving along the Vegas strip

Visiting Vegas on a backpacker budget was always going to be tricky, but with careful planning in the time we had, we set a schedule of all the free shows and made our way along the strip seeing all that there was on offer. It was proof that you don’t necessarily need buckets of cash to visit the place, and infact, there were many people using the cheap accommodation to relax by the pool by day, and just take in the atmosphere at night.

Backpacking…Vegas style!

I did, of course, have a flutter, setting myself a tight limit of $50 to play with during my three nights in the city. With $40 still burning a hole in my wallet on the final night, it was time to hit the blackjack table in the Stratosphere before bed. Well, you can’t come to Vegas without at least having a little bit of a gamble, right?

Half an hour in, I was holding my own. My piles of $5 had actually grown, and I’d hit blackjack a couple of times. I sensed I was having a run of luck, and started adding more chips to my stake. For a while, it went well, almost doubling my initial playing fund.

One of the casinos

And then I began to listen to the croupier, a lovely Chinese woman who I think enjoyed the experience as much as Ian and I, laughing along as we made jovial remarks about the way the hands were falling. But then, as quickly as the good run began, the bad luck came in, probably helped by her not so good advice. The dealer began hitting 21 on almost every hand, beating my 19s and 20s even when pulling up to five or six cards from the stack. By 3am, I was down to my last few chips. I put all of them on the table, apart from one.

I promptly lost, but put my final remaining, white, $1 chip in my camera case.

It’s true, the casino, in the end, will always win, especially here. But my last chip from Las Vegas wasn’t going back into the Stratosphere bank. It was joining us on the Route 66 adventure, and coming home with me.

I will…when I’ve saved up some more pennies!