Cross country on a road of dreams

Single traveller Sue takes to the route that inspired flower power generation

Travelling on your own can be a daunting experience, especially as a sixty-something female. But, as Sue Stone discovered, it needn’t be that way. She jetted to The States to take in one of the world’s most iconic journeys – Route 66.

What a way to start a holiday – 3.20am on a cool September morning, Dogs Head Street Bus Station, and all I can think is “Thank goodness not all the street lights go out at midnight“.

Reassuringly, there are half a dozen other travellers waiting for the coach, so it’s not as scary as I’d feared. Still, I’ll be glad when it gets light.

So, what am I doing in the middle of Ipswich in the middle of the night?… well, the adventure began to take shape a few months ago when I googled “single traveller” and found a veritable cornucopia of websites dedicated to people who – either by necessity or design – travel the four corners of the globe on their own, or rather with a group of similar ‘singles’.

And what a wonderful selection of destinations: delete Blackpool and Bournemouth, insert Baghdad and Beijing. Forget Skegness, think Samarkand… the choices are awe-inspiring.

But despite the many tantalising destinations on offer it was the chance to travel Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles that caught my attention.

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It appealed because it evoked an era that was my era, the music, my music, when Flower Power ruled and we earnestly believed we could ‘teach the world to sing in perfect harmony’.

Hence my early morning visit to Dogs Head Street – National Express coach No.250 will pick me up at 3.40am and deposit me at Terminal 5 Heathrow Airport in very good time for my 11.45am flight to Chicago.

I’ve been on my own for about 15 years, most of which has been spent caring for my lovely mum who died last year. So, at 65, I decided that it’s time to test my ‘adventure gene’ before it evaporates in a mist of regret and old age.

By the time I arrive at Heathrow I’m feeling a bit unsure of myself; Is this such a good idea? What if I don’t get along with the others? What am I doing out of my comfort zone?

For goodness sake, get a grip woman – it’s only 16 days after all!

Within a few minutes a fellow passenger has recognised my luggage tag and introduces herself to me. Phew, that’s a relief. Lydia is on her second singles trip she tells me; last year she visited China. Now I feel such a wuss, she’s older than me but she’s cool with the ‘going it alone‘ approach to holidays.

My anxiety fades a little.

Eventually the flight is called and we board. It’s strange not knowing whether the person sitting next to you is on the same trip (he was), and, as I’m not a small-talk kind of person (nor was he), I didn’t get to speak to anyone else until we arrived at our plush Chicago hotel.

We’re an odd assortment of individuals, only two or three are youngish (35 to 45), the rest are about my age or quite a lot older. And more men than I expected – I think the ratio is 65:35 in favour of us ladies, and by the second day we have begun to establish a tentative group identity, which is reassuring.

It would be difficult for 45 people, spending long daytime hours together in a bus, to enjoy the journey without some rapport, and it doesn’t take long for the bus to liven up. I’m beginning to feel quite confident and very cosmopolitan!

Route 66 (nicknamed “The Mother Road” by author John Steinbeck) is 2,455 miles long and includes eight states; from its beginning in Chicago, Illinois winds through Missouri, Kansas (a mere 13 miles), Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, finishing at Santa Monica Pier, California. (Or the other way around if you choose to travel west to east).

It got its name in 1926 when Oklahoma businessman Cyrus Avery put forward plans to build a major cross-country road, linking the mid-West to the Pacific coast eventually being designated Route 66. (At that time all major routes running East-West used even numbers, all North-South routes, odd numbers).

Route 66, like all major roads in the 1920s, only comprised two lanes (one in each direction) and within 30 years were superseded by eight and ten-lane Interstates which bypassed large parts of the old highway, causing serious loss of business to the townships along Route 66.

But there is still a huge interest in this historic route. It is not only kept alive by the people who lovingly maintain the small-town diners and motels in their original style, it is also a regular pilgrimage route for bikers on Harley Davidsons, BMWs, Triumphs (to name but some) who want to experience the mysterious spirit of freedom epitomised by this long, winding road.

Strange to think that a road can evoke such passion, but Route 66 really does seem to have a magnetic and magical appeal even several decades after it officially became defunct.

Many of the small towns along Route 66 now bypassed by the mighty Interstates are, to say the least, eccentric.

Take for example a solitary caf� in a ghost town in Kansas called “4 Women on the Route”, where the plump, blonde proprietress talked so fast and so loud it became clear why there wasn’t a local man to be seen!

Opposite the caf� is a beautiful, now-derelict clapboard house, which in its heyday had been the local bordello. It seems that even its charms had not been sufficient to keep the men at home.

Or the small town of Erick where Harley and Annabelle Russell run the Sandhills Curiosity Shop. The building, an old meat warehouse, is crammed from floor to rafters with – well – all sorts of memorabilia and peculiar odds and ends, but it was difficult to know whether anything was actually for sale!

Harley handed out tambourines and invited to join in as he and Annabelle entertained us with a manic rendering of “Route 66” and a few other vaguely familiar numbers, which, had they been in tune, we may have recognised.

And in the Mojave Desert in California is the township of Amboy – population seven – (no chance of a blind date there then). As we wandered into the caf�, we realised that the owner probably hadn’t seen such a crowd of people for many a year.

Handing us the jars of coffee and creamer, she set about filling 45 Styrofoam cups with hot water! There’s nothing better than ‘do-it-yourself’ hospitality.

There are many quirky and highly individual places that survive to keep the spirit of Route 66 alive and kicking, but there are also several cities en route. For example Chicago, sitting on the edge of Lake Michigan and once ruled by gangsters, violence and bootleg whisky, is now an elegant, cultural city, containing some fine architecture.

And, Springfield, Illinois where you can walk around the home of President Abraham Lincoln, the house and the neighbourhood having been perfectly preserved in all its historic glory.

Then, having crossed the mighty Mississippi, there’s the beautiful city of St Louis, with its Gateway Arch marking the start of the original ‘Wild West’. There is so much to take in – and I’ve already changed the batteries in my camera twice!

We stop in Texas for an evening on a cowboy ranch in Amarillo, we are now deep into native American country. We visit New Mexico‘s oldest state capital, Santa Fe, where we buy beautiful hand-made silver and turquoise jewellery from the pueblo Indians.

After a night in Albuquerque we head for Arizona and the southern rim of the Grand Canyon, and then on to the Petrified Forest and the Painted Desert, ancient sites once inhabited by Hopi and Navajo Indians.

By now most of us are flagging a little and would like to slow the tempo down. But it’s ‘onwards and upwards’ – or rather westwards – there is to be no let-up for our aching feet or our tired brains. So we try to adopt the pioneering spirit of the settler and carry on, the end is in sight!

Pretty much exhausted, we arrive at Los Angeles. A whistle stop tour round Beverly Hills and Pasadena, and we arrive at our last hotel. Before we can rest, we have a farewell dinner in a Scottish pub.

Then, on departure day, we just have time for a visit to the Hollywood Bowl followed by Santa Monica Pier to take pictures of the sign that tells us we have reached the end of Route 66, and it’s time to say goodbye to our tireless driver, LeGrand, as we make our way to the airport. Fabulous journey, but not for the faint-hearted.

Arriving home, tired, jet-lagged and utterly elated, I reach for the travel brochure… Now, what’s it to be? ... Peru ? …How about Vietnam? … There’s also a brilliant cruise to …

Strange to think that a road can evoke such passion, but Route 66 seems to have a magnetic and magical appeal even several decades after it officially became defunct.

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