Many visitors to the U.S. from the other side of the Atlantic go to the same well-known tourist destinations over and over again: Florida, New York, Las Vegas, and perhaps Washington D.C. Those are fine places with plenty of things to do and see, but any American will tell you that they aren’t representative of the country as a whole. If you never move beyond the standard tourist destinations, you’ll never really know much about the U.S. One of the best ways to see the interior of the country is to drive straight across it on the old cross continental highway: Route 66.
Starting with the Federal Highway Act of 1956 and continuing to the present day, the U.S. government has sponsored the construction of a system of high-speed motorways that stretch across the country and that are optimised to bring people and goods rapidly from one population centre to the next. Before the interstates, there was Route 66. Route 66 was established and signposted in 1926, and it leads from Chicago in the east to Los Angeles in the west, covering almost 2,500 miles. Unlike the modern interstates, it passes through towns and is connected to local roads.
Allow at least a week to drive Route 66, and don’t forget to spend a little time in Chicago and L.A. on either end of the long drive. Each city is well worth an extended visit. With its magnificent architecture, beautiful lakefront, deliciously heavy food and fantastic music scene, Chicago is perhaps the quintessential American city. Los Angeles, of course, has Hollywood, Venice Beach, Rodeo Drive, Santa Monica and many other famous neighbourhoods and attractions. Both cities have fantastic museums to explore.
However, the cities at its endpoints are just part of the Route 66 experience. From west to east, the old highway route passes through California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, and Illinois. Arizona and New Mexico are rocky and wide open, with old frontier towns, a strong Native American influence and gorgeous sunsets. Route 66 through Texas passes through the sparsely populated panhandle in the northern part of the state. The plains states along the route are Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri. These states are flat and agricultural. Finally, the trip ends in the Midwest, where the forest that once covered the eastern half of North America ends.
Route 66 passes through Albuquerque, Oklahoma City, Tulsa and St. Louis, all medium sized cities. However, most of the route is set in the rural areas and small towns of America’s west. When you visit these parts of the U.S., you’ll understand the vast landscapes and the isolation that lies behind many of the most iconic stories in American film and literature. You’ll develop a visceral understanding of manifest destiny, the old west and the great depression. Stories like the Wizard of Oz will come alive. You’ll experience the unique cultures of the isolated places that lay outside of America’s sprawling mega-cities and slick tourist destinations.
The web has plenty of sites that can help you plan a car trip along Route 66. They list both mainstream and quirky options for accommodation, food and entertainment. A car trip along Route 66 is a great family holiday. Consider bringing along a book of classic American travelling games, and make sure you know some songs to sing in the car, too. That’s how Americans entertained themselves on long journeys before cars turned into mobile entertainment complexes.