The epitome of road trip romance
Many years ago I saw a picture in a magazine that's stayed with me ever since.
It showed a derelict filling station, oxidised petrol sign dangling by one corner, a single, rusting pump at the side of an overgrown concrete road, its abandoned status confirmed by tumbleweed, and a few yards along, a 1940s Ford, nose down in a ditch with a row of bullet holes spattered along its decaying flank.
This was Route 66, and this most evocative, atmospheric of images fired up my interest in what is one of the world's most famous roads.
I've read The Grapes of Wrath and know of the desperate migrations and awful consequences of the mass movements west from the farming states' rain-starved dustbowls. I know how the road enabled cash-rich soldiers returning from the San Diego naval base after the Second World War to drive their newly bought automobiles home eastwards again to families they'd not seen for years, and the many legends that have grown up around the 2,500 mile artery connecting Chicago to Los Angeles.
It's a powerful draw and I'm not alone in seeing Route 66 as the epitome of road trip romance, riders of all kinds of bikes cite a journey on Steinbeck's Mother Road as their number one, once-in-a-lifetime ambition.
So I did it ... or at least, as the route is so long, I did half of it, from Albuquerque to Los Angeles, 1,200 miles to get a flavour of the reality.
It was going to have to be good, yet it exceeded my high expectations tenfold. The trip was organised by Harley-Davidson Authorized Tours, with the details looked after by UK authorised tour agent Orange & Black.
These tours are not done to a tight budget – you pay more than with some other operators, but you get better quality hotels, all pre-booked, and the rental bikes are guaranteed to have less than 18,000 miles on them – most will be a lot less.
But the two most important factors are tour numbers and knowledge. On the Harley tours there are no more than 15 bikes – I heard of some operators who try to get up to 50 across in one go, can you imagine how long the refuelling alone takes? Most too take you away from 66 to sightsee Las Vegas – don't do that, you'll miss the Oatman section of the route, which has some of the best riding and scenery of the whole trip. Second is the guide, and again Harley's tours don't skimp, demanding a level of experience and knowledge that would exclude many guides on cheaper tours. This might sound fawning but really, it's the only way Harley-Davidson could do tours under its own name, with genuine quality.
I was fearful of endless commercial exploitation along the road, but what I discovered was authenticity even in places I'd least expect it. Take the souvenir shops in New Mexico, which aren't commercial in the corporate sense, these are run by Navajo Indians living in the adjacent reservation.
The authenticity was there in the physical too, when I found sections of the original 1926 road, resilient Portland cement blocks still rideable on my hired Electra Glide. I saw the decay of history, overgrown and long forgotten motels that once thrived through sheltering Route 66 travellers, modern businesses struggling as the hikes in the price of fuel in the last three years have cut the numbers of tourists, the crass and tasteless stereotypes which you'll always find if you look for them, a geological guide to the American continent from giant meteor craters to lava flows and the deep and colourful sedimentary deposits of aeons-gone oceans.
Do Route 66, do it through a tour, either guided – better for less experienced riders – or on your own but with a full itinerary as Orange & Black also offer. And do it on a Harley.
For full details see www.harley-davidson. co.uk. Click on "Experience" then "Authorized Tours" in the drop-down menu. Route 66 tours start from £2,845.