If you ever plan to motor west,
Travel my way,
Take the highway that is best.
Get your kicks on route sixty-six.
After 6 weeks of selling ice cream on the Boardwalk, we’re heading west, pushing out our own new frontier. Courtesy of Auto Driveaway in Philadelphia, we have a silver Peugeot 504 estate car. It’s huge by European standards, ‘compact’ by American. We are dropping it off in Denver Colorado just 2000 miles, and 7 days, away.
To keep costs down, Colin and I decide to camp and buy a cheap tent and sleeping bags from Walmart.
We share the driving so are able to make rapid progress. But you do have to keep within the ludicrous 55mph national speed limit. A huge country with ruler straight quiet roads and some of the most powerful cars in the world. America sure is a land of contradictions.
The first night we venture off our route and stay with the friend of the elder brother of Colin’s family lawyer. I can’t match this level of networking. My parents never really saw the need for a lawyer, let alone a family one.
The friend is a teacher at the Focrea Community School in Columbus, Indiana. He takes us on a tour of the amazing school – which was fully air conditioned and from what I could see had no opening windows.
Thinking back now, this carelessness with energy was pretty normal in the 70s. Only Jane Fonda was talking about saving the planet back then – with only California actually listening. She was right about Vietnam, right about aerobics and these days we know she was right about the environment too. Not a bad actress either.
God bless our camper
The second night finds us on a lovely spacious campsite near a lake. We park and begun putting up our tiny tent. We accidentally developed a strategy for making friends on camp sites. Having failed to invest in a tent mallet, we had discovered just how hard the ground was. This wasn’t the damp British ‘Carry on Camping’ world of moist mud. The Midwest is damned dry and the ground was rock hard. Without a mallet, we had no chance.
The only option was to approach our camping neighbours in search of the tool we needed. Campsites are communities of friendly folk, and we never find the Americans we met anything less than open and generous. Throw in our British voices and people can’t do enough to help. I’d explain our predicament only to be greeted with an incredulous smile and ‘Say that again’. They understand us all right, but they just want to hear our accents.
The couple who help us their in their 70s. I can’t remember their names, but they would have been something like Jack and Mildred. They have a large camper and in theory won’t have a mallet. But these people weren’t like us, they knew what they were doing. They have everything.
Tent safely erected, I return their mallet a few minutes later. Jack said something like
‘Hey, do you boys want to step inside our camper for a cold drink and a slice of Mildred’s homemade pie?’
When it came to free food, Colin and I don’t need asking twice. As students, we had woken up to the fact that food costs money – something we were always short of. We gratefully stepped aboard.
To call this a camper van would be like calling a Cadillac a small family car. We knew it was big from the outside, climbing up the steps we found ourselves inside a mid-sized bungalow on wheels.
Unlike anything I’d seen in Europe, the camper is actually articulated on the back of a pick up truck. Jack drove the pick up/camper combo while his wife followed in the family Buick. That way they could explore the area by car while leaving the camper hitched to the pick-up. Practical if profligate.
Joining them that evening we we enjoy a cold lemonade, pie and cookies. My eye was caught by a ceramic plate on the wall featuring a painting of the very vehicle and the inscription. “God bless our camper”. They mean it.
Not content with a car, pick up and camper van, the couple have brought yet another vehicle with them. Hitched to the Buick was a gorgeous little speedboat. The following morning, we put off hitting the road long enough for Jack to take us for a ride around the lake. We are sad to bid them farewell.
Our next stop is just outside the impressive mid western city of St Louis. After finding a campsite, we drive downtown to enjoy an evening in a beautiful Midwest city.
If there is one thing you have to see in St Louis – and we only have time to see one thing – it’s the ‘Gateway to the west’. At 630 feet (192m) this stainless steel hoop is the tallest arch in the world. It glistens like it was built yesterday but was actually completed in 1965. We arrive too late to take the unique lift/tram to the top to see the giddying view.
The whole thing is a triumph in mathematics and big numbers. It is completely self-supporting, weights 39,000 tons and can sway by up to 36 inches. Each leg stands in no less than 24,000 tons of concrete. The perfect stainless steel skin is 6.3mm thick and at 800 tons is the largest amount of steel ever used on a single construction project. This really is a monument to the US frontier spirit.
Wichita line man
We’d love to spend longer in this pretty city, but next morning we’re on the road again. Our aim is to get to Denver ahead of our delivery schedule – the car is due in Denver on August 17th 1977. We want to create the time to overshoot into the Rocky Mountains, where having a car will be vital.
Our route includes fabled names like Kansas City and Wichita. Despite keeping my eyes open for the US equivalent of a BT van, we never see a real life Wichita line man. What is it about US place names that make even the most mundane of jobs and places sound so cool? ’24 hours to Tunbridge Wells’ just doesn’t cut it.
The roads themselves are smooth and free flowing. We run with the windows down and the air conditioning off so we use less fuel.
While I would have loved the style of an American car our empty wallets had said no to anything less than the efficiency of a four-cylinder European car. An american V8 would have used 100% more petrol, but it would have sounded fabulous…
Our overshoot strategy works and we have time to camp one night up in the Rocky mountains. But we can only begin to scratch the surface of this beautiful national park.
It’s early evening and I’m keen to capture a sunset shot in the Rockies, so after a walk we park to grab a good panorama view. A firetruck goes by. Tired by all the driving and killing time waiting for the sun to go down, we listen to the radio.
A news item catches my attention. The news reader’s voice is surprisingly matter-of-fact. But he has something to say: Elvis is dead.
I have never been a fan, but this seems like big news to me.
Well past his glory years, at 42, he’d become a bloated shadow of his young self. But for anyone with slightest interest in US culture or popular music, a real icon had finally ‘left the building’.
This famous line was used to tell hopeful fans that the concert was really over and the King wouldn’t be returning to the stage.
And now he’d sure as hell played his last show.
Trying to find the camp site in the dark, we end up hopefully joining the headlights of a long line of VW campers winding around the mountain passes. A good move. Pitching our tent near the camper vans, we use our tent peg mallet trick to make some new friends.
We find ourselves sat around a camp fire until the early hours. Our companions are mainly in their late 20s and early 30, and strangely Elvis gets a mention. Like us, this group didn’t grow up with Elvis and only saw him as a has-been. But as the days, weeks and months passed nostalgia for the King of Rock‘n’roll changed all that.
A young school teacher couple next to us are keen to help us on our way. Knowing we want to visit the original Disneyland in LA, they genuinely offer us a night in their house in Anaheim – even though they won’t even be there. Another example of generous US hospitality – and you’ll hear more of this story in the next instalment.
We’ve already said goodbye to the King, but next morning, we have to say goodbye to The Rockies. We drive back to Denver to drop off the car.
We take a cab to the home of friends of Colin – our last easy night before we hit the road again – on foot and thumb this time.
Oh, and we never got to take any kicks on the actual Route 66. That road, along with cowboys, and now Elvis, had passed into history.