Mother Road: A Harley-Davidson Guided Tour of Route 66
It’s the morning of day five on our Route 66 tour and we might see tornadoes today. From the lobby of the motel in Oklahoma City, we’re watching the TV weathercaster point to his Doppler radar screen, and specifically, the tornadoes touching down all around us. And there are lots of them.
At this point, it’s early in our cross-country trip and, on top of the looming tornados, we have already ridden through a monsoon-like rainstorm in Illinois that some among us didn’t think they’d survive. But this is adventure! It’s what we came for, to ride the entire 2,400-odd miles of Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica, California, and experience the same things our motoring pioneers felt. If we had wanted to do the easy thing and see the Mother Road in luxury we would have taken a tour bus with air conditioning and vista dome. Instead, the seven downunders (five Australians, two New Zealanders) and three Americans on this Harley-Davidson tour came for the adventure—and the adventure starts now.
To this day, the West is still the adventure-seeker’s symbolic crucible. From Lewis and Clark to the cowboys to Teddy Roosevelt to Buzz and Todd in their Corvette, the West has beckoned men and women to test their spunk against the land, the weather, and the road. But until Route 66 was established in 1926, there was no clear westward route for the average guy. Not until the happy marriage of manageable roads and dependable cars could the ol’ Midwest man stuff the family and luggage into his Studebaker and head for the Pacific Ocean. Even then it was tough because only 800 of the Route’s 2,400 miles were paved.
Through the rest of the roaring 1920s and 1930s, more of U.S. Route 66 was paved. It was a respectable two-lane blacktop when the Dust Bowl swept away Okies like tumbleweeds, blowing them to California where the law was waiting at the border, busting the heads of every Tom Joad trying to crash the gate into the Promised Land. Everybody wanted to be the last one in. The history of pre-WWII Route 66 is one of relative severity and adversity—that is to say, adventure. After WWII, road construction exploded, culminating in President Eisenhower’s Interstate system and the eventual devouring of old Route 66 like a kid sucks up spaghetti.
Despite all this, Route 66 still lives and its history and fabric attract foreigners in record numbers. As Michael Wallis said in his excellent book, Route 66 The Mother Road, 75th Anniversary Edition:
“It was Steinbeck and Merle Haggard and Dorothy Lange. It’s thousands of waitresses, service station attendants, fry cooks, truckers, grease monkeys, hustlers, wrecker drivers, and motel clerks. It’s a wailing ambulance fleeing a wreck on some lonely curve…truly a road of phantoms and dreams, 66 is the romance of traveling the open highway. It’s the free road.”
Oh yes, this is where you discover America, the America before there were Blue states and Red states. The American before people were bicoastal to a degree that allowed middle America to be considered “flyover” country by some. This is where the local semi-pro baseball teams battled it out with………….their their rivals in the next town, and everybody actually showed up.
Of all moving machinery that carried dreams east to west, Harley-Davidson motorcycles have remained the constant, the most unchanged. Big thundering V-twins made in Milwaukee have hauled their riders across the country for the entire 81-year history of Big Mamma Six Six. We are riding a grand road in a grand tradition.
To introduce our tour pack, Clare and Dave Bartlett are from Kings Langley, Australia. Norm and Kathleen Smith are from the same town, and all four of them are on the adventure of a lifetime. They flew to Chicago, rented Harleys, and rode straightaway to Sturgis. Upon their return to Chicago, they joined this tour, and when it ends in California, they’ll continue up to San Francisco, and then fly home. Steve Daniels is from Melbourne, Australia, but he’s living temporarily in New York City. Kit Childs and his newfound love, Kay Harland, are from Fielding, New Zealand. The foreigners on this trip are rolling in American culture like colts in clover; they can’t get enough and delight in every discovery.
The other two riders on the tour are Yankee women riding solo. Dolores Miller, 70, is from Stonington, Illinois, and both she and her Electra Glide Ultra Classic sidecar rig are the hardest chargers of the bunch. She says this is her last tour and she wants to make it a big one. However, judging by her vigor and speed, she’ll likely be doing this tour again 10 years from now. Debra Robinson signed up for the challenge of it. She tells us she’s our little rich girl, our pampered Empress, and that she’s hoping the ride will test her mettle and teach her a thing or two about hardship. She’s in the right place.
At the get-together dinner on the first night of the tour, everyone sized up their new riding companions sitting across the table. It was a mature bunch with nobody under 30 years of age, a few in their late forties and fifties…and one 70. The Aussies were obviously seasoned riders; they had hundreds of Harley pins and patches between them. Dolores’ jacket was covered with ride patches from all over the country. The only rookie was Debra, but she had the right attitude.
The first day’s ride was from the Chicago area to Springfield, Illinois, and it rained like a highway flagger’s worst nightmare. The next day was to St. Louis, which was another pleasant but uneventful day of riding. We got into the city early enough to visit the arch and have lunch in the old town section. The next day was more pleasant riding to Oklahoma City. So far, we’ve been riding in the part of the country people chose to migrate from. This was the comfortably established, old and conquered part of the country. The West is where everyone was going to, and Oklahoma was the start of the adventure (Dust Bowl days not withstanding.)
The next day’s destination was Amarillo, which was our trip’s first real introduction to the West. This is what everyone had been waiting for, and it didn’t disappoint anyone. The tour route follows the original Route 66 as much as possible, and 85 percent of the road still exists, even if it’s covered by the Interstate or frontage roads. From Amarillo we were on I-40 for only a few miles, then headed northwest on Highway 104, a beautiful, empty, wide-open highway. We rode by the Conchas Dam, Trujillo, and into Las Vegas and New Mexico. From there we traveled through Pecos and into our night’s destination at Santa Fe.
Santa Fe can be a lot of different places depending on what you bring to it. It can be a gorgeous creative enclave in high (nearly 7,000 feet elevation) New Mexico where the shopping is sublime and you have your choice of some great restaurants. Or, it can be an artsy fartsy gathering of unbearable snobs catering to other snotty platinum cardholders who sold out the town years ago. Take your pick.
At dinner that night, the Downunders were formally introduced to Mexican food and the jalapeño pepper. Kip from New Zealand ate the peppers like candy, while the other Aussies were leery of anything hinting of spice. The women were more gastronomically adventurous than the men, but we all enjoyed the meal.
By this time in the tour, day eight, everyone has bonded with each other. We know each others’ bikes: Dolores has the sidecar, no mistaking that; Steve is on his own personal Fat Boy that he meticulously cleans every morning; Debra is on her dazzling personal Screamin’ Eagle Road King that she got as an engagement gift from her fiancé; Norm and Kathleen are on their rental Heritage Softail; Kit and Kay are riding a rental Electra Glide Classic; and Dave and Clara are on their rented two-tone Road King. We know what each will probably buy at gas stops—Kathleen buys water, while the author drinks straight Coca-Cola Classic, and everybody notices it.
The portion of Route 66 from Santa Fe to Gallup is mostly two-lane. This trip is getting more authentic by the hour, which is to say it’s getting hotter and dryer; the women apply lip grease at every stop and the men are shedding their jackets. At this point, the old and grizzled author is beginning to sound like the weary cowboy from a western movie who’s trying to help out the city dudes new to the west.
Just like the movie cowboy, the author gives advice about coping with the western heat. “If the heat gets unbearable,” he says, “go to the hose at a gas station and wet yourself down completely. Drench your shirt, pants, and boots. Then put your dry jacket on to keep in the moisture as best you can. The water evaporation will cool you off nicely and bring down your core temperature.” Unfortunately, nobody wants to hear it, and they push on into the withering heat. The tour stays overnight at Gallup, then Chinle, then Flagstaff and Seligman.
Seligman, Arizona, is one of the treasures of modern-day Route 66, mainly because of one man, Angel Delgadillo. He has been instrumental in preserving the Route 66 culture in this little town, plus, being the local barber, he can still give you a straight-razor shave. Steve Daniels let Delgadillo scrape his neck with a straight razor after a hot-towel soak and carefully applied hot lather. It was one of the highlights of Daniels’ tour.
Las Vegas to Barstow was hot as hell, nearly 115 degrees, and at the gas stop in Ludlow, Empress Debra was done in. She was flushed, weary and just about to pass out from the heat. She wanted to leave the bike here, have it shipped home, and ride the van the rest of the way. She said she would hate to not ride her bike the entire route, but she just couldn’t hack it anymore. The grizzled old biker author took her over to the water hose and told her she had the choice of being a quitter or a winner, and this water was the difference. The Empress fumed that she didn’t want to ruin her expensive and chic riding clothes by soaking them with desert water! Finally, she suffered the humiliation of drenching herself and her riding ensemble with brackish, hard water from a frayed and leaky garden hose. She squished back to her bike and rode off.
Two miles down the road she was all smiles and loving her life, and at the next gas stop she was giggly and amazed. “Do you know that I actually got the shivers from being so cool?” she gushed. “That was amazing, I never felt so refreshed in my life!” The grizzled old biker author just smiled a knowing smile, tipped his hat, and ambled away.
The next day the tour made a side trip to San Diego for a stay at the famous Coronado Hotel, and the day after that we rode to Santa Monica for the end-of-the-ride party.
We had come far, and it seemed far. Sixteen days on the road through drenching rain, distant tornados, and blistering heat. Along the ride, we all had bought black-and-white Route 66 flags, stickers, and patches. Now we could display them with pride.
We earned them.
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