Route 66 From The Inside

I'm a bit of a free spirit. I have no life and no responsibilities and can do whatever, whenever. But that freedom comes with a price: I have no place to call home, no woman and little coin for living the dream. On the plus side, though, occasionally someone will call me up and ask me to do something that takes a bit of time like, say, ride a Harley across the country.

I accepted the mission, and the boys in Milwaukee were brave enough to give-er, I mean lend-me a fresh-off-the-line '08 Road King Classic 105th Anniversary Edition (why the corporate guys at Harley-Davidson let me even jangle the keys to such a sweet rig is a mystery). Roadside attractions, old tourist traps and greasy diners were my initial targets on the tour. However, by trip's end I actually felt enlightened. Certainly I was wowed by the sight of Cadillacs growing out of a field and the experience of sleeping in a cement wigwam, but it wasn't those points or even the sound of floorboards skidding across fresh asphalt on a plush bagger that had me recalling the ride. It was the people, like the fat, naked alligator wrestler in Missouri and the guy I met in Oklahoma who's walking across America, who have made me appreciate this trek. Riding solo forces you to talk to folks, upping your chances of meeting some great characters.

I knew the trip wouldn't be easy. First of all, Route 66 isn't really fleshed out on regular road maps. Thankfully Harley-Davidson has created the "H-D Self-Guided Route 66 Tour Map" with turn-by-turn directions, lodging information, road conditions, important places to visit and a list of all the Harley dealerships along the way. This road is like a rite of passage. You can't really know America until you cruise the long-lost route, passing towns that are way past their freshness dates and imagining what life must have been like before the Interstate Highway System-which ended up putting many local businesses in the poorhouse. The construction of the interstates sped up life in America, killed many roadside attractions and left the old days in the dust.

Luckily for the families left behind Route 66 has never completely died and in the past few decades has even experienced a resurgence. Ol' hot-rodders and bikers travel the route to relive memories, and the younger, Kerouac-reading set wants to experience true American adventure. Songs and movies glorify 66, and entrepreneurs have built new attractions catering to huge tour buses. Luckily I wasn't crammed on one; I was on my own, with no friends who needed to stop and snivel on the phone with their wives every hour.

Unlike a rickety bus the Road King Classic rode smoothly and turned surprisingly well. I was skeptical about the new antilock brakes, but my concerns quickly disappeared after having to stop hard in a gravel lot. Without ABS I'm sure my front wheel would have skidded and caused me to drop the bike and wish I had a wife to snivel on the phone to.

The stock saddle held onto my butt like a fat lady with pillow hands. Some people have complained about the bars being swept too far forward, but at 6 feet 2 inches tall I thought they were perfect. And the classic-style saddlebags kept out the rain; my only complaint is there's no way to lock them and secure your stuff.

The Road King is classy and luxurious but with a rough-and-tumble edge. So I lived both sides of life on my tour, staying in comfortable hotels sometimes yet still finding time to camp on the ground next to my bike-snuggled up next to the Mother Road.

Plan to Motor West
Chicago is the true start of this hot mama (going from west to east isn't advised unless you're a moron). The Land of Lincoln has put some effort into restoring Route 66, so it's easy to enjoy the ride without constant use of a map. Most tours start with a solid old-school breakfast at Lou Mitchell's restaurant on Jackson Street (the original Route 66 into Chicago).

But I'm highly allergic to cities and traffic, so I bolted out of Chi-town for greener pastures. There are at least 66 (OK, exaggeration) Route 66 Museums along the Mother Road. The Route 66 Hall of Fame in Pontiac, Illinois, was a good reason to get off the saddle. I wished I'd packed an extra-large bag of french fries for the World's Largest Catsup Bottle down the road in Collinsville, Illinois, only miles from the mighty Mississippi. It would have paired nicely with the World's Largest McDonald's in Vinita, Oklahoma (although some folks in Orlando had double-arches envy and erected an even bigger PlayPlace.)

After slipping through Missouri's own big arch I headed slightly off course to Merrimac Caverns and the Riverside Reptile Ranch in Missouri. The reptile wranglers invited me to dinner and let me stay the night. At first I was worried I might end up being alligator chow, but after a few drinks I felt right at home with the largest collection of snakes in the state. When I started to molt I bolted for the lucky 13.

That would be in Kansas: Somehow this state got the shaft and ended up with only 13 miles of the deuce 6. Plenty is packed into this short stretch, though: old-timey store fronts, the Eisler Bros. Old Riverton Store and the real tow truck that inspired the character Tow Mater in the movie Cars.

Oklahoma is the true birthplace of Route 66, and the road here is easily navigable, running next to the interstate most of the way. Arcadia has plenty of attractions to check out like the Red Round Barn and Route 66's newest pit stop, Pops. Pops has more than 400 kinds of bubbly beverages to choose from, and the waitresses are easy on the eyes.

But save your appetite before entering Lubbock, Texas. The Big Texan Steak Ranch offers a five-pound steak for free-if you can eat the whole thing. The wait staff wasn't even upset when I puked; I guess they get vomiters all the time. After the stomach torture I settled into a theme room at the Steak Ranch, and the next morning I found out where Cadillacs are made-they're grown in the dirt at Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo.Everything starts to change in New Mexico as vast, open deserts, glorious mountains and tons of original architecture from 66's heyday enter the horizon. The Blue Swallow Hotel in Tumcumari isn't the name of a cheesy '70s porn flick but an original Route 66 hotel that's been standing for nearly 70 years. I also got some kicks from the national Atomic Museum in Albuquerque and the incredible Acoma Pueblo. This Native American town dates back to 1150. Incredible or not, though, watch your speed here-they ticket often. Arizona rocked my world-meteor craters, extinct volcanoes and views straight out of a Road Runner cartoon gave me the chills. Right before California is Oatman, a lovely tourist trap of a town. Just be sure you ride through slowly so you don't hit one of the local jackasses (literally).

But crossing the border into California was by far my favorite stretch of the road. At the top of the pass I stopped and looked at the vista. I pondered life. I felt really alive. And finally arriving at the Santa Monica Pier, completely free and thinking about having the time and opportunity to do all this, was perhaps even better than the dream.

How and Where to Get Your Kicks

Route 66 Tour Map
Available at the Harley-Davidson website:

Lou Mitchell's Restaurant and Bakery
Chicago, IL

Riverside Reptile Ranch
Stanton, MO

Eisler Bros. Old Riverton store
Riverton, KS

Pops Restaurant
Arcadia, OK

Big Texan Steak Ranch
Amarillo, TX

Oatman, AZ Chamber of Commerce

Santa Monica Pier
Santa Monica, CA