It seems an eon ago when I left behind the natural wonder of the Grand Canyon, and headed down Route 66 towards California.
Route 66 is the ultimate roadtrip for anyone who wants to do America by car, and the scenery in Arizona before you get into California along this road of dreams is completely unmissable. You’ll share the blacktop with countless bikers, get your car filled by ZZ-Top-alikes in remote little gas stations straight out of a ‘50’s road movie, and pass through awe-inspiring landscapes, and tiny Western towns.
Route 66 was constructed in the 1920’s and was one of the main highways between California to Chicago. The interstate highway system started to be built in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, absorbing parts of Route 66 in some places. As motorists favoured the faster Interstates, several motels and gas stations along Route 66 went out of business, leaving empty shells which still litter the road. Conservation efforts are being made to preserve many of these and several of the old gas stations have been restored, or turned into museums. It is now referred to as “Historic Route 66”.
You get a real sense of America in its heyday, land of Easy Rider, diners, motels, cowboys, James Dean heartbreakers, and sassy waitresses named Peggy-Sue. It’s the America of the The Wild One, Grease, and The Last Picture Show. Chances are if you had the radio on back then, you’d have been listening to Elvis, Buddy Holly, Dean Martin, Sinatra, Chuck Berry, The Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Animals. As you drive, absurdly long freight trains accompany you on the tracks that run next to the road, their melancholy whistle echoing across the desert and sounding the same as it would have 50 years ago. If you find Main Road USA unbearably romantic, are a sucker for Brando, Harley Davidsons, and a good old-fashioned American burger and fries, Route 66 is where you’ll find it all.
I stopped by a restored gas station which has been turned into a kind of ’66 road museum. There were a stack of Harleys outside and a few bikers wandering around, snapping photos next to the old-fashioned fuel pumps. Turns out they were from Brazil - one of them is a famous Brazilian singer called Fabio Jr. Mind you they could have told me anything – I’d never heard of the guy. I managed to get a photo with all 17 of them, and even got a quick hoon for a few miles of the Route on the back of one of the Harleys by a smitten biker! (who suggested we keep going onto Las Vegas!)
My biker chick experience over, I kept on trucking. The road changes names and it’s worth purchasing a Route 66 map to keep up with the variations. I passed onto the dilapidated Oatman Highway, true middle of nowhere, and the kind of scenery that aliens love to crash-land in. As I bounced along potholes the desert came to life with wildflowers, a sweeping colourful vista stretching off to the distant mountains. Once I’d reached the mountains, winding up slowly a few hundred feet, I stopped to have some cereal and take in the view of the desert below, just me and Route 66, chilling out. I didn’t have to be anywhere, and felt utterly at peace with where I was in the world. These are the real moments to savour in a road trip that you are doing by yourself, because no matter how I describe it here I can’t capture that moment of perfect bliss, that no matter what had happened in my life previously: good, bad or downright ugly - at that point in time, standing next to my car on Route 66, marveling at the landscape and eating cereal, was exactly where I was meant to be. There were several moments like this on the way, but I’m going to keep a few for myself.
I pulled up in the next town, hoping to find some caffeine and a toilet. This was the town of Oatman, AZ. Formerly a gold mining town around the turn of the century, it became a ghost town in the 1960’s after construction of the I-40 diverted away tourist traffic. Due to resurgence of interest in Route 66 it has been rebuilt as an Old West mining town, complete with main street shootouts and donkeys (or burros) that roam the streets freely. These bad-tempered donkeys, most of whom are covered in bites from other donkeys, are apparently the descendants of pack-animals set loose by the early prospectors. Tourists can buy carrots to feed them, but after seeing a group of German tourists being chased and nearly bitten I decided against it. The donkeys are protected by the Dept of the Interior: I’m not. It’s hysterical to see them wandering around, in and out of traffic, nipping at everything in sight. A couple of energetic burro youngsters even put on an X-Rated show in the middle of road which immediately drew a massive crowd of people. The town is definitely worth checking out, particularly the Oatman Hotel which even has a poltergeist, allegedly the spirit of an old miner nicknamed “Oatie”, and is historically significant.
Next stop was Needles. This town is in California, right next to the border of Arizona and on the banks of the Colorado River. If you’ve heard of it, you are probably a Charlie Brown fan as it is home to Spike, Snoopy’s brother. In fact he even has a road named after him, which I discovered by accident when I took the wrong way out of town.
I took Route 66 a little further, however the scenery on the Californian side was less inspiring, with barely any traffic and only abandoned motels which were decidedly creepy, and I decided to hop back onto the Interstate and get to Hollywood where I was spending the night.
My Route 66 experience wasn’t over, however. The next day I met up with my friend Aaron (check out an awesomely cool psychological thriller he was in called “Sympathy”), who lives in Santa Monica. We headed down the pier where I paid homage to the last point of Route 66 in the West and got a photo. LA was sunny but blustery, and we rode Aaron’s pushbike to Venice for a beer, with me perched precariously on the rack. Eager to be out of the stinging sand that was being blown off the beach, we found a bar and sat and watched people being blown around outside, skaters and rollerbladers cruising past, drank beer, studied my US roadmap and planned my trip up the coast, and it was one of those random but brilliant, surreal LA afternoons. As it was the middle of the day, Sheryl Crowe’s song came to mind: “All I Wanna Do”.
I could have spent more time in LA, but now was on a time schedule as I had to pick up a friend in San Francisco on 24 May and wanted to spend a few days getting there up the coast. To be honest, I’ve lived in LA and it’s always been somewhere I’ve felt incredibly at home, but I didn’t get that feeling this time. I’m either getting old or the LA vibe just isn’t the same. I didn’t have time to explore the notion further however. I ticked off the last 2 things I wanted to do: a hike up to Griffith Observatory and a hike in Runyon Canyon. Both are LA staples, offering views of the Hollywood sign and downtown LA. Runyon Canyon is a great place to celebrity spot, with toned and buffed starlets of both sexes walking their pooches or jogging along the paths.
I really should plan these things better but I drove up Mulholland and parked at the upper reaches of the canyon, in the Hollywood Hills. The place is actually quite wild, scrub making good hiding places for potential serial killers to hide. I nervously recalled every film noire I’d ever seen about Hollywood and tried to keep as many people in sight as I could, lest I should become some sort of Black Dahlia of the noughties.
I ran into a dead end pretty quickly, but could see people on paths below the cliff where I was standing. I approached a fella who was doing push-ups on a bench and didn’t look like he had a van parked in the bushes, who pointed me towards a dirt path, which actually turned out to be an incredibly steep run-off and not really a path at all. I made my way down, clinging precariously onto branches and hoping I didn’t fall on my arse as I’d decided to wear a fair bit of white that day and the earth in LA is a delicious pinky orange colour. The last bit was so steep I had to run down it at full pelt, giving out an involuntary girlie scream as I leapt out onto the footpath, scaring the s**t out of two scandalously fit young men and their poodle. Hiking in the Canyon isn’t an easy process, there’s plenty of bits where you have to traverse steep and rocky hills but this makes it good fun. My companion for most of the 2 hour hike was an old husky, his owners and their two other energetic Alsatians way ahead of him. The woman was a TV and radio presenter, Kelly something (massive trout lips from collagen injections!), and as she waited patiently for Darcy (the husky’s name) and me to catch up, she filled me in on the best trails in the canyon. I should have parked at the bottom and done the loop. Also turns out Darcy is only 2, he’s just overweight and very slow - she sheepishly admitted they were killing him with love and the vet had told them he had to exercise more. I reluctantly turned back the way I’d come, realizing that the true delights of Runyon Canyon would have to wait until the next time if I wanted to get up to Griffith Park.
Griffith Park observatory is on the south-face of Mount Hollywood, commanding wonderful views of downtown LA. The white, domed observatory and the surrounding parklands have appeared in several movies including Rebel Without a Cause, and there is a bust of James Dean in the grounds. I parked on Fern Dell Place, and walked up the hill to the observatory, which is about an hour or so round trip. It’s worth popping into the observatory itself, although I didn’t have a lot of time to spend. You can also hike up to the Hollywood sign here – or as close as you can get anyway. The ranger there told me the hills were full of cougars (so I should be right at home), coyotes, rattlesnakes and “transients”, as he so delicately put it, and advised me not to try it by myself. Again, another thing on the list for next time and I’m taking someone with me! You can’t actually get to the sign, but you can get to the fence which surrounds it. It’s also very close to Universal City and Universal Studios, if you are planning a day out in the area. I stayed at Hollywood City Motor Inn, getting my Starbucks from across the road in the morning was an interesting experience - parts of Hollywood really are dodgy - but the inn is clean, decent price and well-positioned for everything if you have a car.
My time in LA over and done for this road trip, I threw my bags in the car and started up Pacific Coast Highway 1 (or PCH), towards Big Sur and more adventures!