First hire car, cruise control, Chloride, Mr D'z, Oatman, Needles, meatloaf and empty, empty roads.
17th July 2012
Las Vegas, Nevada.
So after a hearty breakfast of pancakes in the restaurant of the now defunct Bill's on the Vegas strip, it was a short taxi ride down to the car rental center.
Now, this is where I have to make an admission. I've never rented a car in the USA before - hell, I'd never even driven a car before in the US. So I was more than a little nervous, but I acquitted myself quite well - I only succumbed to one up-sell ('roadside recovery' - and I was glad of it later, but that's another story).
They directed me to the car park and told me I could have an upgrade to a 'full-size' SUV if I wanted. These vehicles were juggernauts, as wide as tanks and as long as buses. Terrifying. They made the Range Rover sized mid-size SUVs look compact. In the end I plumped for a Hyundia Santa-Fe in a fetching shade of metallic mud. This was to be my trusty steed for the next three weeks!
After much adjusting of the mirrors, seats, lumbar support, GPS and car stereo I was ready to venture into the mean streets of Las Vegas. I didn't get off to a very auspicious start, missing my very first junction, but soon I was on my way. First stop, Hoover Dam, 40mins from Vegas.
The Hoover Dam
The Dam gave me a chance to catch my breath. American driving wasn’t as stressful as I expected, but driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road still took getting used to. As did all those minor differences in road layout and signs. The outskirts of Vegas, Henderson and Boulder City went by in a barely memorable blur.
The Hoover Dam, as seen from the Mike O'Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge (catchy name there guys) is an impressive sight. Yet the eyeball melting temperatures of Nevada in July discouraged me from doing more than take a few photos. It’s humbling to think this could be among the longest lasting of human structures. A tourist could be standing here in another 10,000 years - the Pyramids of Giza are only 5,000 years old. This monument to man’s desire to control nature for its own ends couldn’t help but impress. Ironic to think the electricity generated here powers ephemeral Las Vegas.
Once back on the road, the suburbs disappear and it’s 60 miles of the most jaw dropping emptiness. After England’s green and developed land, to see so much space with so little on it was almost vertiginous. But, no time for poetry, I had a car to explore. The Hyundai disappointed me by having a quiet hifi, even with my music-packed phone turned to full volume. But who cares, when you have cruise control?
There’s no use for cruise control in England. Even when a road isn’t changing directions every 3 miles to avoid medieval land boundaries, you’re running the gauntlet of nose to tail compact cars. Take your feet off the pedals for a moment, and you’re a crash waiting to happen.
After 60 miles the novelty of being able to pick my toe nails while driving wore off, and I spotted the exit to Chloride. How can you refuse a name as romantic as that?
Chloride was a silver mining town, founded in the 1860s, and the silver ran out before the end of the century. Since then, the population has declined from 5,000 to around 350.
Not quite a ghost town, but close enough - there's still a post office / general store and some tourist income. In a pattern I'd see repeated across the country, it's now a mixture of stalwart locals and folk artists. I stopped for a diet coke and a chance to wander around taking photos.
KingmanFrom here, it was another 25 miles down to Kingman, and lunch - in my first real American diner. Mr D'z sits on Route 66 and is a bit of an icon. It ticks all the classic diner boxes - lurid colour scheme, black and white tiles, a counter and booth seating. The classic truck outside was a great touch.
I took a seat at the counter and ordered a cheeseburger and their famous root beer - and loved it. This was what road trips were all about! Now I was ready to experience Route 66 itself.
I discovered early in my planing that Route 66 isn't one road. Over the course of its 60 year history, routes changed creating different alignments. When you drive Route 66, you're presented with these choices all the time - do you drive on the road from the 20s? the 30s? the 50s? Or do you follow the Interstate that parallels the original route(s)?
Leaving Kingman, I had a decision to make. Do I follow the pre-1952 route through the hills? Or the post-1952 route, now part of the I-40? The route through the hills, obviously! Route 66 used to run through Oatman, a gold mining settlement in the Black Mountains, north west of Kingman. When the gold ran out in 1952, the route changed to avoid the hills and passes to the south, through Yucca.
Well, I'm not going to turn down another ghost town, so I left Kingman on 'Historic Route 66' rather than I-40. As the road pulled away from the interstate, it was time to put Chuck Berry's Route 66 on the (quiet) hifi - this is it, the real Route 66.
The road got dustier and emptier as it went up into the hills, with switchback after switchback. I could see why they were keen to bypass it when there was nolonger need to visit Oatman. I'd never been somewhere so remote - so it was disappointing to find I still had a full five bars of mobile phone coverage when I stopped to take a photo. Wilderness isn't what it used to be!
Oatman might be a one horse town now, but they made up for that with burros. Theses donkeys patrol the streets, looking for treats and having their pictures taken. Once used in the mines, they're now a semi-wild feature of the town.
The main attraction is the Oatman Hotel, where Clarke Gabel and Carol Lombard spent their honeymoon. Now it's no longer open for guests - but did sell me a much need ice cream. There's not much else - a gift shop, some 'primitive' wild-west art.
Apparently I'd missed the authentic gun fight! (But don't worry, I'll get to see one soon enough).
The plan was now to follow old Route 66 down to Topock, but outside of Oatman they had closed the road, due to flooding. I had my 4x4 and toyed with taking the route anyway - looking around me at this desert, how bad could it be? But in the end I skipped that section and took the faster Oatman road into Needles.
NeedlesBefore going to the motel, I stopped at the El Garces hotel. Once described as the 'Jewel in the Crown' of the Harvey Houses, it now looked to be little more than a ruin. The Harvey Houses were once important stops on the Santa Fe railroad. Each provided a quality restaurant and hotel to weary travellers. Most have now fallen into disrepair. In the same way that US-40 displaced Route 66, the coming of the car replaced the railroads as mass transport.
After a quick check of my maps - and a few emails - it was time for a much needed sleep after my first day on Route 66.