For a classic American road trip, nothing beats good ol’ Route 66. Nicknamed the nation's 'Mother Road' by novelist John Steinbeck, this string of small-town main streets and country byways first connected big-shouldered Chicago with the waving palm trees of Los Angeles in 1926.
Route 66 didn’t really hit its stride until the Great Depression, when migrant farmers followed it as they fled the Dust Bowl across the Great Plains. Later, during the post-WWII baby boom, new-found prosperity encouraged many Americans to hit the road and ‘get their kicks’ on Route 66, which ran through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.
Although many of the mom-and-pop diners, drugstore soda fountains and motor courts have long since become victims of road upgrades and rerouting you can still drive portions of the original highway. It's a time warp – connecting places where the 1950s seem to have stopped just yesterday – with more than a smattering of wacky, shake-your-head-in-disbelief Americana. You will marvel at the Black Madonna Shrine in Pacific, Missouri, an extraordinary series of grottoes hand-built by a Polish monk in the 1930s. Then try to get your head around the Devil's Rope Museum in McLean, Texas, which deservedly claims to be the world's premiere barbed wire museum. And your foot will never be far from the brake as you cruise past Wig Wam Motels, Cadillac Ranches and desert roadhouses.
Route 66 is not exclusively for fans retro Americana. It runs by some of the USA’s greatest outdoor attractions – not just the Grand Canyon, but also the mighty Mississippi River and Arizona’s Painted Desert and Petrified Forest National Park. And if you really need to get away from it all, nothing competes with the Mojave Desert where the highway runs in long stretches through nothing but sand dunes and Joshua trees. The Mother Road also passes through some remarkable cities and towns. Spend at least a few days getting to know the blend of beer, baseball and jazz in St Louis before experiencing the simpler charms of Amarillo, Texas where the steaks get seriously big. Explore Native American culture in Gallup before heading further west to the beautiful mountain city of Flagstaff. And of course, at road’s end, hit the surf on California's Pacific beaches.
Route 66 really opens your eyes to American culture. Discard any preconceptions of small-town American life and unearth the joys of what bicoastal types harshly term 'flyover' states: mingle with farmers in Illinois and country-and-western stars in Missouri; hear the legends of cowboys and Indians in Oklahoma; visit Native American tribal nations and contemporary pueblos across the Southwest,and discover the traditions of the USA's indigenous peoples before following the trails of miners and desperados deep into the Old West.
This article was updated in July 2012.