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My Best Road Trip: Getting my kicks on Route 66

A historic and iconic journey along Main Street, America, littered with nostalgia and cliches.

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MY BEST ROAD trip was driving America’s most iconic and historic highway.

Who: Sean Kelly, NBC’s News at Ten, originally from Shrewsbury, England

Route: Los Angeles to Chicago

Distance: 4,025km

Time: 5 days

When: January – February 2016

Vehicle: Audi RS4

Sean Kelly Sean Kelly

To many, the idea of “getting your kicks on Route 66” is nothing more than a cliché, one of those things that sound wonderful only in theory. I openly admit I was one of those people.

My motivation to drive Route 66 was born of necessity, simply because I was moving house. Driving an iconic route was just a way of relieving boredom over the ensuing 2,500 miles, but my early cynicism was soon overcome.

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Driving my Audi RS4 away in the uncharacteristic heavy rain at Santa Monica Pier, I drove what could be considered the “wrong” direction, west to east. Anyone with experience of Los Angeles will know Santa Monica Boulevard takes about an hour to negotiate thanks to the dystopian level of traffic. Only once you are out of LA does the fun begin.

Turning north toward Las Vegas, you meet the sort of road your mind conjures when somebody says “Route 66”. Open, undulating, and as fast as you can get away with, what grabs you is that yes, this IS driving freedom. That is if the road surface doesn’t rattle your teeth out, or you don’t drive off the end of the road in the desert when a 10-mile straight concludes with a random 90-degree left turn, as I so nearly did.

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Sunset at the diner in the ghost town of Amboy (deserted 1972) is a prelude to the most demanding section of the entire route, the Sitgreaves Pass mountain road at Oatman, Arizona. It was dark when I arrived and freezing rain was setting in, and perhaps it’s best that I couldn’t see how far I’d fall if I went over the side….

Resuming in Flagstaff, passing the Meteor Crater and then unashamedly standin’ on a corner in Winslow Arizona (as expressed in The Eagles song “Take It Easy”), the asphalt runs out at 702 miles, and you find yourself on mud at the New Mexico border. Simultaneously the most fun section and the most expensive, I lost a few bits of bodywork but trust me it was worth it!

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A snowed-in Santa Fe was my second overnight stop, a prelude to inevitable Tony Christie references driving the freeway-heavy way to Amarillo, Texas, containing the bizarre Cadillac Ranch, a load of cars placed front-first into the ground (!)

A spiritual epiphany strikes once you reach Oklahoma. No matter your moral persuasions, once you’ve experienced gun-toting Nazarenes and realise you’re on the same road where you passed gay hipsters in West Hollywood, only then can you truly appreciate the diversity of the United States.

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True driving nirvana is found in the pre-1952 section at Rock Creek in Sapulpa. The tree-lined banked corners make it more Monza than Midwest USA, ending on a glorious bridge seamlessly welcoming you to Tulsa. From the sublime to ridiculous, the 9-foot-wide “Ribbon Road” stands as a testament to engineering ingenuity in 1922: an improvised long narrow road when the budget would have otherwise meant a normal road of only half the required length.

Sean Kelly Sean Kelly

Blink and you’ll miss the 12-mile section through Kansas, but you can’t miss the 2,000-mile mark at the Gateway Arch in St Louis. The run to Chicago is an unexpected treat, as many parts of the original 66 were bypassed in the 1940s and 1950s.

Because of this, the well-signposted 1920s sections are deserted and fantastic to drive, the long sweeping corners through open countryside coming straight from a 1950s Grand Prix venue. Petrol stations have a retro look, and the brick road segment is a nod to the original Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

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The old roads of Illinois are such a pleasure that Chicago, one of the great cosmopolitan cities of the world, is almost a letdown – especially as the only fanfare to greet your arrival after 2,500 miles is a single sign that says “End Route 66” at Jackson Blvd and Michigan Avenue.

Sean Kelly Sean Kelly

Against expectation, ’66 was life-affirming, full of memorable driving experiences (I drove on wood, asphalt, dirt, gravel, ice, brick and through a river), but perhaps more importantly, culturally enlightening in a way I could have never envisaged.

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Read: Reader Routes – my best road trip 

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