Road to nowhere
In the Arizona town of Williams, the motels promise me the American world - Jacuzzis, doughnuts and the forgotten rumble of a road named Route 66. I bed down in the Route 66 Inn, its room numbers shaped like highway signs but its interior as homogenous as that of any motel.
Outside my window a pair of 1950s cars furnish the entrance to Pete's Route 66 Gas Station Museum. Down the road, a Route 66 gift shop fills an entire block. There's a Route 66 Cafe, at least two more gift shops and a soda fountain where every price ends in 66 US cents.
In this virtual theme park of a town it's almost possible to forget that Route 66 is now less a motorway than a memory, gone from most maps and bullied into virtual insignificance by five replacement interstate highways.
Once stretching nearly 4,000km between Chicago and Los Angeles, Route 66 was known affectionately as the Mother Road, even America's Highway, but it's now little more than Memory Lane. Its surviving pieces are fragments, the largest of which is near Williams. The town was once the gateway to the Grand Canyon but it now gets its kicks almost entirely from Route 66.
Williams' claim on Route 66 fame is twofold: on October 13, 1984, it became the last town on the road to be bypassed by the interstate highways; and the last traffic light on Route 66 is in Williams. The light still functions, at an intersection outside the tourist centre. I stand at the corner and try to admire this piece of traffic history but quickly feel ridiculous. I cool my embarrassment with a cherry malted shake inside Twisters Soda Fountain, its gift shop a mass of tourist plunder: mugs, replica petrol pumps, shot glasses, clocks and Marilyn Monroe lamps.
The following morning I head briefly onto the sterility of Route 66's nemesis, Interstate 40. It, too, points to Los Angeles but without any passion; it's simply a job for this overcrowded road. Sixty-five kilometres from Williams I turn off the I-40 and onto the beginning of Route 66's longest remaining section of road, stretching 255km.
It's in Seligman that I find Angel Delgadillo, the guardian angel of Route 66. The town's barber, Delgadillo began moves in 1987 to have this slice of the road turned into a 'historic highway'. Route 66 was re-badged - Historic Route 66 - and reborn, this simple prefix seemingly enough to jog the memories of a forgetful nation of travellers. The once dying town of Seligman is a queue of tourist coaches when I arrive and Delgadillo isn't cutting hair. He's behind the counter of his new business, one that dominates the town: the Route 66 Gift Shop.
On the open road out of Seligman, I disappear into the nothingness that slopes down from the Grand Canyon's South Rim. The horizon widens and motorcycles rip past me. Running beside another relic of overland travel - the railway - the tarmac dips between mesas littered with rock and past businesses that cling fearfully to the road's fame: Route 66 Grill, Route 66 Lumber 'n' Hardware, Stagecoach 66 Motel, Roadkill 66 Cafe, as if they might disappear without it ... which they probably would.
About 120km from Seligman, the bare land flowers into the wildly sprawling city of Kingman, Historic Route 66's version of a metropolis. On my car radio I find a Route 66 station but I'm more interested in the Powerhouse - a disused power station that functions as a visitor centre - and its Route 66 Museum, which tells the highway's story, from its survey as a wagon route in the 1850s and its designation as Route 66 in 1926 to its gradual demise after president Dwight D. Eisenhower's establishment of the National Interstate Highway system in 1957. A passage from John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath is scrawled across the wall like graffiti: 'They came into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.'
My own flight takes me back into the desert, the road approaching its end as I head between parched mountains and past yuccas for Oatman, a gold-mining ghost town chocolate dipped in a wild-west coating. From here, I descend towards dusk and the emptiness of the Mojave Desert. At Topock, 35km from Oatman, Route 66 and my journey end on the California state line, at the Colorado River. One national icon cedes to another.