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NSX on Route 66: PH Dream Drive

Chicago to Santa Monica is surely on more than one PHer's bucket list. We spent a week living the dream...

By Matt prior / Monday, July 23, 2018

When it comes to dream drives, perhaps no road trip is more famous than Route 66. Spearing across the United States Route 66, travelled today mostly as a tourist route, wends 2400 miles west from the edge of Lake Michigan, Chicago, to the Pacific shoreline in Los Angeles. Or you can go the other way, obviously; it's not the world's most convoluted one-way system.

But mostly it's travelled east-to-west, because before, during and after Route 66's designation as a US Highway in 1926, that direction was the traditional migratory route: Americans went west in search of gold in the 1800s, to escape drought in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, and have done for warmer weather and greater fortunes before, during and since.

And today? Mostly they go in search of nostalgia, history, or just for a long ride or drive with a destination in mind. That's what drew me in. It's modern north America's nearest approximation to a pilgrim route. And my, are there signs to light the way.

The most famous way to cross America doesn't actually cross America, as you'll know. Chicago feels like a coastal city owing to its harbours and the bitter cold of late March, when PH makes the journey, but if you landed in Maine, the easternmost point of the US mainland, you'd still have a 1300 mile drive west to the start of Route 66.

PH doesn't start in Maine or on the edge of Lake Michigan, but five hours south east of Chicago in Marysville, Ohio, where we've collected an all-American sports car for the trip. A good ol' Uncle Sam product, hand assembled in the, er, Honda Performance Manufacturing Center. Yup, it's a Honda - strictly, here, Acura - NSX. Because when Honda wanted to revive the NSX, its HQ in Japan gave the job to its American arm. It donated them just three engineers, veterans of the original NSX project, which raised the total number of engineers on new NSX project who'd previously worked on a sports car, to three.

But the car's good, as you'll have read. It has a mid-mounted twin-turbo V6 engine augmented by electric motors - one at the rear, and one at each front wheel to balance the handling and improve acceleration. That means there's no boot in the front, but a Lotus-style one behind the engine: wide, but short and shallow. And warm.

The guide books suggest you'll want at least a fortnight, perhaps a month, to traverse Route 66 properly. We gave ourselves eight days.

The freezing temperatures of Chicago in late spring make it easier to understand why you'd go west, then and now. And it's easy to pick up the route of Route 66, given the plethora of signs alongside it. When they're not there, it's relatively straightforward to follow your nose, too.

The landscape of America's highways is today rather different to 90 years ago, and as a result so are its towns. Follow Route 66 to the letter and you'll find 80% of the original roads is still accessible. A lot of times it has become, or runs parallel to, the Interstate system that has overlaid so much of it.

In the first half of last century, bustling small towns emerged to fill the needs of travellers. There were loading stations for cattle, and places to maintain and refuel vehicles and trains. Today it's different: an Interstate rounds a town, because a truck can drive at 75mph all day without stopping. Nearby trains a mile and a half long honk as they pass on similarly determined agendas. So unlike in Britain, where a bypass frequently rejuvenates an ancient town centre, in America, where success was built on motorised transport, it sucks the life out of it, creating a vacuum that no amount of antique shops and Route 66 museums can fill.

You can spot these places on the map, no matter which of Route 66's eight states you're in. See where the Interstate goes: if it makes a double curve to round a town, then the little unmarked road that goes straight on where the Interstate bends will be labelled, if you zoom your sat-nav right in, 'Historic Route 66', and the town centre will feel like Radiator Springs.

It'll be quaint, cute, likeable, and perhaps slightly weird. Like Hill Valley, only without Michael J Fox and with an antique shop, some painted Route 66 signs on the main drag, and perhaps a twenty foot tall moulded statue holding a rocket, or a hot dog, or shovel. God America's weird.

And so on, and on, it goes. A mix of biggish cities with the same hardware stores and supermarkets and drive-thru eateries; half-empty small towns trading on summer Route 66ers; and places to visit, old and new, sublime and ridiculous.

Of the ridiculous? Take the huge fibreglass and metal whale, built in a lake a few decades ago apparently as an anniversary present (and actually quite endearing); there's the novelty outpost of Uranus ("just stupid," says our hotel receptionist in Lebanon, Missouri, the next town along); or the Pink Elephant Mall, a high school turned into the biggest antique market you'll have been in (I'd gladly have taken home a UFO the size of a one-bed flat).

Then there's the famous Cadillac Ranch, ten cars, famously, half-buried in a dusty, windy field on the roadside near Amarillo. Each car has been spray painted over decades to the point that components bulge like boils and colours have gorily hardened mid-ooze. Surrounding them are ten thousand empty rattle-cans, which mildly-embarrassed looking parents watch their kids scavenge among, in the hope they find one with a few faint streaks left in it, before they toss them back out into the corn stubble, where they become somebody else's waste, somebody else's problem. It's a shrine to all that's grim about modern America.

Of the sublime, though, there is even more. An immaculate drive-in movie theatre that gets 40,000 visitors in season. Window Rock, the Navajo capital, with its moving tribute to code talkers, Navajo troops whose language was better than wartime code. It's as quiet as anywhere in America, which means a background rhythm of birdsong and occasional woofle of V8 pick-up truck. The Petrified Forest is as beautiful a place as I've been to, landscapes sculpted millions of years ago when mudslides cleared and buried grand old trees. Minerals in the ensuing flood waters seeped into the wood, hardening and effectively fossilising it. Driving through what's now a national park, you can spot where the original Route 66 used to go: there's a line of wireless telegraph poles, and a faintly observable scrub adjacent to it with a small crown. The interstate bisects the scenery less discreetly.

And there's Monument Valley, where you can take the picture that, perhaps, defines Route 66 - miles of straight asphalt, dawn sunlight beaming onto the front of vast distant rocks and a cold blue sky. Only it's a cheat. It's not on Route 66 at all. We get up at 2:30am to drive north of Route 66 to get there, and we don't get back onto Route 66 until 11am. It's like saying Cheddar Gorge is a feature of the M25. But it's worth the detour.

A lot of travellers give up Route 66 at that point, head from there to the Grand Canyon, and onto Las Vegas. But if you like driving, don't. The Sitgreaves Pass, Arizona, after hundreds of miles of mostly straight road, is the reward. They put all the corners in one place. It's like the best roads of Wales, only warm and with phone reception. It's a road so good that they put a 20mph speed limit on it which everyone ignores. And here it is really worth having a Honda NSX. America's car culture means that everywhere you go it's worth having an interesting car - whether people know what the NSX is or not, and it's probably 50:50, everybody wants to talk about it. This is a country whose success has depended on the car, realises it is the machine that changed the world, and cherishes it. Apart from its stupidly steep driveway ramps.

Sometimes it's easy to mock the 50%+ of Americans that don't have a passport; a higher proportion again in the middle states. But out here, in a great wilderness, you can understand why it's so. You can't fly to Portugal in two hours for thirty quid. Hell, you can't fly anywhere in two hours. But you have untold amounts of space and, for the most part, nobody to tell you what you can't do with it. So you have a truck and trailer or an RV, and a buggy or a dirt bike or a quad bike or a Jeep, and you load it all up and immerse yourself in one of the world's grandest, most accessible landscapes. It's what I'd do. Wheels bring you freedom.

Maybe it's because of how many people detour, maybe it's because some people spend too long doing Route 66, but as California beckons, you get the impression that Route 66 matters less. Perhaps they've just got more going on. But the signs peter out and Route 66 fades rather than crescendos when it gets to its end, along Santa Monica Boulevard. There's a small plaque at the end of that (though the original highway finished a mile inland), but a few years ago the 'official' end was relocated to Santa Monica Pier.

Which, perhaps, is fitting. Because while this is a dream drive, the dream for Americans was what came at the end of it, not the drive itself.


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