Immortalised in song, revered in film, few American rites of passage hold quite as much mythic status as The Road. The United States is a patchwork quilt of road trips united by bitumen, and interstate journeying has long been regarded one of the quintessential American journey.
A little history…
At the turn of the 20th century, America’s roads were, shall we say, not fabulous (or existent, for that matter). Horseless cars and wagons were still in their infancy, while steam locomotive remained the preferred method for long-distance travel.
While some ventured out into the roadless wild, it wasn’t until the early part of the new century that upper middle class folks began motoring to the countryside to escape hectic city lives. The common car became more pervasive as the ‘20s neared – new technology, a new zest for “escape” – with an infrastructure to follow: a fresh network of garages, gas stations, and roadside diners.[related_articles]70872,66199,65544[/related_articles]
It all peaked in the 1950s as the car finally surpassed the steam train. The American Road Trip was born, and embraced, and a century down the track, it still lures with its promise of escape and expanse.
With more than 4000km of rustic glory to traverse, Route 66 is perhaps the most iconic of all American road trips. These days, the adjacent interstate highway system renders the old route a nostalgia trail rather than efficient means of getting from A to B, but then that’s the most charming thing about it.
Route 66 is peppered with landmarks and notable idiosyncrasies, including Texas’s Cadillac Ranch, a giant sculpture of Abe Lincoln in Illinois, and Oklahoma’s World’s Largest Catsup Bottle. There’s the romantic, spirited glory of the dusty ancient southwest, too.
California State Route 1 (Pacific Coast Highway)
Prime and vaunted on at the top of any road-tripper’s bucket list is California’s Highway 1. An epic stretch of oceanic vistas and Californian beauty, everyone ought to experience the devastating resplendence of State Route 1 at least once in their lifetime.
If the full hog from San Diego to Seattle can’t be achieved, catch the highlights along the All-American Central Coast on one of a number of smaller road trips – Malibu, San Simeon, iconic Bixby Canyon and Big Sur, the Big Little Lies strip of Monterey (and, if you’re keen to head a little further, the glorious Golden Gate in San Francisco).
They say Highway 61 “sings” and, given its proximity to and role in America’s blues and soul history, it’s not difficult to see why. Also known as the Old Blues Highway, this “route of song” between Memphis and Vicksburg is more ritual than road trip – a pilgrimage, and cultural duty.[related_articles]63648[/related_articles]
Backed by the epic Mississippi River, Highway 61 traverses the cradle of the Civil War, a rich trek underscored by the spectres and glories of America’s past.
Monument Valley is a stretch of road on US 163 brimming with the elemental beauty of a deeply spiritual nature: a dramatic expanse of enormous red monoliths and ethereal rock formations, arguably trumped only by the Grand Canyon further on up the road.
Start at Kayenta and follow the 163 northeast all the way to Bluff. It’s nothing short of spectacular.
A showpiece of countless feature films (True Lies and 2 Fast 2 Furious, in more recent memory), the 240km drive between Miami and the Florida Keys is no mean feat. The Overseas Highway crosses 42 bridges, most notably the Seven-Mile bridge – a “get the camera ready in advance” moment if ever there was one.
Load up on prodigious quantities of Key Lime pie, and be sure to factor in a stop off at Key West, as well as the house of Ernest Hemingway.
Million Dollar Highway
A core stretch of Colorado’s San Juan Skyway, this spur along US Highway 50 is not for the faint of brake. The Million Dollar Highway, one of America’s most picturesque and delightfully old-school road journeys. Carved out of the side of a mountain in the 1880s – a relic of the Gold Rush era – it’s what all those western-style amusement park rides are probably based on.
From Durango and Silverton all the way through to Ouray and Ridgway, expect mountainous vista after mountainous vista, and enough steep inclines, blind shoulders and boundary-less cliff-sides steep enough to deplete anyone’s adrenaline supply.
In the pantheon of great American road trips, this list but a starting course: a prepatory sampler of the broader board of fare. Ultimately the road is yours, and the recipe is simple: find a vehicle, pump it full of gas, and go for it. The American hinterland is waiting for you.
(Lead image: Dino Reichmuth)
Cam Hassard is an international penman, sax-wielder and rogue wayfarer who writes for Junkee, Carryology, Huckberry, Caddie, Fairfax Media, Carryology, Intrepid, Peregrine Adventures and Europe Up Close. He’s eaten ant salad in Laos, hauled trucks from NYC to Vegas, and destroyed himself on the Camino de Santiago. Originally from Melbourne, he currently calls Berlin home.