USA = Road Trip
In my head, America is one big road trip. Especially the desert states. I’ve seen too many movies, read too many books, poured over too many custom-car magazines in a wasted youth to think otherwise. Try explaining that to the kids.
So leaving Palm Springs on a typically pristine April morning we point our rental car – an entirely suitable Mustang convertible – north-north-east around the fringes of the wonderful Joshua Tree national park to the Mojave Desert. I am moist with excitement. And in the minority. Everyone else in the car hunkers down to read or play Nintendo. This makes me want to cry: Philistines! Look outside!
It turns into quite a drive.
By sheer coincidence, our road trip chimes in with Laughlin River Run, which is a massive Harley Davidson bash – 70,000 bikers apparently – in Nevada. From our point of the compass, they are all using the same Route 62 corridor before heading up to Route 66. We have lots and lots of shiny, iconic, home-grown, two-wheeled company. (See below.)
Where was I? Oh yeah. Route 66. The road itself fell off the map in 1984, being superseded by bigger, better Interstates. Then nostalgia set in… now it’s a legend. We eventually leave Mojave’s desert back roads for a few miles on Interstate 40 before peeling off at the Arizona state border onto the auld road. Magically, we are transported to yesteryear with decrepit roadside shacks and stalls straight out of a movie set. You begin to wonder if it is a movie set…
As we wind our way up into the mountains, a convoy of Dutch registered Morgans – the Malvern made, wood framed sports car – bowl past. Surreal.
The surreal’ometer clicks up a notch at a Korean War memorial – made in 2009 – replete with mandatory fluttering stars and stripes.
Then the ‘meter goes off the clock and breaks – cue cracked glass effect – when we happen upon the small town of Oatman, Arizona. A gold mining town from 1904 its road became Route 66 and enjoyed much traffic through the first half of the 20th century. In 1953 it was unceremoniously bypassed as it was a bit too mountainous and fiddly for trucks etcetera. So it really is a relic. It’s had many years to gain the patina of decay that gives it a certain look today, beloved by tourists. The main – only – street is quite bizarre. Shabby old west buildings, thronging with leather clad Harely riders, a gaggle of Dutch & Swiss Austin Healeys on a 25 day coast to coast run and – of course – wild burros. Burros? Donkeys to you chief. When they stopped mining here they turned the beasts of burden loose and they’ve thrived. They now spend their time biting unwary tourists. (J&M gave them Shrek inspired voices.)
We enter a dilapidated – 1902 but still trading – western hotel. Inside, a sign tells us Clark Gable honeymooned upstairs. (Wow.) Nowadays, there is no western bar with shots lined up, but we do get some nice ice creams. (Yee-har.) Bemused, we wander the streets. My head hurts. Partly because I’m eating my ice-cream much too fast, partly because it’s such a scene to behold. Mountains, burros, that maa-housive western sky, tumbledown shacks, bikers. Only in America.
Back on the twisty, poorly surfaced road, it’s roof town, traction control off Top Gear road trip. After a couple of clumsy drifts out of hairpins we have a domestic. Result? I drive more sensibly. (But what a minute or two! The drive, not the domestic.) The road opens out and the views are stupefying. Eagles soar on the thermals, huge mesas tower above us and that sky…
Our other Americana ingredient? The Santa Fe freight train. We stop at a level crossing to be treated to the classic horn blast and barrier chimes as thousands of tonnes thunder by. I hope the video does it some justice. (I counted this morning as I jogged alongside the railway: 99 carriages, many double decked with full size shipping containers.
Journey’s end – pause would be more accurate – is six hours up the road at a motel on Route 66 in Kingman, Arizona. Tomorrow? Another few hours of the Mother Road, before we head toward the Grand Canyon.
As a longtime biker you might expect me to be orgasmic at the prospect of a Harley Davidson. No, dear reader, no. You see, your Hog is really not much to write home about as a motorcycle: it’s slow, heavy, thirsty, ponderous, will shake your teeth out and is utterly outmoded. They look great, they sound dramatic, but are in fact rubbish. Have you ridden one? Performance wise, even the most humdrum Japanese machine can run rings around a Harley.
What we are really talking about here is a lifestyle. (I suppose that’s what any hobby is when you strip away the substance?) Some of the hundreds of bikes we see are amazing custom creations. Choppers abound. (Oooer missus. A chopper is a particular kind of customer ‘bike with longer fork stanchions. These in particular are modified to enormous lengths to render them even more uncomfortable than your regular Hog, not to mention more difficult to ride. We chuckle at the bikes with sky-high handlebars that must cause loss of feeling in the pilots arms within minutes.) They ride in big groups accompanied by minders and/or supply wagons. More Rotary Club day out than Hells Angels.
Sadly as we meander across the immense, humbling Mojave desert we encounter the more grisly side of biking. On the straightest of straight – perhaps 5 miles since a curve of any kind – piece of road a fully saddlebagged cherry red Harley has got it catastrophically wrong. How? Perhaps a crosswind? A blown tyre? Wide-swiped by a dozing car driver? Rider error? All we witness is the aftermath.We arrive on the scene after the emergency services – who must’ve travelled some considerable way from the nearest settlement – who are shrouding the victim with a blanket. There are bits of the bike everywhere leading to where it lies on the sandy shoulder of the road in a sorry heap.
Since (many) Harley riders wear fashion statement gear rather than modern “leathers” – this doesn’t just mean cowhide nowadays, it means fully functional armoured clothing – I fear injures would have been severe. Extreme road-rash at the very least. Riding without helmets is common. If they are worn, many are fashion first items offering little protection. Trainers, tee-shirts, jeans, even shorts are seen during the day. Tattoos don’t protect you when you are sliding down the tarmac.
We wish the rider and their family well.
Who are the riders? Tough, switchblade carrying, law dodging outcasts? Unlikely in the main. The baby boomers have taken over. Legions of grey bearded, portly Americans on lardy motorbikes. Livin’ the dream. Yet I can’t help being reminded of the outfits Village People wore back in the day…
Agreed, it makes a fine spectacle. For many, the very essence of Americana on a (long desert) highway: the lone cowboy riding the range on his trusty steed. It surely gave us great entertainment today. But then you take a look at the River Run website and you can see the demographic they’re aiming for.
Rockers with Zimmer frames entertaining late middle-aged accountants and sales managers with stylised beards on expensive shiny motorcycles. The whole thing was kicked off by a Harley dealer in 1983. How corporate.
It’d be way cooler if they didn’t take themselves so darn seriously.