Route 66: A journey of 2,000 miles begins in Bakersfield

Moving boxes in an apartmentLast week marked my two-month anniversary as a Chicagoan, during which time life has at turns felt rushed (the cross-country drive) and plodding (unpacking box and after box). It’s been exhilarating (everything is new!) and stressful (new things are hard!). I haven’t had time for homesickness for the Bay Area.

I left San Francisco – and the little Russian Hill apartment I’d inhabited for nearly eight years – minutes after the moving van drove away. I surprised myself by NOT sobbing as I headed down Highway 101. It probably helped that I had a six-hour drive (read: crawl) ahead of me, and a 10 p.m. ETA in Bakersfield, CA. That left little time for sentimentality.

Tip #1: Driving from San Francisco to Bakersfield with few breaks is an ideal way to experience “highway hypnosis”. I don’t recommend it, but I was eager to kick off my Route 66 road trip as quickly as possible.

Tip #2: I spent my first night as a nomad – no longer a San Franciscan, but not yet technically living in Chicago – at the La Quinta Inn & Suites in Bakersfield.  I’d never stayed in a La Quinta before. This one was affordable, spotless, peaceful and the mattress could rival any swanky Westin bed. Options for accommodation in Bakersfield are a bit limited. This one deserves a shout out.

I asked at the front desk whether the hotel had been recently renovated – what else would account for the lack of wear and tear? The clerk said no,  it had been nearly a decade. “We all just try really hard, Ma’am.” I loved that.

Ideally, I’d have meticulously planned my stops along Route 66, but I didn’t have that luxury with so much packing to do. A friend who had recently made the trip had some suggestions, including “The Route 66 Adventure Handbook”. It was a life-saver for someone who, aside from calculating drive times and booking hotels in advance (a must-do, even in the off season), was pretty much flying by the seat of her pants.

Every night, I’d bookmark the section of Route 66 I’d be driving the next day, and pick out a few highlights to visit. I missed some big ones (like Cadillac Ranch), so I’ll hang on to the book in case I try the drive again.

From Bakersfield, I headed to Flagstaff – see you in retirement, fabulous Flagstaff! – then Monument Valley.  This was my second time visiting Monument Valley in less than two years. It is not on Route 66, but it’s one of my favorite places, and I couldn’t bear to be so close without staying at least one night.

I did it for the photos.

 

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Next up: Winslow, AZ, and La Posada – a landmark Harvey Hotel. Then Santa Fe, my favorite small American city.

In Tucumcari, NM my luck with accommodations ran out. The “authentic” Route 66 motel I’d booked was… well, it was no La Posada. I ditched that reservation, in favor of a La Quinta that looked less… infected.  I paid for two hotel rooms that night, but have no regrets.

It’s worth stopping in Tucumcari for its classic Route 66 neon signs and kitsch. At the risk of being unkind… they are really the ONLY reasons to spend time there.

 

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Amarillo, TX lies just beyond Tucumcari.  The thing I’ll remember most about Amarillo is, unfortunately, the smell. Driving along the highway, I was tempted to pull over to photograph one of the many astonishingly-huge cattle yards but… I could not bear the odor. It made my eyes water, and my throat raw. But further upwind, the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum was acceptable consolation. (It has AC and the windows are kept CLOSED.) I would love to go back.

To the museum, I mean.

My movers phoned mid-trip to let me know they were ahead of schedule, so I had to speed through the latter half of my drive. I didn’t have time to explore Oklahoma as much as I’d have liked, so I chose to focus on just the Oklahoma City National Memorial, and Tulsa’s historic Greenwood neighborhood (America’s “Black Wall Street” until a race riot of 1921) and National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.

Seriously, can anyone who has ever MET me think I could drive past a cowboy museum without stopping?

The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum has ample movie memorabilia and galleries devoted to fabulous art, as well as more lassoes, saddles, cowboy (and cowgirl) attire and barbed wire than you can shake a fence post at. Another highlight is a replica cattle town at night: Prosperity Junction. The “sky” is filled with stars, and the air smells exactly like a summer evening. Not sure how they accomplished that…

I’ll never forget the excitement of entering Chicago after my Route 66 road trip, my car so stuffed I could barely see out the back. My GPS instructed me to drive nine miles north on Lake Shore Drive to my exit. I had never even driven in Chicago before. Nine miles!?!?! This is a huge city!

I had a similar feeling – a thrilling combination of fear and possibility — watching my Dad drive away, after helping me move into my first post-college studio in Manhattan.

Fast forward a lot of years. I wandered around my empty Chicago apartment, and stared out at Lake Michigan, completely alone.

The journey to get here was epic. I’m hoping my adventures in Chicago will be just as exciting – with a little less fast food consumed.

Watch this space…

 

 

 

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