There’s this feeling you have when you realize you’re in a car with someone your own age and no adults for the first time. I remember being a freshman in high school when a senior said he’d drive me home from our cast party after closing night for Inherit The Wind. Being alone in a car — no one’s mom pulled up to the curb outside the party armed with questions like, “Did you girls have fun?” and “Who was there?” and “What did you do?” — was a dizzying level of freedom. All of a sudden, my hazy future was rendered more clearly. I’d get a car of my own one day. Then an apartment. And then…
This heady sensation is eventually eclipsed by your first real road trip. Picking your own route, listening to a playlist you made, eating gas station Funions — this is real living. It’s adulthood and adventure in equal measures, inextricably bound together. My first road trip was just a jaunt to Madison, Wisconsin from small-town Michigan, but I felt like Jack Kerouac. I was a lonely wanderer, out seeking answers along the endlessly unfolding tarmac.
I don’t think I’ve ever lost that initial feeling of freedom and excitement for road trips. Few other types of travel give you that pure “Go where the wind takes you” feeling, even when you have an agenda and Google maps. Hear about a great hike to a hot spring? A restaurant that serves spectacular cherry pie? The world’s largest something or other? You can just pull off the road and your trip will be better for it. Road trips are filled with unexpected destinations. They’re loaded with disasters and laughter and chaos and, eventually, they lead to great stories.
Below you’ll find eight truly iconic American road trip routes. They’re adventures that will teach you about America… and yourself.
The Americana Road Trip — Route 66 — Arizona
It may have been a long time ago, but Route 66 was a big deal. Like, huge. It was called “The Mother Road” and “Main Street of America.” It holds a prominent place in our collective history. It ran from Chicago, the hub of the midwest and an epicenter of the industrial revolution, to Santa Monica, the rowdy western outpost turned glamorous haven for the stars. Over the years, the long decommissioned highway has come to represent a certain era in American history. It stands for the days when communities gathered at the local diner, cars were the ultimate gateway to freedom, and the trip west across the country held endless potential.
Though the road was officially broken up in 1985, there are still some stretches of it that are driveable today. Many, in fact, though they go by different names. Chances are you won’t have the disposable time to drive the whole thing, nor should you, no one needs that much mid-century nostalgia. I recommend driving the road through Arizona, not far from the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Something about the Arizonans, they go all in for the pure American kitsch that Route 66 has come to embody. This is the stretch that John Lasseter and other Disney animation execs traveled to get a feeling for the world of Cars.
Be sure to stop for lots of greasy-as-all-get-out food. This is where a classic burger, onion rings, and chocolate malt taste just like they did back in the 50s. Try Delgadillo’s Snow Cap in Selgman or Mr. D’z Route 66 Diner in Kingman — two places where the roadside diner experience remains virtually unchanged in all the best ways. To work off those calories, visit Havasu Falls on the Havasupai Indian Reservation or… y’know… the Grand Canyon.
Make sure not to miss: The city of Oatman, where wild mules roam the streets. The stories of the old west were tales of automation and technology (via the train network) changing lives for the cowboys and frontiersmen of old. There’s not much from that bygone era left anymore. Mostly it’s just Oatman, a dusty outpost famous for those feral mules, some abandoned mines, and a clapboard saloon that is unironically called “The Glory Hole.”
If that’s not your type of town, we don’t need to plan a road trip together.
Song to play: Get Your Kick on Route 66, Chuck Berry
–Steve Bramucci, Travel Editor, Uproxx