Saturday, May 25, 2024
Home Road Trip America’s most celebrated road trip is going electric

America’s most celebrated road trip is going electric

by Staff

This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

This man is huge. Standing confidently on the side of the road, legs slightly spread and sporting space-age, metallic silver boots, he’s over 30ft tall, his shoulders almost level with the tip of the gabled roof beside him. He’s wearing an iridescent green jumpsuit that glitters like mercury in the warm Illinoisan sunshine, and a rounded helmet through which you can just make out his thick eyebrows and thousand-yard stare. In his hands he’s holding a slender rocket in the same way as you might hold a baseball bat, its silver side emblazoned with two words: Launching Pad. 

The fibreglass Gemini Giant astronaut first landed here, outside a drive-in in Wilmington, in the 1960s, at the same time as a full cast of curb-side titans nicknamed the Muffler Men were introduced by savvy small-business owners to lure hungry motorists into their restaurants. Motorists were guaranteed, after all, given how many of them were on what was, and arguably still is, the US’s most famous highway: Route 66.

Stretching 2,448 miles west from Chicago across the breadth of the country to Santa Monica, California, this is a road that symbolises the spirit of the US in a way that no other can. It’s a time capsule of the nation’s history, with all its struggles and triumphs: in the 1930s, California-bound migrants used it to escape the Dust Bowl; in the post-war golden era, when the car was king, families piled into their Chevies and drove along it to dine at mom-and-pop restaurants and sleep at neon-clad motels.

While its glory days were consigned to the rear-view mirror during the 1980s, when the fast, new interstate roads rose in popularity, Route 66 is still the quintessential US road trip, cemented culturally everywhere from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath to, more recently, the Pixar animation film Cars.

It promises roadtrippers the chance to turn back time and experience old-fashioned American kitsch. And now, it’s getting an upgrade that’s set to launch it into the future, just in time to celebrate its 100th birthday in 2026: a full network of charge points is in the process of being unveiled, meaning it will soon be possible to drive its full length in an electric vehicle.

Eager for a test drive, I’d set out from Chicago, planning to drive 280 miles south in an all-electric saloon car towards the Missouri border and back. This five-day journey translates to around 0.04 tonnes of CO2, roughly a quarter of that used in a traditional petrol-powered car. Quickly, the scenery switched from skyscrapers to golden seas of swaying corn, and 60 miles later I came face to face with that astronomical aeronaut.

Later that day, 45 miles to the south, I arrive in Pontiac, a postcard-pretty city in Illinois set around a leafy square that’s crowned with a red-brick courthouse. My visit happens to coincide with a classic car convention, and the parking lots are buzzing with old-school motors and promenading petrolheads, who cast admiring sidewards glances at the rows of racy Corvettes and sleek tailfins of pastel-hued Cadillacs.

As the only electric driver in Pontiac this morning — as far as I can tell — I have monopoly over the electric charge point. As luck would have it, it’s a super charger, promising a full battery at warp speed (not all EV charge points are created equal, with charging times fluctuating from 20 minutes here to 18 hours elsewhere). Relieved, I head to Pontiac’s most famous attraction to wait: the Route 66 Association Hall of Fame & Museum.

The Gemini Giant is an iconic muffler man (sculptures that used to be placed as advertising icons) on Route 66.

Photograph by Sandy Noto

At the entrance, 85-year-old Rose Geralds is waiting for me. A guide at the museum, she’s wearing a Route 66 shirt emblazoned with vintage cars and road maps. “We’ve had visitors from 19 different countries in a single day before,” Rose tells me, beaming, as she leads the way through thousands of donated items. We wander past a chipped mannequin of Marilyn Monroe, who was a Route 66 regular and blazed a trail here in her red Ford Thunderbird.

“The appeal of driving Route 66 today is being able to have the feeling of stepping back in time, with all the old signs, diners and gas stations along the route,” Rose says, standing beside a cabinet crammed with monogrammed room keys and logoed ashtrays — relics of the mostly defunct motels that once lined the road. “This highway is like a living museum, dedicated to the good old days,” she adds, as a leather-clad man on a Harley-Davidson motorbike revs past. I wonder whether, one day soon, this sort of throaty growl could be replaced by the subtle whir of electric vehicles plying the route.

So new is the electric side of Route 66 that chargers are still being hammered into the ground, I discover that evening in the carpark of Wally’s megastore. I’ve arrived a little too soon to top up at its high-tech charge points, an attendant explains. “Come back in two weeks, when they should be up and running,” he says, whistling through his teeth. Thankfully, I’m using the PlugShare phone app, which swiftly offers up a nearby alternative, but I’m starting to see how range anxiety could creep in once you leave the grid of major cities.

The open road

The next day, the flat road stretches to the horizon beyond my windscreen, occasionally punctuated by a roadside diner with a James Dean or Betty Boop statue out front. I’m cruising hungrily towards the plug sockets of Springfield, the state capital, home to the domed Illinois State Capitol Building.

The city is gearing up for Route 66’s centennial by installing a fleet of new attractions, including Legends Neon Park, an outdoor exhibition of glowing, vintage roadside signs at Illinois State Fairgrounds.

I pull over at Springfield’s most recent attraction, Route 66 Motorheads Bar and Grill, Museum and Entertainment Complex, where a rock band is warming up on stage amid flickering beer signs, restored petrol pumps and car memorabilia. The Route 66 treasure trove that adorns the walls and ceiling here belongs to owner Ron Metzger. Acquired from decades of auctions, his collection is so large that he’s given up counting. “What can I say? I’m a car guy!” he says with a laugh, pulling up a stool to join me at the bar, a trucker hat partly covering his neatly clipped white hair. With retirement lurking around the corner, Ron decided to forego the pipe and slippers and buy an abandoned petrol station with a view to transforming it into a hub for fellow car enthusiasts.

Springfield seemed the perfect spot because of its motorsport heritage, Ron explains. “We have the world’s fastest dirt mile track and a lot of the big-name races happen here,” he says, as a mighty horseshoe sandwich is heaved across the bar towards me. The signature dish of Route 66, this fast-food feast is so ubiquitous that it even has its own cookbook. Wedges of buttery Texas toast are topped with slabs of hamburger patty, then smothered beneath a mountain of salty fries and thick blanket of creamy cheese sauce. It gained its name as it was originally made with ham cut directly from the bone, in the shape of a horseshoe.

exterior of cafe

The longest-operating business in Girard, Illinois, Doc’s Just Off 66 has kept its historic charm.

Photograph by Sandy Noto

I only manage to make a small dent in my meal before heading off to catch a film at the nearby Route 66 Drive In Theater. The smell of hot buttered popcorn wafts through my car windows from its red-and-white-tiled snack bar, manned by teenagers in gingham shirts and 1950s-style ‘soda jerk’ paper hats. I tune my radio into the double bill of vintage sci-fi films playing on the big screen in front of me and settle down, casting sideways glances at the handful of sedan cars beside me — kids squished into front seats and young couples sipping fizzy pop beneath a blanket of stars.

The next morning, I leave Springfield early to head 30 miles south to Girard, a whistle-stop Illinois city where tumble-down shop fronts sit beside quaint picket-fenced houses. It’s home to Docs Just Off 66, a hangout housed in a red-brick building with a kitsch, candy-striped awning. Despite its rustic appearance, I’m surprised to find out that this business actually opened post pandemic. In 2022, Casey Claypool and her husband Steve converted a former pharmacy into a traditional soda fountain — a type of establishment that became popular in the first half of the 20th century. The laminated menu offers shakes, malts and sundaes topped with whipped cream and glacé cherries. Wearing thick-rimmed glasses and her hair slicked into a ponytail, Casey leans over the wooden bar, an original from the 1930s, and ponders why Route 66 still appeals to travellers. “I think the allure is that it harks back to a simpler era, before the internet, when families spent more time together,” she says as Elvis croons over the speakers.

Over a root beer soda, I take a seat to map out my journey back to Chicago, factoring in pit stops along the way where I can top up my battery and visit antique stores and roadside curiosities. Casey says she hasn’t seen many electric cars along the route yet. “But it’s only a matter of time,” she adds quickly as a gaggle of kids jostles for space around her ice cream cart. “I think it’s an exciting development — it will introduce a new generation to Route 66 and bring it into the future.” It shouldn’t take long to turn this road’s all-electric dreams into a reality. After all, almost a century after it was created, Route 66 is still going strong and has more than proved itself capable of shifting gears with the times.

Published in the Classic USA guide, distributed with the March 2024 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

To subscribe to National Geographic Traveller (UK) magazine click here. (Available in select countries only).

Leave a Comment

Copyright ©️ All rights reserved. | Tourism Trends