One for the road

Experiencing mega burgers, truck-stop churches and Cadillac monoliths on the ultimate US road trip

Travel 8 Mar 2019

The buttes of Monument Valley in Utah
Carhenge in Alliance, Nebraska
The world’s largest rubber stamp in Cleveland, Ohio

Palm Springs is hot. 43°C hot. It’s a savage, shimmering, sapping heat that peels the tint off my sunglasses, frazzles my camera’s sensor and makes me question the wisdom of swapping my air-conditioned SUV for a bright red 3.7L V6 Mustang convertible.

But why not? Why let California’s sun sabotage a final burn into LA? After 4,000 miles across 14 states and three time zones we’ve earned a bit of celebratory lunacy. This is no ordinary road trip. It’s the road trip. The stuff of Guthrie, Kerouac and Springsteen: an odyssey of small towns, big skies and epic landscapes, lubricated with perfect music, hellfire radio evangelists and soul-searching conversation.

Perhaps I’m overdoing the beat romance. None of us – I’m travelling with a grizzled former war photographer and a Welsh accountant who is more John Major than Dean Moriarty – oozes the reckless charisma of On the Road, whose protagonists ‘burn burn burn like fabulous yellow roman candles’. Still, we can dream. This drive could jump-start the coldest engine. It has two Manhattans: New York’s borough and LA’s beach, two oceans and two halves: the classic Americana of the East and Midwest, followed by the grandeur of the Rockies and searing western deserts – a magnificently cinematic country unfolding before your eyes.

New York’s concrete canyons and New Jersey’s verdant ripples quickly surrender to the long-forested valleys of Pennsylvania’s Appalachians. The food expands too. Denny’s Beer Barrel pub in Clearfield has the mightiest burgers on Earth. Three of us combined can’t finish its classic two-pounder, so how on earth did Brad Sciullo devour the 15-pound Belly Buster in two and a half hours before sinking three pints of ale? ‘He wasn’t fat,’ explains owner Danny Liege Junior. ‘People drink water to stretch their stomachs.’ My jaw both aches and drops.

The bright lights of a truck stop sign on Iowa’s I-80

For us, the immense patties are just an aperitif. Over coming days weird and wonderful Americana arrives thick and fast. Cleveland has the world’s biggest al-fresco chandelier and rubber stamp, while further along I-80, as Ohio flattens into farms and barns; I discover a church inside a juggernaut, parked next to a Toledo truck stop’s Taco Bell. With an organ, pulpit and seating inside an eight-foot-wide shipping container, Transport for Christ offers a narrow take on conventional religion, while its neon crucifix, white picket fence and bright geraniums emit a heady whiff of David Lynch.

It’s a world away from the Church of England. As is Dr Erwin Lutzer’s Sunday broadcast. Under menacing Illinois clouds suggesting the Rapture is imminent, the steely voiced pastor repeatedly berates our lascivious sins and worship of pagan gods. Having let the sexual genie out of the bottle, ‘we will face the wrath of the Lord’. The car falls silent. Songs of Praise suddenly seems rather dull.

The good doctor would undoubtedly praise Iowa 80, the world’s largest truck stop. Not only does it have a chapel, but it sells T-shirts promoting Christianity and Mexican food: ‘Wanna taco ’bout Jesus? Lettuce pray’. The self-contained roadside city has a dentist, chiropractor and cinema, alongside a Dogomat automatic pet wash where I find Janene and Efren blow-drying their pit bulls. The Californian couple and their three dogs spend 28 days a month in Efren’s truck, covering 117,000 miles each year.

Our week-long journey appears a tad tame, yet we’re already desperate to escape the interstate. So, on day four, after 1,400 miles, we abandon I-80 to wiggle through northern Nebraska’s rolling sandhills: a supersized golf links where lakes – dubbed ‘prairie potholes’ – are frescoed with reflections of clouds, and the heavy silence is splintered by the sad wail of mile-long freight trains. I stop counting at 140 wagons.

Monument Valley’s buttes and Zion’s vertiginous golden cliffs merit every bit of Hollywood adulation

Our target is Alliance, home to the lovechild of English Druids and the US automobile industry. In 1987 Jim Reinders precisely recreated Stonehenge out of 38 American cars. He sprayed them grey, turned a 1962 Caddy into the heel stone and held a funeral procession for three foreign cars, burying them on site. Carhenge is wryly amusing, strangely beautiful and very photogenic. It’s also a fitting adieu to the flatlands. A night in Denver and I-70 rises up the face of the Rockies. Pine trees and ski lifts replace wheat fields and tractors. We’re rapidly into winter resort heaven: Steamboat Springs, Aspen, Creste Butte. We stop for delightful lattes and croissants– Kerouac would shudder.

If the Rockies are good, then the western deserts are even better. We crank AC/DC up high (I know, sorry) and skirt the Grand Mesa – the planet’s largest flat-topped mountain – before following the cliff-edge trail of the Colorado National Monument, whose spires and monoliths offer a taster for Utah’s Daliesque wilderness.

Seismic activity has artistically rearranged the region’s sedimentary sandstone into sublime driving territory. Red cliffs, white domes and black volcanic boulders mingle with rock cathedrals, towering columns and a multi-hued 7,000-feet-high layer cake, said to be the scar left by Satan’s pitchfork on his way to Vegas. Were it not for the frontier names – Grand Gulch, Bullet Canyon, Box-Death Hollow – we could be on Mars.

We ditch the timetable. Utah’s too incredible. Time to meander. Monument Valley’s buttes and Zion’s vertiginous golden cliffs merit every drop of Hollywood adulation. Even Vegas can’t follow that, so after one night we flee Sin City, flying through the Californian desert’s cactus and mesquite to reach Pioneertown. Its revamped 1940s wood motel, on an old Wild West movie set, provides a suitably American final kip.

It just leaves a lazy cruise around the spiky gorgons of Joshua Tree National Parkand a descent into Palm Springs to unleash the Mustang. As we enter LA, flicking between 14-lane highways, we debate the drive’s best road. Was it this morning’s slaloming drop into the Coachella Valley, the SR 247’s classic desert highway, or the iconic US 163 through Monument Valley? The jury’s out, but I’m certain of one thing. Having driven swathes of the Silk Road, crossed Australia and motored over the Andes, trans-America tops them all. Yes, your shades may melt, but in its gradually unfolding drama, this is the road trip to end all road trips.

Fly into New York and return from LA from £294pp, virginatlantic.com. Alamo Car Hire (alamo.co.uk) offers car hire at New York’s JFK and drop off at LAX