Triumphs, Travels and Route 66: The inspirational story of Mark & Sarah Pritchard
As a Brit, it can be difficult to comprehend the enormity of the USA. We see our island as being big, but when you see places on the US map that seem to be close to each other, you may find that it could take a couple of days to drive from one to the other. To drive across America seems, at first, to be a daunting prospect, and how could you possibly put its size into perspective so that you can relate to it?
In fairness, in most people’s eyes, we have travelled our own epic journey, the magnitude of which many people cannot relate to. In 2009, my wife, Sarah, nursed me back to a more or less full recovery from a brain hemorrhage. In 2013, by way of return, Sarah was diagnosed with breast cancer, turning the nurse/patient relationship on its head. Before her four months of chemotherapy began in September 2013, I told her that once it was done, we’d drive Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles no matter what.
In August 2014, in celebration of our triumph over the illnesses, we spent three weeks doing just that. It was simply the best holiday ever! It was more than a holiday – for us, it was the complete adventure, and something that we could never have envisaged during our darkest days. In the spring of 2014, we bought a big fold-out map of the US, drew a line following the Mother Road from east to west, dividing it into 150-mile intervals. To us, from our home in South Wales, that is the distance to London – a journey we have done many times. We could see just how many “home-to-London” trips we would need to do to complete the 2,300 mile trip and we were now able to put the journey into perspective and were able to start planning.
Our Route 66 Trip
We considered a motor home, but opted for a basic car. We considered booking motels along the way in advance, but decided that it would be better to have the freedom to stop overnight wherever we chose, as and when. There were, however, two places where we booked online before we set out from the UK – The Wigwam Motel at San Bernadino just outside Los Angeles because Sarah specifically wanted to stay there, and The Queen Mary ocean liner which is now a floating hotel docked at Long Beach, California. We also booked an airport hotel at Chicago O’Hare for the first night after our arrival in the USA.
We planned as a team. With mock officiousness, I told Sarah, “I shall be responsible for driving us safely across the USA!” Returning the tone, she proudly announced, “I’ll be on clothes!” It’s how we operate. It always works for us. I have a better sense of distance and direction than Sarah, and she cares more about clothes than I do, so there was no other way really. Sarah also took on the responsibility of navigating (which, she’d be the first to admit, was likely to be a challenge).
At the car hire reception in Chicago, we were given the option of paying extra for a satnav. I’ve never been a fan of satnavs, but it is so easy to get lost and on reflection I would recommend that it is essential to have one. Pay the extra and save yourself a day at least. We used it in conjunction with a book that we were given back at home called EZ66 Guide for Travellers by Jerry McClanahan. It detailed every single junction, with points of interest, and proved to be invaluable – making it a little like gigantic treasure hunt.
We considered taking two weeks for our trip, but felt that three would be more sensible. This was another wise move and one that gave us much more control over which places we could visit. You need to factor into the calculation that sometimes you will hit busy traffic. To give an example, it took us five hours to travel the 70 miles from San Bernadino to the (official) End of the Trail at Santa Monica Pier, Los Angeles, because of the volume of traffic.
In Missouri we went 20 miles or so off course and were heading for the neighbouring state of Arkansas which has no place at all on Route 66, and we spent quite some time trying to find our way out of St. Louis! The term, “Back over the Mississippi!” is an expression we now use every time a task goes wrong and we have to start over again. You need to cut yourself some slack and give yourself three weeks if you are not going on an organised Route 66 holiday. But getting lost was half of the fun, and every now and again we would find the road took us to a dead end because the route has changed over the years, forcing us to turn back.
At the beginning of the journey, we spent a day looking around Chicago, but didn’t loiter because we were eager to get the journey under way. The Willis Tower was the city’s highlight for us, with its famous glass-floored balcony if you have a stomach for heights. Once we’d set out on our westward adventure along the Mother Road, on our first day we walked around Pontiac to look at its entertaining murals.
On day two, we crossed into Missouri to St Louis where we enjoyed a visit to (and inside) the St Louis Arch offering spectacular views over the city and the Mississippi River before spending the night at Springfield, the home of the Simpsons (careful not to mistake it for another Springfield in Illinois further east!). At this point, we figured that we were “Only 24 hours from Tulsa…” Ironically, Gene Pitney died in a hotel in Cardiff only 20 or so miles from where we live in South Wales, and it was argued that from here to Tulsa was, again, “Only 24 Hours…” away, depending on flights, connecting flights, taxis etc.
For two reasons, we planned to reach the Midpoint Cafe at Adrian, Texas, by the end of week one. Firstly, we wanted to remove any pressure over whether or not we’d reach the end of the trail in time for our return flights. Secondly, we figured that the latter half of the journey would be more interesting. We figured right. Not that the first part was uninteresting – on the contrary, it was a thrilling 1,130 miles. But we were drawn to the deserts of New Mexico, Arizona and California. Plus, of course, we had scheduled detours to The Grand Canyon and Las Vegas.
However, before reaching the Midpoint Cafe, we didn’t miss out on seeing the world’s largest rocking chair (which doesn’t rock!) at Fanning, Missouri, the charming town of Galena along the short 13 mile stretch of Route 66 that passes through the south-eastern tip of Kansas, where you’ll see the original “Tow Tater” from the movie Cars, and the unmissable Palo Duro Canyon – a small taster of the spectacular scenery we would encounter just a day or two later.
It was while we were driving through semi-desert in New Mexico, surrounded by thunderstorms, that Sarah said, “Every day is like going on a new holiday,” before our day’s journey ended just over the border into Arizona, at a town called Window Rock in Navajo territory. She was right – but the best was still to come as our journey took us towards the hot desert where we marvelled over the unimaginably vast, tranquil beauty (let me be really honest – words alone cannot express it) of the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest.
For me, before we began the road trip, Arizona was the real destination. It didn’t disappoint. After “Standing on the corner in Winslow, Arizona”, made famous by The Eagles’ song Take it Easy, a visit to the breathtaking Meteor Crater (it has always amazed me that, of all the places in all the world, the meteor happened to land in a crater!) and a slight detour to Slide Rock close to Sedona, we ourselves landed in the retro town of Williams, which was to be our base for our day trip to the Grand Canyon 60 miles away.
I was told to expect the Grand Canyon to be bigger than I’d anticipated. So I expected MUCH bigger than I’d anticipated. I was wrong. It is even BIGGER! We spent the day there and returned to Williams. The next detour was Las Vegas. Well, Vegas is Vegas. I didn’t like it at first, but I warmed to it. We spent three nights there at a Holiday Inn (it was more than a hotel room – it was a fairly luxurious apartment where Sarah was able to re-organise “clothes”).
I don’t like to say that I lost $100 at the casino – I’d much rather say that I kindly contributed to the vast electricity bill – before a welcome return to the Mother Road in the California Desert. In the Nevada desert on the way to Las Vegas we recorded a temperature of 51C so it’s best to make sure you have plenty of water with you. The detour we took skipped an important part of Route 66 – the volcanic area around Ludlow. So we doubled back to see it. Don’t miss it.
After a visit to the pretty, but crowded (!), ghost town of Calico, we made our way to the Wigwam Motel at San Bernadino, before setting out the following morning to complete the journey to the Pacific Coast at Santa Monica, Los Angeles. We spent two nights on the ship, and during the daytime we did the usual things like a trip to Beverly Hills and a walk along Hollywood Boulevard.
Sarah has only one heartthrob (apart from me, of course) – Pierce Brosnan. He turned up, coincidentally, for the Premier of his movie November Man as we were walking past. We couldn’t quite get to the front of the crowds to reach him as he signed autographs, but we managed to get to within two metres of him. I told Sarah I’d planned his visit. I don’t think she believes me.
Our last day was spent at the airport hotel after we’d dropped the car off at the car hire location. Be warned that Los Angeles is not an easy place to drive, so I was not disappointed to return the car. We spent much of the day relaxing at the hotel pool, reflecting on what, to us, was the best three weeks of our lives. It was a holiday that we will probably never match in the future. The bar has been raised very high indeed.
What We Learned On Our Journey
Sarah said it was worth having cancer for. Can you beat that?! It sounds an unlikely statement, and people could be forgiven for saying that it was only said in the heat of the moment. However, it was not just about Route 66 per se. The journey represented the changes we have since made in our lives. Six months after our road trip, I published a book entitled I’M NEVER ILL (A journey through brain surgery and beyond…), which is an account of our own journey through grave illnesses and the positive impact they have reflected upon our lives.
After suffering breast cancer and a brain haemorrhage respectively, Sarah and I are used to people looking at us with sympathetic, concerned eyes. But the opposite should be the case. We are two very lucky people whose private journey through ill health and near death has done nothing but make us change our lives for the better. Route 66 marked the beginning of our new life together.
We have since taken up 1950s-style jive and swing dance, and spend time promoting our book, having received much interest from the media. In our early 50s, at an age where many people are beginning to wind down, we are turning up the heat and living life to the full. There is a driving force within us to make the best of our lives and help other people out. In particular, we like to stress upon people the importance of checking for lumps. Had Sarah not checked and responded early by going straight to the doctor, ours would be a very different story. Cancer is very treatable these days, especially if it is caught early.
Visit my website: www.markdpritchard.co.uk
…where you will find so many things to read and look at – including links to 16 Route 66 videos. You’ll also find links to buy the book and to the incredible reviews it has received so far on www.amazon.co.uk.
Alternatively, you can order the book by going directly to the Amazon website.
Tips for a Route 66 Journey
Ours was a very well planned trip. Planning is really important if you wish to do Route 66. Everybody’s Route 66 is different. There are so many different places to stop and visit that you could do Route 66 again and again, experiencing a completely different holiday each time. Ours was perfect for us. We didn’t plan each day meticulously – you can’t do that on this trip. You can only do it justice by having the freedom to be spontaneous.
For us, almost every major decision we made in our planning was luckily the correct one. These are what we consider to be correct decisions:
- Take three weeks instead of two weeks
- Use a car instead of a motor home (just our preference)
- Don’t book all motels/hotels in advance
- Use a satnav
- Allow more time for the western half of the journey
- Have a complete day after the journey relaxing at the airport (useful if you struggle to reach the end on time)
- Use a guide book such as EZ66 Guide for Travellers by Jerry McClanahan
Things we could have improved on:
- Booked hotels earlier for Las Vegas to stay at a themed hotel (they were all booked)
- Booked hotels earlier for the Grand Canyon to stay at one of the hotels at the Grand Canyon National Park (they were all booked)
- Consider Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon as a separate holiday so that you can focus on the main route without a detour
Before embarking on this journey, don’t take small children, as the words, “Are we there yet?” before you’ve found your way out of Chicago may quell the excitement before you’ve even started. Also bear in mind that whoever you take with you will probably be with you 24/7. If you’re not sure whether or not you will get along with each other for the whole duration, it could turn into a holiday nightmare. Luckily, Sarah and I have no problems regarding this. We went through the entire journey with no arguments whatsoever – although we’ll both admit that it got a little tense in St Louis.
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