The Heart of America - Road royalty

Route 66

He wasn't the first, not by the most modest of counts. My first love had been a Fat Boy. Once upon a time size clearly had mattered and the confident bulk of this classic Harley-Davidson bike had made my teenage knees go weak. But today, in the Surdyke Dealership in St Louis, Missouri something sleeker had turned my head: a brand new Heritage Softail. He was classic but sporty and he was plainly making eyes, winking at me in the summer sun that made molasses out of the tarmac.

Only trouble was my boyfriend had other ideas, and he was to be driving. I had never successfully managed to pilot one of these mythical machines myself, being barely taller than 5ft 2inches and weighing about one sixth of the average Harley's third-of-a-ton. But pillion passenger or no, my Napoleonic biker's complex had become too ingrained over the years to give up without a fight.

In a surreptitious effort to guarantee a date with Softail, I strike up conversation with Brett, one of the garage hands. In his late twenties, Brett has only ventured as far outside the state's border as his bike will carry him. "I been riding bikes pretty much since I could walk. Don't care much for people and cities, just like getting out on those back roads." Missouri may be home to the Spirit of St Louis, the aircraft that carried Charles A Lindbergh on the first solo non-stop flight across the Atlantic back in 1927, but locals will have you believe that there is no limit to just how far you can travel on two wheels. Brett tells me that one of Surdyke's customers recently bought a centenary model Harley-Davidson Road King and broke in the shiny new machine with a tour of the 49 states that put 46,000 miles on the clock.

It's all this talk of classic bikes and "feelin' the open road" that finally persuades my boyfriend to opt for Softail - a bike, according to Brett, that "you can really feel the road on" (something to which my butt would later attest). But for the moment, as we get our motor running and head out on the five-lane highway, the only thing I care about is how to transform squealing fits of girly glee into "yee-haw" shouts of American spirit.

Harleys may look awkward and showy on Europe's roads but on America's wild and endless highways you wouldn't want to be riding anything else. Harley's long-haul heritage stretches back to 1929 when the three teenage sons of company founders Bill and Walter Davidson set off to test their dads' creations on a cross-country trip covering 13,000 miles, returning to proclaim motorcycling "the greatest sport of all".

We're aiming for something a little less epic: to travel the easternmost tip of Route 66 into Milwaukee, the heartland of Hog (Harley-Davidson Owners Group) where the bike was born back in the 1920s. For the uninitiated, however, navigating the complexities of Harley's heel-toe gear shifter in five lanes of traffic seems the definition of arduous; we're being bounced around like a cheerleader at tryouts. Burning through the suburbs it would be nice to say we confirmed the tourist-board tag there's "more to St Louis than the arch" but we dared not stop. We had to find The Mother Road.

The Gateway Arch is St Louis' monument to the American West, where wagon- train pioneers paved the way for Route 66, "The Mother Road," with a dusty frontier trail stretching from Missouri to California. Centuries later, before the advent of the multi-lane American highway, Route 66 replaced the dirt tracks: a legendary 2,400-mile paved road connecting Chicago to Santa Monica.

The road was officially decommissioned in the Eighties but you can still follow the brown-and-white Route 66 Heritage Highway plaques directing you off the main Interstate 55 onto what remains of the old Mother Road. Though well in sight of the main highway, this two-way road is almost deserted. As long as you stay alert for the odd overloaded farm vehicle clattering towards you, you're King of the Road, rumbling along in view of vast green-tipped cornfields and distant, towering silos that glow cotton-candy pink as we ride under the setting sun. At the Route 66 Motel in Springfield, Illinois, we manage to stay upright just long enough to admire the vintage Harleys standing proudly behind velvet ropes in the foyer, before falling asleep like road-worn mules.

The following morning my tail is feeling anything but soft. I swagger out into the car park sporting the kind of wide-legged stride not befitting nice British girls. Our leather kit is already feeling anything but cool in the rising sun. But soon enough we get back into the rhythm of the bike and all I can hear is the sound of my breath inside my helmet and the thunder of the engine - the sound of the bike's pipes is pure acoustic Americana.

Such is its sheer vibrating racket you'd be forgiven for thinking you were being followed by a chapter of Hell's Angels. Not likely in these parts, though. Each time we rumble in and park up at a roadside diner the most affable of bikers come over to coo over the machine. Most are well into their fifties, a testament to the Harley's grown-up baby-boomer fan base. At a diner just outside the perfectly preserved old Route 66 town of Odell, a lady brings a slice of pecan pie out to us in the car park, so we can eat it on the verge and watch the jack rabbits "raisin' hell" in the bushes.

It's a shame, then, that these community-spirited souls weren't around on the final leg of our ride. Entering the motel car park at dawn we find an empty spot where our bike has been. The panicked conversation of the recently robbed and patently stranded in the middle of Midwest nowhere ensues; followed by weeping (me), violent curb kicking (my companion) and a much open-mouthed gaping (him, me and a uncharacteristically dumb- struck hotel receptionist).

Three hours later an Illinois State Trooper, who looks like a young Elmer Fudd, dispatches his report, and us into a rental car (read: beat-up ole' pick-up truck) and sends us off on our home stretch with our tails, but not our Softail, between our legs.

Love at first sight? Never trust it. Still, at least I have a souvenir T-shirt home-customised to read "get yours nicked on Route 66".

GETTING THERE

Harley-Davidson bike rental in the US starts at $80 (pounds 42) a day. For more information about tours and rental prices contact Harley-Davidson Rentals at www.hdrentals.com or the Harley-Davidson Motor Company (0870 904 1450). American Independence (0870 241 4217) can organise tailor-made tours.

FURTHER INFORMATION

For the Illinois section of Route 66 and Milwaukee, contact Cellet Travel Services (01564 794 999; www.milwaukee.org). For the Missouri section and the city of St Louis contact Missouri Tourism (0870 900 0996; www.VisitMO.co.uk) or go to www.explorestlouis.com

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