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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Sport
Bradford City's reward for their memorable win over Chelsea is a trip to face either Sunderland or Fulham (Getty)
football
News
Lars Andersen took up archery in his mid thirties
video
Voices
Focus E15 Mothers led a protest to highlight the lack of affordable housing in London
voicesLondon’s housing crisis amounts to an abuse of human rights, says Grace Dent
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operations & Logistics Manager

    £38000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's best performing...

    Recruitment Genius: GeoDatabase Specialist - Hazard Modelling

    £35000 - £43000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our award-winning client is one...

    Recruitment Genius: Compressed Air Pipework Installation Engineer

    £15000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of Atlas ...

    Recruitment Genius: Operations Coordinator - Pallet Network

    £18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Opportunity to join established...

    Day In a Page

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project