The sky was the color of fresh dirt as we finally cruised into Amarillo, Texas, in a duct-taped Toyota Corolla. It was dusk on a Friday night, and we had nowhere to stay. I couldn’t drive another mile, and my sister Jenny, still in high school, didn’t yet have her license. We hoped the car would survive Route 66 after getting broadsided in a Minneapolis snowstorm just the week before. Scars from a frozen snowbank still rippled the passenger side.

Jenny and I were in this northern tip of Texas because I’d held the vague yet resolute idea of driving to California along this legendary roadway after graduating college. And so, a few years ago we hit the open road.

What we discovered along the way — beyond exploring diverse pockets of the country up close — is that as much as you might carefully plan your itinerary, the actual theme of a road trip emerges only once you’re on it. There is the journey where you unexpectedly fell in love or broke up, or discovered that tucked into the lush autumnal beauty of Hwy. 7 in Vermont were enough dairies for a trunk full of cheeses. The drive to the New Jersey shore that suddenly became an homage to Bruce Springsteen — blasting “Born to Run” while cruising past chrome-and-neon diners on the way to the Asbury Park boardwalk. For Jenny and me, our theme — “California or Bust” — was both metaphorical and literal: We had to get to California before the car fell apart.

The banged-up Corolla was holding up better than I was by the time we hit Amarillo, but I was alert enough to read the signs. Two seconds in, you know you’re in a cowboy town. We pulled into the parking lot of a Western-themed motel with a vintage neon sign that had long ago lost its luster — a perfect Coen brothers film set.

Jenny turned to me and said, with the particular authority that only a 17-year-old girl can possess, “It looks a little creepy.”

Next.

We smelled hair spray and leather, and sensed testosterone, as we walked into the lobby of a hotel down the road. Top 40 dance music blared from the ballroom, and girls in frothy formal dresses gossiped on leather couches. We marveled at the boys’ outfits: cowboy boots and 10-gallon hats. Prom night in Amarillo brings out the bling, Texas-style.

The almost-new teal Corolla had been stunningly perfect in the way that only your first car is stunningly perfect. I’d saved up for it by working the graveyard shift at my dorm, knowing it would carry me west.

The best road trips are pilgrimages, ones that might pursue an idea or a feeling as much as a specific destination. The idea that propelled me? Well, I had been raised on enough Golden Age Hollywood movies and Beach Boys albums to recognize California as the American version of paradise.

Even though we weren’t driving a Ford Mustang convertible with the top down like an Aerosmith video, the Corolla spelled adventure anyway. No wonder Route 66 seemed like the best — no, the only — way to get to there. Jenny was game for cruising down America’s most iconic highway, even though I wasn’t able to describe its charms beyond hazy promises about 1950s diners where waiters who probably looked like James Dean in “Giant” would serve us milkshakes.

We had originally hooked up with Route 66 in tiny Baxter Springs, “the first cow town in Kansas.” As we left, we mistakenly ended up on Hwy. 166 instead. Realizing we were already lost, we stopped for sodas at a vintage pharmacy in Coffeyville, Kan., where the notorious 19th-century Dalton gang fought their last shootout. After a mystifying stop in Tulsa, Okla. (where were all the tough kids with slicked-back hair and white T-shirts we had read about in “The Outsiders”?), we rejoined Route 66 and pushed on west.

If California represented a Gold Rush-like sense of discovery, Route 66 represented the freedom to get lost. Nobody knew exactly where we were, and as we drove past the ghost town of Glenrio, on the Texas-New Mexico border, we barely knew where we were, either. The sense that anything could happen was slightly terrifying, but exhilarating.

All over the map

On maps made before 1938, Route 66 goes straight through Santa Fe, N.M., following the Old Pecos Trail. In the spirit of the original route 1926 route — or maybe just because Santa Fe sounded irresistibly cool — we veered north.

In that adobe-rich town, we posed for photos on the elegant stairway at the vintage faux-Moorish Lensic Theater (now a refurbished performing arts center). Then we ate lunch while listening to street musicians on the Santa Fe Plaza, where I ate the first tear-inducing spicy burrito of my life.

In Albuquerque, N.M., we relaxed on the front porch of the homey Route 66 Hostel before heading out to admire Central Avenue’s stretch of original neon signs — relics of Route 66 in its heyday. At dinner, we perused our map. The beauty of paper maps is that you’re more likely to discover something interesting when Siri isn’t telling you to turn in 600 feet. Maps force you to imagine, to dream ahead into the unknown. As we dined on blue corn spinach enchiladas in a cafe near the University of New Mexico, we spotted Arizona’s Painted Desert on the map, which sounded appealingly like a Jimi Hendrix song. Neither of had us had ever seen an actual desert, and this one was apparently painted — even better.

The mysterious name only hints at the austere beauty we discovered the next day. Layers of color ring sand-swept mountains in a landscape that appears more akin to a creation of Georgia O’Keeffe than an accident of nature.

“I’m so excited to see the Grand Canyon,” Jenny murmured as we left the Painted Desert after a couple of hours under its spell.

My lack of response alarmed her.

“We are going to the Grand Canyon, right?”

That was a tough question. It was 80 miles out of the way — one way — from Flagstaff, Ariz., our next stop, but saying that you skipped the Grand Canyon because it was out of the way is like saying you skipped the Louvre because there was a line. The bottom line: I was exhausted from covering 1,600 miles in a few days.

That’s when I developed a new rule of road trips: When you feel you just can’t drive anymore, stop, even if you miss the Grand Canyon. My brilliant (or insane) idea of driving Route 66 to California had failed to take into account that despite its allure, it’s a terribly inefficient route, with just enough gas stations to keep you white-knuckling it until you spot one. I had to resist the temptation to cross off too many bucket-list destinations, rationalizing that a whirlwind visit to the national park wouldn’t have done justice to its grandeur, anyway.

Until next time

As the road climbed higher into the endless pines of the Coconino National Forest, the green lushness of Flagstaff took us by surprise. But what we’ll remember most about Flagstaff were the locals, who, impressed that we had driven all the way from Minnesota, welcomed us into a gala Oscar Night party despite our lack of tickets or cocktail dresses. Perhaps we looked very young, or very lost. Flagstaff would remain, in our memories, the kind of town where strangers in evening gowns and tuxedos will take you in and feed you shrimp cocktail.

The unforgiving desert sun bore down as we crossed the Mojave Desert. The dusty cinematic reel of Route 66 gave way to the modern neon of In-N-Out Burgers and car dealerships. We had made it to California, duct tape intact.

Jenny has forgiven me for skipping the Grand Canyon, though neither of us has yet laid eyes on it. Maybe we’ll get there on our next road trip to California — this time in a Mustang convertible. We’ll chuck our smartphones in the glove compartment, bust out the paper map, turn up the music and try our best to get lost.

 

Sarah Chandler is a Minneapolis-based writer whose travel writing has appeared on Lonely Planet, BBC Travel, CNBC and the Eurail Blog.