See quirky America on a biking trip, writes MICK GELL
WITH its classic motels, quirky stop-offs and everchanging landscape, the old Route 66 is a welltrodden path for those who want to experience old-style America.
This sort of vintage road trip has always been top of my bucket list - and with 2012 bringing in a big birthday, it was the perfect excuse to take on the challenge.
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Air-conditioned bus tours aren't my style so, after touching down in Dallas, Texas, I picked up a shiny black Harley-Davidson Electra Glide for a solo adventure.
Within minutes of setting off, the temperature was reading 100C and the heavens opened.
An air-conditioned coach seemed a little more appealing at this point but I reminded myself this was about adventure, discovery and taking risks.
I'd booked accommodation in advance so I had a daily goal for my ten-night jaunt.
While in Dallas I visited the site of Kennedy's assassination.
Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of his death and alongside the grassy knoll stands a white cross where the President took the fatal bullet.
From Dallas, my route would take me north to Amarillo and then west, roughly along the old Route 66 through Albuquerque, Flagstaff, Needles and finally Los Angeles.
Douglas Adams said of the universe: "It's big, very big." The same could be said of the USA.
It took me two days just to cross Texas, including an overnight stop in Amarillo where few locals had heard the famous Tony Christie song.
Here I had a steak dinner in the famous Texas Steak House where diners can eat a 72ouncer free if they consume it - and all its trimmings - within 60 minutes. There's a big clock that ticks away for those brave enough to try. But only one in seven diners are successful and it costs $72 if you fail. I bottled out and struggled through a 10oz.
Setting out from Amarillo, my mind wandered as I cruised the poker-straight roads of Texas and New Mexico.
Route 66 itself is now only a memory in most places, having been bypassed over the past 50 years by interstate highways.
The parts that remain keep a fingertip hold on quirky American idiosyncrasies, such as the muchvisited Cadillac Ranch where old cars are buried nose-down in the ground and visitors are invited to spray paint and graffiti on them.
Sadly, bins are not provided for all the empty paint cans, thousands of which lie in the surrounding fields.
My trip in the blazing summer sunshine crossed sweeping open spaces and ran alongside railway tracks where mile-long trains blew their horns at me and drivers waved from the windows.
There was a radio on the bike and, tuning through the hundreds of country and western channels, I found one station playing a Rolling Stones hour. I turned the volume up to 11 and enjoyed.
New Mexico and Arizona are bigsky states with flat, straight roads stretching for 20 or 30 miles at a time.
It's a place where the imagination can wander. Road signs warn of wildlife and I saw bugs of all shapes and sizes, snakes, rabbits and even coyote.
I could cope with this until I spotted a huge, fully-grown elk lying dead by the side of the road.
This sort of roadkill can do damage to a motorcyclist, so zoning out was no longer an option on those long, straight roads.
This was most definitely adventure territory.
I visited Meteor Crater - a big hole created 50,000 years ago which is now a popular tourist centre about 30 miles east of Flagstaff, Arizona.
I then took a five-hour detour north of the Utah state border to Monument Valley, where giant monoliths of rock reach for the sky, some more than 1,000ft from the desert floor.
And I also took in the Grand Canyon. More than 200 miles long, a mile deep and up to 18 miles across in places, its multi-coloured rock walls, craggy cliffs and sandy slopes demonstrate the power of nature at its glorious best.
Next came California's Mojave Desert.
As the mercury hit 120C, the "taking risks" element of the adventure took on new meaning.
My black bike absorbed the heat, my bum and legs felt like they were on fire, no amount of high factor sunscreen could stop my face burning and I could smell, feel, taste and eat the dust.
Still 30 miles from the next town, the bike gave in and a thermal cutout stopped the electronic throttle. I was stranded in the middle of the desert with no shelter.
For the first time on this trip I was struggling. I missed home.
As I wondered whether I'd get out alive, an air-conditioned bus seemed like utopia.
Luckily, a couple of truckers stopped to offer me water and, after the longest 30 minutes of my life, the bike cooled enough to restart and I crawled to my next Motel 6 for a cool shower.
Luckily, Los Angeles was just a day away and its mad traffic wasn't half as daunting as the experience I'd just been through.
On reaching Malibu Beach, I dipped my toes in the Pacific Ocean to mark the end of my journey.
My body had been taken to the limits in endurance and fortitude and I was glad.
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This wasn't just an adventure - it was the trip of a lifetime.
FLY from Heathrow to Dallas and from LA to Heathrow with American Airlines for £1,127. See aa.com.
Rooms at Motel 6 across the US cost from £25 per night. To book visit motel6.com.
Bike hire is available at Eagle Rider Motorcycles, which have showrooms in large cities all over America. Prices start from $99 (£63) per day plus various tax extras. Visit eaglerider.com to book.