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Road Trip: Finding America's Heart Driving Cross-Country on Route 6

From Cape Cod to Long Beach, Calif., with memorable stops along the way

By Malerie Yolen-Cohen | November 8, 2012

Ever hear of a travel writer who’s afraid flying? Well, I’m one, and it’s been something of a drawback in my career. But I’ve found a way around it by carving out a niche as a road-trip specialist. And recently this led to me fulfilling a lifelong goal, one I’d set aside while raising my two sons: driving from ocean to ocean across the United States.
 
I was 53 when my husband and I dropped our younger son off at college. I hadn’t been home an hour when I opened my laptop and started Googling “longest road in the U.S.” What I found excited me. While Route 20 is officially considered the longest highway in the nation (at 3,365 miles), the single-digit Route 6 (aka the Grand Army of the Republic Highway) remains the country's longest continuous route. Its 3,205 miles (mostly two or four lanes) run through 14 states, from Provincetown, Mass., to Bishop, Calif. 

Prior to 1964, the year California renumbered its highways, Route 6 ran all the way to Long Beach, making it the longest road in America, at 3,652 miles. I intended to cover both the current and historic portions of Route 6 and ride it all the way to Long Beach. It courses through Connecticut, where I live, but I’d always assumed it was merely a state road. Holy Cleveland! I thought. This is the cross-country road trip I’d been looking for my whole life.
 
Road trips are in my blood. When I was growing up, my family drove from New York to Miami Beach every year to visit my grandparents. We’d leave our house in darkness, and the sun would just be peeking over our shoulders as we passed the Washington Monument.
 
Since I was a child, I’ve gotten chills from those break-of-day moments on the road. In high school, I purchased my first Let’s Go USA travel guide and marked it up with colorful highlighters as I planned different versions of fantasy cross-country trips. I had no idea I’d have to wait 40 years to actually take one.

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Planning the Road Trip of a Lifetime
 
I began my research by contacting Russell Lombard, the director of the Route 6 Tourist Association, to determine whether any other writer had ever crossed the country exclusively on Route 6 and produced a guidebook. (Nope.) Heartened, I then reached out to the tourist bureaus and Chamber of Commerce offices in Route 6 communities to gauge potential interest in a travel guide. My queries generated lots of excitement, especially from the off-the-beaten-track towns in the country’s midsection, Iowa and Nebraska in particular.
 
At first, my interest in Route 6 was self-serving — just crossing off another big item on my bucket list. But the more I learned about forgotten Route 6 communities, the more I wanted to share their stories.
 
From the 1930s to the ’50s, this transcontinental road was an important transportation and recreational artery, with motor courts (now called motels), gas stations and restaurants cropping up to serve travelers, truckers and tourists. But the creation of the interstate highway system in the '50s and ’60s redirected traffic onto superhighways miles away and left these once-thriving communities in the dust.
 
And so my role changed from casual traveler to investigative reporter, with a mission to shine a spotlight on small-town America, with a few cities — Providence, Hartford, Cleveland, Des Moines, Omaha and Denver — thrown in for good measure.
 
After half a year of meticulously charting itineraries, booking rooms in hotels, inns and B&Bs (42) and scheduling meetings, I set off, alone. I debated whether to rent a car and leave it in L.A. or take my own and ship it back. When I learned how much more expensive it was to rent, I decided on my familiar, trusty Prius. I crammed a few outfits in an overnight case; set a notebook, camera and FlipCam on the dash; and on Friday, May 20, 2011, said so long to my husband and left my home in Stamford for the eastern starting point of U.S. Route 6.

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Starting at the Beginning: Cape Cod
 
There is something very Zen, in a “walk the labyrinth” way, about following one route completely across this vast country. While many transcontinental trekkers worry about which attractions and towns to visit and then plot a complicated itinerary to reach them all, I found it hugely liberating to allow the road to choose my destinations for me.
 
I began in the GLBT mecca of Provincetown, where men in hot pants and stilettos shared the sidewalk with touring families. The drag shows were outrageous fun, but my favorite outing (so to speak) was an off-road ride on the Lawrence of Arabia–like dunes with Art’s Dune Tours. These sandy hills extend along a good portion of Cape Cod and offer views of the Atlantic Ocean (and possibly some whale sightings) that can’t be beat.
 
In Connecticut, I pulled over at a plaque indicating White’s Tavern, the place where General Rochambeau and his troops overnighted on their way to, and from, meeting George Washington at the Battle of Yorktown. It’s now a private home, in impeccable shape. There I had a chance to chat with current owner Lorraine Busque, a white-headed firecracker and font of knowledge about Rochambeau’s wartime activities. She’d come into possession of his journals, which she had translated into English. That's how she learned that the French general had in fact slept there while his 5,000 troops camped in a field across the street.
 
Pennsylvania is the most tourist-oriented of all the Route 6 states, with a large promotional budget and a number of attractions to keep travelers busy for weeks as they traverse its 440 miles. In Coudersport, Penn., hours from any metropolitan area of note, I met Olga and John Snyder, a young couple who are committed to revitalizing their moribund little town through yarn art, paninis and live music.

Olga’s Yarn Shop and Cafe, housed in a beautifully renovated, solid-wood Victorian house, is an Oz-like carnival of color. Her yarn creations make peacocks look drab. And those fresh paninis! My only regret: that I couldn’t stay for the live band that night because I had to travel another 26 miles to Smethport, where I was dining with the owners of the B&B where I was staying.
 
Onward to Ohio and points west. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and the Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky probably don’t need many champions, but little Ligonier, Indiana, does. And I found just that in Renee Gabet, who owns and operates the only perfumery in the USA where the entire operation — manufacturing, packaging and distribution — are done under one roof. Born in Indianapolis, Gabet trained in the Provence region of France, and returned to Indiana to open the Annie Oakley Perfumery. She even made me a custom scent: Malerie #6, a blend of rose and citrus.
 
Besides Busque, the Snyders and Gabet, I met several other women making a difference in their communities, including Tammy Allen, owner of Allen Unique Autos, a few miles west of downtown Grand Junction, Col. The first clue that it isn’t your typical man-fan collection are the two pink benches flanking the entryway.
 
The lobby of the museum is more eclectic — a metallic naked woman bowsprit atop the pink-neon car-grill reception desk; black-and-white animal print fabrics with pink accessories. And then there are the actual 80 candy-colored antique cars: a violet Model T, a lime-green 1950 Mercury and a 2008 Viper Hurst in flat gold (one of only a few ever made). The sole somber note in the collection is the 1963 U.S. Navy Pontiac ambulance that transported President Kennedy to the hospital after he was shot.
 
Allen also runs a fleet of rental limos, which includes a 2007 Rolls Royce that used to belong to Nicolas Cage, and a pink (of course) stretch Mini Cooper(?!!). Allen Unique Autos is must-see for car lovers motoring through this part of the country.

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Eating My Way Across the Country
 
Had I realized how important the food was going to be on this trip, I would have tried to diet down 10 pounds before embarking. 
 
Who knew that ice cream parlors figure so prominently on Route 6? Locals urged me to have at least one scoop in nearly every town — the “proper way to get to know a place” kind of thing. I’m a staunch mint chocolate chip person, but in the name of investigative journalism, I forced myself to try other flavors. Many other flavors.
 
Thus a directly proportional relationship developed between my westward movement and the expansion of my waistline. Some of the responsible parties include Hallett’s, in Yarmouthport (milkshakes!); Toft’s Dairy, outside of Sandusky (the ultimate mint chip); Lagomarcino’s in Moline, Ill. (home-brewed hot-fudge sundaes), and Wilton Candy Kitchen in Wilton, Iowa (good stuff in the oldest ice-cream parlor in the world).
 
On top of that, I felt obliged to sample all of the regional food specialties: lobster on Cape Cod; shoofly pie at Amish Acres, in Nappanee, Ind.; “loose meat sandwich” (think Sloppy Joes without the sauce) at Montgomery’s, in Grinnell, Iowa, and Runza in Nebraska.
 
By the time I reached the plaque outside the Long Beach Convention Center, representing the West Coast terminus of Route 6 on June 30, 2011, I felt a deep sense of satisfaction. I’d covered 3,652 miles, eaten a hundred times that many calories, and met scores of friendly, proud, quirky folks. I felt more of a connection to my country than any other trip could have fostered. Foreign visitors tend to target our great cities, but my vote for most authentic goes to small-town America. After all, there’s a reason we call it the heartland.
 
Malerie Yolen-Cohen is a Connecticut-based freelance travel writer written for publications including National Geographic Traveler, Newsday, Sierra and Paddler. She is the author of Stay on Route 6: Your Guide to All 3,652 Miles of Transcontinental Route 6.