It has probably been a dream of more than one kid who grew up watching the classic '60s TV show "Route 66": to go tooling down America's iconic Mother Road in a cool set of wheels in search of adventure -- or at least some good diner food.
My wife and I recently had the chance to do just that when Ford invited a handful of writers to take a weekend test drive in one of its new hybrid cars. Our test track: a winding, 400-mile stretch of Old Route 66 between St. Louis and Tulsa, Okla. Our cool set of wheels: a 2013 Ford Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid. Our assignment: to complete the journey -- with as many side trips as we wanted -- on a single 14-gallon tank of gas.
We picked up our car -- a sleek-looking, ruby-red sedan -- early Friday afternoon, and after a quick briefing by the Ford folks on the Fusion's controls and capabilities, we hit the road.
The cars had been fueled up but we hadn't, so it wasn't long before we made a snack stop on the outskirts of St. Louis. Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, a Route 66 landmark, has been serving up cold treats to tourists and locals for more than 70 years. We each ordered the house specialty, a "concrete" -- a honey-sweetened concoction that's so thick that the servers like to show off by handing it to customers upside down, straw and spoon poking down out of it like little plastic stalactites.
Back on the road again, it didn't take us long to realize that, even with the Fusion's touch-screen navigation system, it would be all but impossible to follow Route 66 from Point A to Point B on our journey. That's because in many places there is no Route 66 anymore, the road having long since given way to the wider, straighter pavement of the interstate highway system.
Since it was decommissioned nearly three decades ago, the only thing that's kept the historic old highway alive is nostalgia. Well, that and the hundreds of towns and businesses along its former route between Chicago and Los Angeles that still try to turn their Route 66 connections into tourist dollars.
We encountered plenty of those during our drive: neon-lit gas stations, motor lodges, Route 66 museums and oh, so many souvenir shops. But best of all were the random oddball attractions that seemed to pop up out of nowhere.
Kate Smith, whales and Pop Rocks
There was the World's Largest Rocker near Cuba, Mo. It's 42 feet high and 20 feet wide, which is pretty big, but the bad news is A) it doesn't rock anymore, and B) you can't even sit in it for pictures. You can, however, walk next door to the Fanning 66 Outpost and test your skills on an archery range -- if, you know, you happen to have a bow and some arrows with you.
Then there was Meramec Caverns in Stanton, Mo. It's a genuinely impressive natural attraction, but with lots of unnecessary touches added, such as a mirrored disco ball, a corny light show with canned applause, a dramatic Jesse James statue and a tinny recording of Kate Smith singing "God Bless America."
And who could forget the giant blue whale near Catoosa, Okla.? At 20 feet in height and 80 feet in length, the concrete mammal once served as a launch pad for kids who would jump off it into the surrounding swimming hole. These days, the pond is no longer open to swimmers, but the big smiling whale remains standing guard over it and happily posing for pictures with tourists.
Phillipsburg, Mo., claims to have The World's Largest Gift Store, and that may or may not be totally accurate, but it doesn't much matter because right next door is an even better attraction, Redmon's Candy Factory. Along with endless varieties of freshly made fudge and saltwater taffy, Redmon's has loads of old-time treats such as Pop Rocks, wax bottle drinks, bubble gum cigars, Necco candy buttons, Wonka bottle caps and more.
Without a doubt, though, our top find was the Gay Parita Sinclair Station near Ash Grove, Mo. The re-created 1930s filling station is a one-man tribute to the Mother Road. Owner Gary Turner, a 69-year-old former truck driver and car salesman, has filled the old place with memorabilia from the heyday of Route 66, and over the years, he has become as much of a tourist attraction as his restored station.
If you're lucky enough to drop by while Gary's there -- and that would be most days -- you'll be rewarded with an autographed picture, a cold bottle of "Route 66" soda, and a nice, long chat. Gary loves to visit with people -- particularly the ladies -- and he'll share some highway history, a few jokes and even a bit of relationship advice.
"Had a couple in here a while back, and they were a little testy with each other because they'd gotten lost," he confided to my wife. "I told them, don't get mad, just look at each other and say, 'You know, honey, I wouldn't want to be lost with anybody else but you.' "
We wound up using that line more than once during the remainder of our trip!
Rooms for $66
Our single night on the road was spent in Cuba, Mo., at the venerable Wagon Wheel Motel, which claims to be the oldest continuously operating motel on Route 66. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Wagon Wheel opened in 1936 as a mom-and-pop "tourist court," with its fieldstone cottages renting for $3 a night. Those same cottages are still in use today, "each with a private tub or shower bath," and although renovated over the years, they remain tiny by modern standards. The price these days for a queen room is -- what else? -- $66.
While we slept, the Ford support team recharged our car using a portable 240-volt generator. It took about 21/2 hours. We could have done it ourselves using a standard 110-volt outlet, but that would have taken seven hours.
The Fusion's 141-horsepower engine was spirited enough to make it fun zipping through the many twists and turns along our route, and its seats were comfortable even after a few hours on the road. But a weekend drive was not enough to fully utilize the car's advanced technology. For example, we never did get the hang of maximizing our mileage by switching between all-electric mode, all gas and hybrid operation.
We did learn a few things, though. The dashboard's instrument cluster "coaches" a driver to operate the car most efficiently, and it was surprisingly satisfying to watch as the friction energy created while braking was recycled back to the vehicle's battery.
The car's "adaptive cruise control" slowed us down on the highway when we got too close to the vehicle ahead, and its "active assist" parking allowed for a hands-free parallel-parking experience -- something my wife thought was loads of fun.
Your mileage may vary
One of the challenges of a plug-in vehicle is finding a convenient place to charge it, and Ford is trying to address that with the free smartphone app MyFord Mobile, which includes a constantly updated database of more than 15,000 public charging stations in North America. The app can even locate a destination, such as a restaurant, then show how far it is from the nearest charging station -- ideally within walking distance.
A few drawbacks: The lithium-ion battery pack takes up much of the car's trunk, so there's not a lot of room for luggage; the touch-screen navigation system is a bit balky at times -- it couldn't even find the Gateway Arch -- and the mileage is nowhere near the advertised estimate of 100-plus MPGe. (That's "miles per gallon equivalent," a complicated EPA-created yardstick that measures the combined fuel efficiency of electric and hybrid vehicles.)
Of course, we attributed our MPGe mostly to our driving style -- and as the EPA likes to say, your actual mileage may vary.
By the time we arrived in Tulsa, we had about a third of a tank of gas left. Considering the side trips we made -- and the times we got lost -- our total distance driven was well more than 500 miles. That translated to something close to 50 miles per gallon -- respectable by any measurement.
We might not have had the exciting adventures that Tod and Buz did on the old "Route 66" TV show, but then again, I'll bet their journey didn't include a giant rocking chair, a bubble gum cigar and a free bottle of soda from Gary Turner either.
Mike Kelly, a former reporter at the Toledo Blade, is a travel writer and editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.