OUR FAMILY, LIKE MOST, GAVE UP ON SPONTANEITY about a minute after our first child was born. I am reminded of this one spring break a dozen years later (my boys are 12 and nine) when we decide on the spur of the moment to retrace what's left of Route 66starting in Las Vegas, Nevada, and driving to Albuquerque, New Mexicosome 900 miles with detours. My husband and I have only a loose idea of where we're headed, but after a steady diet of schedules and play dates, the sheer randomness of the road feels fantastic. We pick up a mile-by-mile guide to Route 66 at a gift shop and, ditching the interstate, give in to the old road instead. Our high-desert spin delivers all the big stuff, like the Grand Canyon. Yet it's the funky, leg-stretching detours in betweenthe self-portrait taken in Twin Arrows, the pieces of pavement pocketed outside Two Guns, just standin' on a corner in Winslow, Arizonawhere we find ourselves surprised with the unexpected adventure of it all.
Day 1 Las Vegas, Nevada-Flagstaff, Arizona
We head south from Las Vegas, stopping for lunch in Kingman, Arizona, (our first official point on the Route 66 trail). The neon-lined strip where I-40, U.S. 93, Arizona 68, and Route 66 converge begs to be bypassed for a simpler two-lane. We find it, veering onto the longest remaining stretch of continuous Route 66 and making a leisurely loop through the kind of towns the interstate forgot: Hackberry, Truxton, Peach Springs. Just past Peach Springs, in classic Route 66 tradition (everything from tepees to pythons competing for motorists' eyeballs), a giant fiberglass dinosaur stops us in our tracks. This, it turns out, is the 1950s signpost for Grand Canyon Caverns, where we not only climb out of the car but descend 21 stories by elevator to explore a series of huge underground chambers and weird limestone formations. The caves earn a three-star rating. "I bet bats like it here too!" hollers James, my nine-year-old, nicknamed Fruit Bat for his propensity to consume endless quantities of apples, pears, oranges, you name it. We pile back into the four-door and gun it all the way to Flagstaff, overnighting at the historic Weatherford Hotel.
Day 2 Flagstaff-Grand Canyon
We linger in the Weatherford's dining room while the boys pump pennies into the lobby's antique scale, which coughs up your weight and fortune. Although Route 66 runs due east from Flagstaff, the Grand Canyon is too close to ignore, so we swing north and take U.S. 89 toward the national park's less-crowded east entrance. Although we're tempted to pull off at Sunset Crater Volcano and Wupatki National Monuments, we press on to the Cameron Trading Post, stopping for bowls of eye-poppingly spicy green chile. At Desert View, just inside the park, we get an outrageous vista of vermilion cliffs rising from the Paria Plateau while far below, an impressive stretch of the Colorado River snakes through Marble Canyon.
The boys are more wowed, though, by the Watchtower, a cylindrical stone structure designed in 1932 by architect Mary E. J. Colter. The guys dash up its circular stairway but are still too energetic, so we tackle three miles of the South Rim Trail. My husband has his heart set on staying at the El Tovar Hotel, a hulking pile of stone and hand-hewn logs, and we luck into a last-minute cancellation.
Day 3 Grand Canyon-Holbrook
We're back on I-40 in search of Route 66 remnants. In Flagstaff, we buy a copy of Route 66: The Illustrated Guidebook to the Mother Road, and follow it like a treasure map. With guide in hand, even Sam, the too-cool-for-this-trip 12-year-old, yells out, "Whoa, GIANT Twin Arrows!" as we pass the town of Twin Arrows, where 200-foot-tall wooden monoliths that look like they've been shot to Earth from Mars pierce the dusty parking lot of a boarded-up diner. Next comes Two Guns, where mountain lions, bobcats, and coyotes once represented the West in a roadside zoo. The day's hit is Meteor Crater park, the site where a speeding mass of meteoric iron and nickel smashed into the earth 50,000 years ago. After hiking around the giant, windblown crater, we have to drag ourselves away from the visitor center and speed on, stopping only to snap a family portrait on that corner in Winslow, Arizona. By now we've got the Route 66 bug bad, so we also track down what's left of the famous "Here it is!" Jack Rabbit signs that once harassed motorists for hundreds of miles on the way to the town of Jack Rabbit. Final stop is Holbrook, home of the original Wigwam Motel. We'd planned to spend the night in an authentic 1950s stucco tepee at the Wigwam, but chickened out, opting for Holbrook's Holiday Inn instead.
Day 4 Holbrook-Canyon de Chelly
East of Holbrook is Petrified Forest National Park, famous for its 225-million-year-old trees. By now the boys are sick of jumping in and out of the car, but the dinosaur museum inside the park is so good they can't help themselves. After ogling the dioramas, we wind our way through mammoth logs littering the Giant Logs Trail. We share a laugh over a guy videotaping the logs. ("Now that will be exciting!" Sam says, rolling his eyes.) Everyone agrees that the petrified trees are pretty amazing strewn across the desert, older than the dinosaurs, their ancient wood perfectly preserved.
We speed on across I-40 and then north on U.S. 191 for an overnight at Canyon de Chelly. We have a 75-mile drive ahead, but we love the landscapeat least my husband and I do. The backseat mood lightens at Hubbell Trading Post, a bright spot in the desert since it opened in 1876. James buys beef-jerky bits; Sam teases him that they look like dog food, and we have to concur. Our destination is the locally owned Thunderbird Lodge, where we camp out in our motel room, writing funny postcards.
Day 5 Canyon de Chelly-Albuquerque, New Mexico
We've signed up for the early jeep tour of Canyon de Chelly. I'd feared the group ride would be hopelessly hokey, but as we motor through the canyons in open-air six-by-six trucks, sheer sandstone walls towering above, giant treads splashing through shallow rivers, there's no question about it: This one's a home run. Sure enough, huddled under wool blankets while late-winter sun works its way down the canyon walls, both boys are thrilled to be here. We spend the morning exploring prehistoric Anasazi cliff dwellings and canyon walls etched with dozens of mysterious Indian petroglyphs. After lunch at the Thunderbird Lodge we head back down U.S. 191, and then pick up I-40 east again. Our final destination is Albuquerque, 200 miles ahead. In between are the Route 66 towns of Gallup, Grants, Cubero, and Laguna, and about ten thousand tumbleweeds. We might make another detour to explore the underground lava tubes of El Malpais National Monument. Or then again, we might not. And settling in behind the wheel, tuning in the local country-western station for another round, it occurs to me that this is about as good as it gets. We're packed like four sardines into a tin-can rental car and loving it, so go figure. Such is the allure of the all-American road trip.
DAY ONE (Las Vegas, NV-Flagstaff, AZ)
DRIVE TIME: 4 hours.
DIRECTIONS: U.S. 93 to Kingman, then loop north for 85 miles on the longest remaining stretch of Route 66, connecting to I-40 in Seligman.
STOPS: Grand Canyon Caverns: entrance fee $9.50 for adults, $6.75 for kids 4-2; 928-422-3223. The Snow Cap Drive-In (928-422-3291) in Seligman for ice-cream cones, burgers, and the notorious squirting mustard bottle (an old Route 66 trick).
STAY AT: Weatherford Hotel, Flagstaff: doubles, $75 (928-779-1919; www.weatherfordhotel.com).
DAY TWO (Flagstaff-Grand Canyon)
MILEAGE: 86. Drive time: 1.5 hours.
DIRECTIONS: U.S. 89 north to Arizona 64.
STOPS: Cameron Trading Post (800-338-7385) for museum-quality beadwork, textiles, and baskets, and Navajo tacos.
STAY AT: El Tovar, Grand Canyon: doubles, $118-$187 (303-297-2757; www.amfac.com).
DAY THREE (Grand Canyon-Holbrook)
DRIVE TIME: 3 hours.
DIRECTIONS: Arizona 64 west to I-40 (watch for turnoff to Meteor Crater, exit 233).
STOPS: Meteor Crater (800-289-5898); guided rim tours leave hourly.
STAY AT: Wigwam Motel: doubles, $35-$41 (928-524-3048). Holiday Inn: doubles, $85, including continental breakfast (928-524-1466).
DAY FOUR (Holbrook-Canyon de Chelly)
DRIVE TIME: 2 hours.
DIRECTIONS: I-40 to U.S. 191. STOPS: Petrified Forest National Park ($10 per car; 928-524-6228); Rainbow Forest Museum has exhibits on petrified wood, geology, and paleontology. Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site (928-755-3475).
STAY AT: Thunderbird Lodge: doubles, $106 (928-674-5841).
Day FIVE (Canyon de Chelly-Albuquerque, New Mexico)
DRIVE TIME: 4 hours.
DIRECTIONS: U.S. 191 to I-40 east.
STOPS: Canyon de Chelly half-day jeep tour (sign up at Thunderbird Lodge): adults, $40; kids under 12, $30.50. El Malpais National Monument (505-783-4774): Stock up on maps at the visitor center; then hike a three-mile loop through the Big Tubes area.
STAY AT: La Posada de Albuquerque: doubles, $80-$200 (800-777-5732).