Wild and Free on Route 66

Four members of the infamous “Dirty Skullz” gang tackle a historic slice of Americana

Words by Chuck Cochran
Photos courtesy of Dirty Skullz Archives

They say the best friends to have are those who want nothing from you but your company. And that is exactly what happened when four middle-aged men traveled to Los Angeles to kick another bucket off the list — riding the old and storied Route 66.

I made it to Los Angeles a day before the group, having put old Black Betty, my 2011 black denim Harley-Davidson Road Glide, on a truck in Minneapolis a week and a half prior. The goal was to grab it and get a few miles in on the Pacific Coast Highway. 

The Wigwam Motel in San Bernardino, CA, was originally built in the late 1940s. Later on, when the motel fell into disrepair, the wigwams were rented out by the hour with signs that read “Do it in the Tee Pee.” Now it is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

Thankfully my bike was not turned away when it arrived unannounced at the local dealership. (Note to self: always keep the dealership in the loop…) What saved it from abandonment, or even worse, the underground chop shop, was my shark mouth-painted fairing.

On the day I set out to hunt down Betty, I was first treated with a ride by Uber driver Maria, a woman who vocally disparaged all of the changes happening to the city. Because I was born in LA, I naturally have an affinity towards it.   

Black Betty taking a rest along a stark and naked stretch of Route 66 in Arizona.

Then, alongside Betty in the dealership parking lot, I searched for Monty, a person I had never met but who I would learn was a keen navigator and had a great thirst for adventure. Monty was just as ready as me to rip up the PCH. In no time we were gawking at the beaches on our left up to Santa Barbara and turning around to make it to Pasadena. 

The rest of our gang arrived the next day and we had a group meeting at our official start of Route 66 on the edge of Santa Monica pier. After some reunion-making chatter, we installed and paired our communication devices, poised for a group photo, and we were off. 

One hundred lights and five hours later, through the heart of Hollywood and East LA, we found ourselves in San Bernardino. Faithful to the route, the congestion was smothering, and we battled the temptation to take a hard right to freedom of a four-lane freeway. 

Coined “Mother Road” by Pulitzer Prize winning author John Steinbeck, Route 66 was an escape route for desperate migrants fleeing the Dust Bowl during the Depression. “Refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert’s slow, northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land, and steal what little richness is there,” wrote Steinbeck.

But temptation silenced as the road opened up and we welcomed the hot Santa Ana winds blasting over the desert. As we were tearing up the miles across the Mojave, our evening crossing was a blessing as the temperature dropped to a cool 90 degrees. With a full moon rising over the desert and the desert silhouetted against dry dark hills, we made it to our first stop at Lake Havasu. With our headlights careening over the London Bridge, we found the Nautical Beachfront Resort. Never so happy to see a wall A/C unit!

The next day, we were off at dawn. “Hey Cardo, battery status,” we quipped. Nothing like four college friends trying to sync up communications in a dark parking lot. Anyone can read the directions, but not us! Trial and error was our method. Plus, the Cardo was mostly for listening to tunes. 

“On a bike, no one ever asks, ‘are we there yet.’” Never truer than on Route 66 where you are constantly searching for signs directing to the original route, separating authenticity from faux tourist creations. Old gas stations, rundown buildings and windy roads are our first clues. People who live along the route are mostly weathered, good-natured, open and interested in where you are from and where you are going. Route 66 seems to be a parallel universe where the ‘real world’ of the interstate is temporarily left behind in exchange for a respect of the old road’s past. Those who ride it are searching for the scent of yesteryear with its’ promise of gained perspective. As one rolls along some of the more desolate stretches, you cannot help but be amazed at the faith and guts folks traveling to the ‘land of milk and honey’ must have had, especially considering how tough, hot and remote much of Arizona is. 

Monty was our designated chief navigator and possessed a bloodhound ability to get us where we needed to be. Not at all his fault when we hit a roadblock miles down a lonely road in the dead of night.  Many laughs and bladders emptied before he sniffed out the alternate route to get us back on track.

On the way to Oatman, AZ, desolation suddenly gave way to donkeys (yes donkeys. Donkeys in the road a mile out of town). These descendants of the original burros used for mining were heading our direction to belly up to the bar – in their case, for free alfalfa pellets. Besides burros, Oatman was teeming with fellow travelers, many of them foreigners. Gita and Udo from Frankfurt, many from Brazil and France, and many on rented Harleys. One Italian couple was admiring old Black Betty and spoke very little English. I offered to give the wife a ride and her husband was encouraging, until he caught her glare. A polite ‘grazie’ as we had a laugh and I yelled ‘prego’ as they sauntered away. 

Back on the road, I soon discovered what hitting a rolling tumbleweed at 80 feels like. It became a friend, wedged in my crash bar, until we stopped at the next town to refuel. I took this as good luck before we rounded out the day with a quick trip to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. 

The next day we road to Winslow, Arizona. Standing on the corner gave me the same thrill as any of the world’s major monuments. Here, Eagles music plays 24/7 and a flat-bed Ford and band member statues are on display. Sadly, no girls were stopping to take a look at us from the flat-bed Ford, only a mannequin sitting in the driver’s seat.

Further on and thru Gallup, New Mexico, Taos, was our next destination. The land of the Pueblo and Red Willow natives – a warm and friendly group who cherish their rich history. Taos was our day off with a tour of the Pueblo. Turquoise doors ward away evil spirits but the Spanish influence is ever-present. The Pueblo date back 1,000 years with 80 percent of the natives now of the Catholic faith. Taos is the home of Donald Rumsfeld, Julia Roberts and the burial place of Easy Rider screen legend, Dennis Hopper. It is also where our fellow adventurer Rick has a vacation home. The town is a supernatural art mecca and ski destination and fueled the birth of the Dirty Skullz, which happened in the nearby town of Madrid.  

During the rock’n’roll era, Route 66 became a symbol of prosperity and new-found freedoms. While there is great scenery along Route 66, watch out for the tumbleweeds. And yes, that is the Dirty Skullz doing a Power Rangers’ fist bump.

Part of the movie Wild Hogs was filmed in Madrid, making it a worthy stop for our crew. We knew we were in the right place when we pulled up to the largest pub in town and were greeted by a group of fellow riders, one tough-looking guy carrying a sleek sidearm. 

After some good conversation and a few pictures, we were off to explore the town. Friend and fellow gang member, “Duke Fonda,” no doubt inspired by the biker club atmosphere, picked up some sick skull wristbands as mandatory regalia. Donning our new bling with a new-found swagger, the Dirty Skullz were formed. And we saddled up and took the long way back to Taos through the windy and scenic highway 14.   

At Taos Pueblo, adobe buildings have been continuously inhabited for over 1000 years.

By the next day, we were fully rested and started our way to Amarillo, Texas. A quick stop at a hardware store to pick up some spray paint and we were off to Cadillac Ranch. This public art installation comprised of 10 half-buried Cadillacs was opened in 1974. Even though it was flooded, with a slick mud pit forming around the cars, we weren’t prevented from tagging a couple with the Dirty Skullz logo – a permanent record of our journey, well, at least until the next group paints over it. 

That evening we went to the Big Texan where for $72 you can step up to consume a 72-oz. steak. If you finish it you get it free. The bucket next to the challenger was unmistakable and if used, cause for disqualification. (We found out that if you must purge, you must make it to the bucket outside of the restaurant, wipe off your mouth, and return politely to your meal.)

Our next stop was Oklahoma City, home to two of the Skullz, Monty and Rick. After a much-needed overnight in Arcadia, we had breakfast at Pops, an iconic landmark which is home to a 66-foot soda bottle. We met some folks driving a 700hp Ford Mustang 5.0 who complimented the scene with a lengthy burnout and throaty rip down 66, past the Round Barn escorting us out to Tulsa. As the road gave way to farmland and narrow straightaways, you could sense we were in the heart of America. We rolled past the St. Louis arch, and I found myself missing the spectacular scenery of the west as we marched on toward Chicago.

The Dirty Skullz left some sick tags at Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, TX.

In our quest to complete our mission, our final approach was spent fighting Chicago rush hour traffic. Once downtown, we circled a bit to find the Route 66 sign. And success! The Dirty Skullz had completed our 2,500-mile quest across eight states. Rejoicing, we were startled by a motorcycle on the sidewalk lurching towards us. 

Every adventure has a beginning, but ours started as backwards.

A weary old-timer was just starting his trip west on the old road. He put down his jack stand and we took his picture beside the sign. As he got back on his bike, we helped point this 80-year-old rider in the right direction. He fired up his old Sportster and took off. The road is there for all who dare. Until next time. Thanks for the memories.

A fellow brother of the road prepares to set sail.

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