Billy Connolly’s Route 66

Thursday, 6 October 2011, 9:00PM – 10:00PM

The final leg of Billy Connolly’s journey along the road that defined America, Route 66, sees him discover the oddest and cutest sights along the Mother Road and encounter the true spirit of the continent. 

Starting the last instalment outside Flagstaff, Billy follows the footsteps of millions of migrating dreamers into the remote mountain passes of Arizona, through the Californian deserts and urban sprawls of LA to his final destination, Santa Monica. He says: “Have I got a treat for you.” 

His first stop of the evening is a spectacularly large hole, 750 feet deep and 4000 feet across. Caused by a meteorite, it’s the second largest hole along Route 66 and his fascination with it is something that Billy thinks separates men from women. 

As night falls on the outskirts of Flagstaff, Billy journeys high up on a hill to the famous Lowell Observatory where Pluto was discovered. He contemplates: “I’ve come to the conclusion that we’re part of a big cup of tea in space, that’s the way I look at the world.” 

Next, taking a train detour, Billy travels to one of the Seven Wonders of the World, The Grand Canyon. An old-fashioned monster of a train is now powered by vegetable oil and takes him to the mile-deep canyon which he has never visited before. He says: “I’ve never seen anything like that in my life. I’ve seen it, been there, done it – I’m going to get the T-shirt.” 

Continuing along Route 66, Billy rides his Boom-trike alongside lengthy trains. He says the experience is unexpected and creates a sense of “completely childlike joy”. 

In Williams, Billy wanders over to “the wrong side of the track” towards an old brothel and then observes American Memorial Day celebrations which see a man dancing in the parade with what Billy describes as a “shovel full of sh*t”. 

Billy’s next destination, Seligman, invites bikers to town for a three wheel party. Catfish Larry lives off social security disability allowance but owns a boat, a dirt bike, a street bike and a trike, all of which he is attempting to sell. Billy explains: “Times are hard in the heartland of America.” 

An appointment with a barber keeps Billy in the town, where 84 year-old Angel teaches him about September 22nd 1978, when, at about three in the afternoon, the interstate highway opened and their town was left sign-less. After ten years of anger, Angel campaigned for legislation deeming Route 66 ‘Historic’ and won, earning Angel the title, ‘The Godfather of Route 66’. Billy says: “It’s been a joy to meet the real America.” 

Peach Springs is Billy’s next stop, where he spends the night in the world’s deepest motel room. Down 220 feet, in the same cave that John F Kennedy declared a bomb shelter during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Billy finds a relatively homely suite. Staying there, he says: “I must be off my bloody head.” 

Continuing along his ambitious journey, Billy visits Jonathan Craft’s Keepers of the Wild Sanctuary on the outskirts of Valentine. Jonathan explains that over 1500 big cats are in private hands in the US alone. Those that are discarded, go to his sanctuary. As a former big cat showman in Las Vegas, Jonathan knows the dangers of keeping them as pets. He tells Billy: “I used to go in and brush his mane, I don’t do that anymore – he’d be brushing mine.” 

Billy hits the true west as he travels through the last of eight states along his journey, California. Climbing the mountain passes, he talks about the millions of people who have travelled the same road, fleeing Oklahoma’s great planes to ‘kiss the sky’, high up on Route 66. 

As his last night on the road draws near, Billy is mesmerised. He says: “I’ve got desert to the left of me, desert to the right, desert in front and desert behind. This is the California of rock and roll minstrels and wayfaring wastrels that any self-respecting Glasgow hippies in the sixties would have longed to see.” 

Next Billy reaches his penultimate destination, Los Angeles, the most populated state in America. With 88 cities standing right next to each other, LA County offers fairytales in the most unexpected places. Billy goes to the less glamorous Pomona to meet a family obsessed with restoring and assembling 70 year-old hot rods and low-rider cars which are more popular than ever. He gets to witness one car dubbed ‘The Pimp’, which he declares “the best car I’ve ever seen in my life”. 

Chopper pilot and traffic reporter, Chuck Street, takes Billy for a ride over the city where commuters are stuck in three days of stationary traffic every year. Chuck describes it as looking like a lava of cars on the Santa Monica Freeway and calls it “the largest ever, open air asylum”. 

Billy has ridden way over 3000 miles along Route 66 and its tributaries, but his journey is finally complete as he reaches Santa Monica, where the road ends at the Pacific Ocean. Billy says: “The America of my childhood fantasies is gone, if it ever existed, but there’re still enough cowboys, roadside giants and big, sloppy hamburgers to make your heart sing. Route 66 is like life, complicated, but well worth the effort. I’m glad it’s finished and I’m sad it’s finished.”

Thursday, 29 September 2011, 9:00PM – 10:00PM

The third part of Billy’s epic adventure along Route 66 sees the comedian journey westward into the wide open spaces of the blue-skied cowboy states. He meets characters he deems ‘queer and plain crazy’, hears atomic-sized secrets, unearths a ghost town and listens to the sounds of a magic whistle. 

Starting in Oklahoma, Billy feels the wind crashing down the plains as he goes to meet the new faces of cowboy country, describing them as: “Ranch hands from New York, with dreadlocks, baseball hats and low-slung jeans.” And he goes on a cattle drive to the city stockyards with Stan, the owner of the ranch. 

Known locally as ‘Cow Town’, the stockyards process 18,000 cattle a day. Billy jokingly says: “It’s a bit like the Vatican really, it rules itself and the city would love to get rid of it.” 

Billy witnesses the incomprehensible gabble of the cattle auction, which is “like listening to a blue-grass banjo”, as he discovers that cattle auctions are serious business, particularly as Oklahoma is suffering drought as badly as it did during the Great Depression when the entire state turned into a dustbowl. 

Next he continues his journey along Route 66 as it turns into the road of his imagination – long, straight and heading towards Texas, where everything is big. 

Billy rides past the biggest crucifix in the Western hemisphere to a tiny town called McLean, home to the Devils Rope Museum which houses what is thought to be the largest collection of published material on barbed wire. Billy learns about the range wars which were caused by barbed wire inhibiting the freedom the drovers had for moving their cattle across the plains. 

Moving on, Billy hits Amarillo with a spray can in his hand as he takes on the iconic Cadillac sculptures which represent 1970’s American freedom and the love of the automobile. Graffiti is encouraged and Billy enjoys making his mark, saying: “I’ve never graffitied before. It’s great fun. I’m not surprised people do it.” 

Passing the mid-point café, with 1300 miles to go before reaching LA, Billy continues his trip further west where, it seems to him, there are more and more lonely and isolated towns. 

Glenrio is a ghost town, cut off when the interstate highway took the trade from Route 66. Billy meets the only resident, Roxanne, who gives him a guided tour of her now derelict home town, to the soundtrack of her six dogs. He is astounded to hear that she now has to travel 40 miles for a pint of milk. 

Into New Mexico, Billy is mesmerised by its beauty. Santa Fe is a mixture of Anglo-American, Native American and Spanish cultures all merged together. Looking down on Santa Fe – high in the mountains – is the pretty town of Los Alamos, where almost everyone has a PHD. Billy explains that you can ask anyone in the town their name but “never ask what they do for a living”. 

The town was created as a secret city in 1943 to build the weapon that could end the war, the atomic bomb. The local museum details the mushroom cloud bomb that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Billy meets two local workers who regale him with stories of how they felt when the bomb they’d been secretly building was tested in nearby Trinity. They describe how they slept on the mountain and saw the mushroom cloud building up below them. The two men tell Billy about a petition by the workers in Los Alamos against aggressive use of the bomb and promoting a demonstration of its power on a deserted island. The petition raised hundreds of signatures, but was never delivered to President Roosevelt. 

Continuing along Route 66, Billy stops off in Albuquerque to have a look at some snakes and is impressed by the rattling reptiles that warn others of their presence. 

Back on the road through the cowboy states, Billy attends a rodeo in Payson and speaks to rodeos who live a hand-to-mouth existence as they travel miles to compete but only get paid if they win the battle with a tonne of muscle. Watching the spectacle in front of him, Billy says: “This is showbiz but not as we know it…those rodeo folk, they’re either heroically insane or insanely heroic, I just can’t make my mind up which.” 

Finally, Billy heads along a tributary to Route 66 to the extraordinary Monument Valley which is even better than he imagined. In the setting of his boyhood fantasies, Billy meets a medicine man of the Navajo tribe who have inhabited Monument Valley for thousands of years.

Thursday, 22 September 2011, 9:00PM – 10:00PM

Episode Two 

The second instalment of Billy’s adventure sees the comedian reach Middle America where he sees wolves, meets an obsessive compulsive with a vast collection of guitars, eats lunch with a soul singing legend and sits on the world’s biggest rocking chair. 

Plus, Billy dons full camouflage gear to go hunting for wild turkeys. 

He starts the second part of his journey in St Louis, Missouri, the gateway to The West, where he heads for the top of the Gateway Arch – a 630 foot structure made out of 900 tonnes of steel. 

The Arch, which is the highest man-made monument in America, was designed as a tribute to the explorers and hunters of the west and was made to look like an upside-down necklace. As Billy gazes out of the windows at the top, he looks down at the paddle steamers on the Mississippi River. 

He takes in the art work around the town, including a sculpture of a giant head on its side, a musical pavement and a fountain, before hitting the road in search of Missouri’s best soul food. At Sweetie Pie’s restaurant Billy tucks into macaroni cheese and meatloaf whilst chatting to the owner who was once one of Ike and Tina Turner’s backing singers. 

On his next stop, Billy calls at a wolf sanctuary which is home to 40 of the endangered animals which are almost extinct in the area. Billy meets the people who run the sanctuary before entering the enclosure and feeding the wolves a frozen deer which had been hit by a car. Billy also sees the African wild dogs which are at the sanctuary and, as he leaves, he gets to hear the wolves howling. 

As he hits the road again Billy stops to watch a Civil War re-enactment before heading to one of the most popular attractions on Route 66, the Meremac Caverns. Despite the natural beauty of the caverns, they are festooned with neon signs. 

As Billy watches a light show to music in the caves, he says: “There’s a tackiness about Route 66 that out tacks any tackiness I ever saw anywhere. I just don’t understand why people think a thing as staggeringly beautiful needs a light show to make it any better than it is.” 

On his way to his next destination, Billy rides alongside the Interstate Highway, the new road which is responsible for taking visitors and business away from Route 66. 

At Fanning Billy climbs a ladder to sit on the world’s biggest rocking chair, which has 32 foot long rockers, but doesn’t actually rock… 

Whilst browsing the souvenirs at the Fanning Route 66 Outpost, Billy chats to the family who own it and they invite him to go hunting with them for wild turkeys. After practising his archery skills on stuffed animals, Billy puts on full camouflage gear and sets off at five o’clock in the morning with his guides Cherie and Caroline. 

The girls erect two tents in the wood, with one making calling noises to the birds in one tent, and the other waiting with her bow and arrow in the other. As dawn breaks, Billy and the girls hear a turkey in the distance calling to them, but he doesn’t come and after several hours of waiting, the trio decide to pack up and leave. 

Billy says: “I was absolutely delighted that the turkeys got away…I’d no intention of killing a turkey…but I liked being in the woods and I liked being with those women. They were lovely, lovely company and I’ll never forget those lovely people of Missouri.” 

Back on the road, Billy travels past the dozens of churches in Springfield before heading to the home of Bob, a man with vast collections of many things, including a cabinet full of glass medicine bottles and a whole room of lap steel guitars which make his house look like a shop. Asked how he would describe himself, Bob tells Billy: “Obsessive compulsive manic depressive eccentric eclectic.” 

Crossing into Kansas, Billy has visited three states and has five to go. As he drives past closed shops and abandoned cars, he sees the real face of the economic crisis in America. He stops to browse a car boot sale and chats to the locals about the economic climate. 

The last stop on Billy’s second leg is Oklahoma, where he visits the memorial site for the 1995 bomb victims. The tragedy saw 168 people killed when an ex-American soldier drove a van packed with explosives to federal building. 

The memorial has a garden of 168 wooden chairs, one for each person who was killed. 

Billy says: “Even though this was a federal building, there was a crèche here, so people were playing and having a nice time. It’s every bit as powerful as I thought it would be…I’m glad we came here. The people of Oklahoma should be proud of it, it’s a fitting tribute to those who died.” 

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