When Charlie Bates departed from Provincetown on Dec. 16, 2022, he took a selfie with the Route 6 sign on the way out of town. “Bishop, CA 3,205 miles,” the sign reads.
“I’ve taken so many pictures with that sign,” he says, never sure when he’d see the one on the other side of North America.
Bates, a self-styled “road warrior” who has made 45 cross-country road trips in the last 20 years, rolled into Bishop in a 2001 Honda Accord on Feb. 16 and finally snapped a selfie at the western terminus of Route 6, where the sign reads: “Provincetown MA, 3,205 miles.”
For Bates, long solitary drives are a sacred personal exercise in embracing the world. “The closest antidote I’ve been able to find to the annoyance of having to die someday is knowing I have done things that make me happy, and seeing the world with my own two eyes makes me happy,” he says.
His inner life also benefits from the trips. “When I’m just cruising across the plains,” he says, “I can get into a functional trance and do so much inner work while I’m alone in the car.”
U.S. Route 6, also known as the Grand Army of the Republic Highway, is one of the oldest transcontinental highways in the nation. In 1926, long before the Eisenhower Interstate System created a network of crisscrossing freeways that bulldozed their way through cities and plains, the American Association of State Highway Officials approved the first segments of United States Highway No. 6 to run from Provincetown to Providence, R.I., and then on through Connecticut and New York, ending in Erie, Pa. In 1931, the route was extended to Greeley, Colo. by way of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska.
The route went coast-to-coast in 1937, when officials snaked it through Utah and Nevada en route to Long Beach, Calif. At 3,652 miles, it was then the longest highway in the U.S., according to the Federal Highway Administration — although the full route wasn’t paved until 1952.
In 1963, when California changed its highway numbering system, the terminus was moved from Long Beach back to Bishop, a high-desert town in the Eastern Sierras. Route 6 then dropped to number two on the list of longest contiguous continental highways (behind U.S. Route 20, which goes from Boston to Newport, Ore.).
Depending on how you look at it, Bates didn’t follow Route 6 all the way from the Provincetown dunes to the California valley. That’s because, despite the suggestive signage, it’s functionally impossible to do so. While states can use the federal designation to get funding, the route mostly piggybacks other roads in fragments. And as the nostalgic route meanders through 14 states, those fragments occasionally fail to line up with each other.
“It’s more like a concept at this point,” Bates says, “a romantic idea of Route 6 being a continuous road.”
Running diagonally and somewhat randomly across the country, Route 6 has never been a road meant for getting from point A to point B. Even Sal Paradise, the erstwhile narrator of On the Road, considers traversing Highway 6 but ultimately decides against it.
Bates grew up in Boston and first came to Provincetown in 2002 at age 20. “I fell in love with it,” he says. In 2004, he spent the summer working at the Brass Key Guesthouse and Art’s Dune Tours. Now living in Arlington, he works seasonally as a conference producer at MIT and runs a side hustle as a personal assistant — a job that often involves driving people’s vehicles around the country.
“I’ve had this fascination since I was a child with geography and manmade borders, and geologically, with mountains and rivers,” he says. “Those two things together mean I’m fascinated by roads.”
Some trips are about getting there as fast as he can; he calls those “intercontinental ballistic missions.” Others, especially in the summer, are about zigzagging across the country, visiting friends and his favorite national parks. He has a gas-station stretching routine down to a science, as well as a perfected menu of healthy snacks: nuts, spinach, and hummus are favored. No caffeine — it’s a diuretic. “Once a trip, I’ll let myself get something salty, crunchy, or cheesy,” he says.
Though Bates has traveled with just a backpack, he always returns to the road. A vehicle, he says, can be an expensive liability, but it also offers a kind of freedom. “People want to be free, and they want to be comfy,” he says. “It’s part of our genetic code, I think. That’s what having a car provides.”
After 20 years of fine-tuning his road-trip tricks, Provincetown to California is light work. In October 2021, he built out a camper van and road-tripped from Boston to Washington State, all the way down the West Coast through the Baja Peninsula, and ultimately to Panama, a trip he says was transformative. (The original plan was to continue to Brazil, but the cottage industry that helps transcontinental road-trippers through the Panama-Colombia border was backed up in April 2022 when he arrived. “I accepted the destiny, turned around, and drove back,” he says.)
Bates was in town visiting Manny Correia last December when he set out west, where he was to deliver the vintage Honda to a British friend. The trip out was “a comedy of errors,” he says, that included outrunning storms on I-90 across the Midwest into Montana. “I cannot endorse enough having good snow tires,” he says.
Eventually, he made it to Portland, Ore. It was now or never to get to Bishop, which sits at the foot of craggy and frequently closed Sierra Nevada passes. He approached the valley via U.S. 395, heading south from Reno and Carson City. That stretch, he says, “was the most beautiful drive I’ve ever done.”
While he was just briefly acquainted with Route 6 in Bishop, Bates feels intimately connected to the Cape Cod end of it. “Almost any road has a personality,” he says. “Route 6 is like the artery that brings oxygen to the cells of Provincetown. There’s something about watching the peninsula roll by, knowing there’s this jewel at the end waiting for you.”