Time to go
A cold Chicago wind whipped off Lake Michigan. It reminded us that winter was around the corner. We should be on our way. We eased Betsy, our beloved camper van, into the stream of traffic and headed down the canyon of skyscrapers toward the setting sun. We were a couple of highway hobos about to ‘get our kicks on Route 66’.
|Jackson Blvd and Michigan Avenue|
We had a two-month journey of almost 2,500 miles ahead of us, It would take us along a collection of roads and tracks, connected together in 1926 to form Route 66, from Chicago to Santa Monica California - but long since been abandoned in favour of modern interstate highways.
We were anxious to discover how much of it still existed. Would the diners, motels, gas stations, and nostalgia of the 1940s and 50s still be there?
We left the suburban maze of Chicago behind us, and found the original two-lane byway that wended its way across 300 miles of black, fertile plains, through small farming and mining townships, each with a tale to tell.
At the hamlet of Odell, we camped alongside an original Standard Oil Gas Station, being renovated by John Weiss and some of his fifty volunteers who raise funds for the continuance of Route 66.
|Betsy camped alongside restored Standard Oil Gas Station|
At Pontiac, the original ‘Old Log Cabin Diner’ faced the wrong way when Rte 66 was realigned, so they simply jacked it up, and spun it around. It was here, just along the road from the ageing but grand Italianate Courthouse, that we discovered the pleasures of eating Dad’s Frozen Custard. Pontiac also has the largest collection of original 1920s houses purchased through the Sears Postal Catalogue. These fine homes continue to be lived in, even today.
Just south of Normal, there are two hamlets: Shirley and McLean. the latter is where the ‘Dixie Trucker' Cafe has fed travellers since 1928. We also called into the town of Lincoln, named after Abraham Lincoln, and christened by him before he became President.
|The Dixie Truckers Cafe at McClean|
At the small picturesque town of Carlinville, we found excellent examples of red brick paved roads and streets. This tiny town also boasts the largest courthouse in the USA. it start out as a $50,000 project in the late 1800s and ended up, 10 years later, having cost $1 million - only in America.
In the 1930s, Route 66 became a highway of dreams for those escaping the dust bowl of the mid-west. Their story was immortalised by John Steinbeck in his novel ‘Grapes of Wrath’. Others followed in the 1940s, fleeing from the Rust Belt of the north-east to the Sun Belt of California. The road is often referred to as ‘Main Street USA’ or ‘The Mother Road’.
|A brick-paved road|
It owes much of its mystique and romance to Jazz musician, Bobby Troup, who in 1943 penned the song, ‘Get your Kicks on Route 66’ - since recorded by 100s of artists, from Nat King Cole to The Rolling Stones.
We stopped at the library in the small township of Verdon, to collect our emails, and were pleasantly surprised to find a Christmas tree being decorated next to a roaring fire in the reading room. a large tin of home-made cookies and a crock-pot of hot cider and cinnamon was set up for anyone to help themselves. What a civilised gesture!
At yet another library, I sat at the computer collecting our emails, whilst the librarian chatted to Jean. She related how a returned book had been chewed up by a dog, that another dog had recently grabbed the throat of Mrs. So-&-so’s lover and killed him, and how does your Queen and her lovely husband ‘Prince Charles' rule England?
As I half listened, a middle-aged woman sitting at the next computer said to me in a quiet, timid voice, 'I have a lovely snouser: would you like to see it?' I was so flummoxed, all I could manage to say was, 'I would love to, but I’m a married man.' Only later did I realize she had said “Schnauzer”. It is not easy being an innocent abroad.
Missouri and Beyond
Before facing the undulating landscape of Missouri, we drove through the depressing squalor of St Louis’ northern suburbs. It was in stark contrast to its remarkable ‘Gateway’ and charming downtown area.
In most small towns along Rte 66, we found that the local Funeral Home and the Courthouse usually competed for pride of place and attention.
Part of the romance of these towns is the lonesome sound of a night train’s whistle going ‘Awhooo-Awhooooo’ as it trundles slowly along the unfenced tracks of Main Street.
During the 1970s, the thunder of interstate highways caused the demise of not only Route 66 but also many of the small towns that were bypassed. There is, however, still an abundance of 1930s architecture and 1950s neon signs on motels, diners, and drive-in cinemas to keep most enthusiasts and photographers captivated, but for how much longer, is anybody’s guess.
Oklahoma is much more than images of Indian tears, wagon trains, land-rushes, dust bowl poverty and the McVeigh bombing; it’s about being the friendliest State in the Union. Nowhere else did we find so many people wanting to help, be friendly or just chat.
At Chandler, we paused to watch a Christmas street parade. It was led by an all black school band, which suddenly stopped in front of us and boogied to their own jazzed-up version of Silent Night. A local 'Miss Pageant' swept by, and ageing Hells Angels in smart leathers roared back and forth on gleaming Harley Davidsons, throwing handfuls of candies to the crowds.
Standing next to us, was a young mother with six young children. She struck up a conversation with Jean, and then said, ‘Ma’am, would you care to kindly come home and share lunch with us?' We hesitated for all of one second and said, ‘Sure, providing we can supply the apple pie for dessert’.
Her home was a beautifully kept trailer parked in the woods 3 miles from town, she and her husband ‘home taught’ the six best-behaved and delightfully polite children imaginable.
|The Midpoint Cafe for great food|
They say that no matter where you go, you are never more than halfway from home. At Adrian. (pop; 68 and 3 dogs!) we met the lovely Fran Houser who kept the Midpoint Café. The evening we arrived, was closed for a private party ‘No problem!’ she said. ‘Y’all come in and meet the folks.'
We were half way along Route 66 and had not been disappointed. The route is experiencing a well deserved renaissance, and it retains a mystique that continues to captivated people around the world.
More of this journey in the next Blog...
More of this journey in the next Blog...
Written by Roy Romsey