Rt. 66. The “Mother Road.” Neon signs, mom-and-pop motels, offbeat and quirky over-sized roadside attractions.
Growing up in the 50s and 60s, I criss-crossed the USA on summer vacations with my family and we traveled along several sections of “America’s Highway.” I remember seeing the signs for Meramec Caverns painted on the sides of barns, clustering ever thicker the closer we got. During our trips we shared the road with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of similar families: young parents proud of their shiny station wagons filled with their personal contribution to the post-war Baby Boom.
Perhaps in the midst of the current craziness, a desire to return to simpler times is understandable. Maybe nostalgia is unavoidable at my age. All I know is that when I turned 66 two years ago, I experienced a sudden desire to travel Rt 66. It just had to be that year. And I just had to do it with my six-year-old granddaughter. Would her parents let me take her on a slightly crazy four-day road trip? Why yes, they would!
I did realize I couldn’t pack up a six-year-old child and drive 2,448 miles from Chicago to LA – and then back again – so I decided we would do 1/6 of Rt. 66. I calculated that to be about 408 miles, which seemed very doable. Having no desire to start at the very beginning in downtown Chicago (I don’t drive in Chicago if I can help it), we picked Joliet, Illinois as our starting point. Joliet has many Rt 66 museums and attractions and it is apparently a common starting point for travelers who are willing to pass on the small official starting point sign in downtown Chicago.
408 miles would take us roughly to Devils’s Elbow, Missouri. I say “roughly” because traveling Rt 66 is far more complicated than I had first realized. I had no idea! Turns out Rt 66 never was one completely straightforward path from Chicago to LA anyway. New alignments were constantly popping up. On our trip I would find myself on the 1926-1930 section, and then a 1930-1940 section, and then a 1945 section. I bought a spiral-bound guidebook and consulted it constantly to make sure I was staying on the right road. Sometimes Rt 66 joined a modern divided highway. Hallelujah! I could make up some of the time I lost from all of the wrong turns I made on the country roads, and it didn’t feel like cheating!
The Blues Brothers on the roof of the Rich ‘n Creamy Ice Cream Shop in Joliet saluted us as we set off. We started by making a wrong turn out of the parking lot and lost about 20 minutes from the get-go. Ha! This didn’t bode well for our trip but I made up my mind that while we’d do our best to follow this crazy, mixed-up piece of nostalgia for four days, if we occasionally got lost, who cares? We’d still be together and having fun!
My granddaughter was immediately captivated by the kitschy roadside attractions, as our first stop after leaving Joliet was the Launching Pad drive-in with its “Gemini Giant,” the first of many larger-than-life attractions we saw along the way, including a huge covered wagon with a massive Abraham Lincoln, a giant rocking chair, and a 40-foot tall ketchup bottle. Simply not the sights typically seen when zipping along a modern freeway! My granddaughter kept a lookout for the Rt 66 road markers along the route. She loved this – and it turned out to be a very important job!
We tried to hit authentic-from-the-era restaurants. Our favorite was the “Cozy Dog” in Springfield, Illinois, home of the original corn dog on a stick. We saved our French fires from the Cozy Dog for a photo-op with the 40-foot ketchup bottle later in the day. Fun! Another favorite meal was breakfast at Shelly’s Rt 66 Cafe in quaint Cuba, Missouri.
I knew I also wanted to stay in authentic-from-the-era motels. On our second night, we it the jackpot with the Wagon Wheel Motel, the longest continuously-run motel along the entire route, wonderfully restored and maintained. On our last night, we stayed in the Carlin Villa in Carlinville, IL – a typical bare bones motel from the era. Nothing fancy, no indoor pool or exercise room, but the accommodations were spacious and I loved the old-fashioned room key!
A bonus along the way? Meeting others making a similar trek. Turns out that traveling Rt 66 when turning 66 is rite of passage for many Baby Boomers. Who knew? I thought I had dreamed up the idea all by myself! All the volunteers we met at the various museums were so friendly and knowledgeable about the history of Rt 66. I got the sense that the locals were quite proud of their part in the past and present history of the Rt 66 saga.
By the end of our travels, we were definitely tired. We had traveled nearly 1300 miles in 3-1/2 days. My brain hurt from all the navigating, bu my heart was full. I know this is a trip my granddaughter will remember her whole life.
Now my other grandchildren are jealous and want their turn to travel Rt 66. Hmmm. I have ten grandchildren and 5/6 of the route still unfinished. I just might be able to complete the whole thing! With a grandchild or two in tow, who says Rt 66 wouldn’t be just as much fun at age 68, 70, or even 75?