Getting’ Our Kicks – Our Route 66 Odyssey
by Allen Skyler – May, 2009
Written by Bob Troup & recorded by Nat in 1946 Tod & Buz in 60's TV Series
My wife Liz and I had talked about driving The Mother Road beginning in 2004 when I entered early semi-retirement. There was no deadline. I was working—and continue to work--part time. And the birth of our twin grandchildren, Georgia and Hayden, early in 2007 kept us even busier. So it was always "we’ll do Route 66 someday". Early in 2008, we saw an opportunity to make someday happen.
One of the four wedding invitations we received for 2008 was for the May 10th wedding of the son of good friends Jim and Sue who still live back in northern Illinois. I must give Liz credit for getting the idea first. Instead of flying to Chicago, why not turn this into the All-American Road Trip? She suggested that we drive a northern route through Yellowstone and Mount Rushmore, enjoy the wedding in McHenry County, Illinois and start our Route 66 adventure right at the starting point of Route 66 in downtown Chicago. I quickly realized that this idea made a lot of sense—let’s do this before we get too senile and decrepit! A good 95% of the miles would be on unfamiliar roadways, and I didn’t feel like trying this so far into the future that I’d have one foot in the grave.
A housekeeping note: this will not be an exhaustive, blow-by-blow description of every turn we took and everything we saw. I couldn’t bear to write anything that detailed (even if I could remember it all!), nor could you bear to read it, I trust. This will simply be a collection of the most memorable moments.
If you elect to “do” 66, I suggest that you get your hands on a copy of the Lonely Planet Road Trip – Route 66 (Sara Benson; Lonely Planet Publications). It didn’t overwhelm us with too much minutiae, but told us what we needed to know (good job, Sara!). The other very useful travel guide was the Route 66 Map Series (Jim Ross, Jerry McClanahan; Ghost Town Press). The maps were organized state-by-state (even for Kansas, which has only a very short section of 66). The narrative was not quite as good as the Lonely Planet guide, but the maps were more detailed. This combination of resources served us extremely well, and we hardly looked at the other 3 guides we had purchased.
Since my wife and I both grew up in Cook County, we felt right at home visiting the beginning of historic Route 66 at Adams and Michigan Ave.,
right across the street from The Art Institute of Chicago. It was Mother’s Day morning, a few hours before we would join some of Liz’s family for a holiday supper celebration. We decided that driving the beginning leg of the journey on a Sunday instead of during rush hour the following morning sounded like a top-notch strategy.
It turned out to be one of those good news / bad news deals:
Good news: yes, we did miss that Monday AM rush hour traffic.
Bad news: the weather that morning was horrible--dark, rainy, and cold. Huddled against the famous wind coming in off Lake Michigan, and having to reverse an inside-out umbrella a couple of times, we made our way to mile zero. Each of us grinned bravely for a couple of quick photos before retreating back to the car.
Then we were officially On The Road, taking Adams through the city before veering southwest on Ogden Avenue. For the first few miles, we got really excited every time we saw one of those brown-and-white Historic Route 66 signs, and took pictures of several of them through the rail-splattered windshield.
I soon realized that, with a couple thousand more miles to go, I should cool it with the pictures of signs that all looked pretty much the same.
Ogden took us through the community of Berwyn, where my family lived until I was 6 years old. We diverted from 66 in search of The Spindle at the Cermak Plaza Shopping Center.
Northern Illinois is a pool-table flat kind of place, and one should be able to see very easily what Liz’s nephew has called the “Car Kabob”. No luck, so we stopped in at the McDonald’s at the corner of the center’s lot for a beverage and to asked where the Spindle was. The nice girl at Mac’s Lounge told us that the Spindle was torn down only 3 days earlier. Timing, as they say, is everything, and ours was a little off.
When we returned home to California, I joined a Yahoo group about Route 66, where I found a nice picture of what we barely missed.
Now you can appreciate the accuracy of Jeff’s term Car Kabob.
We started out the next morning from our motel in Romeoville in ideal mid-May weather, which we would really have enjoyed the morning before.
Soon we were in the heart of Joliet, home to the (in-)famous Joliet Jake and Elwood Blues.
Joliet’s Route 66 museum was the first of several Liz and I encountered. The docent told us that Illinois’ Route 66 association does the best job of keeping up the signage along its sections of the highway. Liz and I learned first-hand during the trip that the gentleman was right.
The very next town to the south of Joliet is Elwood. Hmmm…Joliet Jake…Elwood…so it was that screenplay writer took inspiration for naming the Blues Brothers.
Wilmington, Illinois’ Launching Pad Drive-In features the can’t-miss-it 1960’s era fiberglass Gemini Giant.
As Elvis, Marilyn, and James looked on, Betty Boop was getting spruced up at the Polka Dot Drive-In in Braidwood the day we stopped by.
We saw several classic recreations of Burma Shave signs along the way.
About 10 years earlier, the Illinois Preservation Committee repainted this Meramec Caverns sign (good work!), which made for a very nice picture. Looks like the next logical project is to touch-up the Roadside Attraction sign a bit.
This Paul Bunyan statue in Atlanta was part of a generation of Muffler Men--enormous fiberglass statues (by International Fiberglass of Venice, CA), many of which attracted business for muffler or tire shops. This one was designed to hold an axe (note the positioning of its left hand), which was replaced by a hot dog for Paul’s new life as a landmark in front of a restaurant.
After touring Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Liz and I settled down for the night. First, however, we enjoyed supper at the Cozy Dog Drive-In. The corn dog was invented by the family that still runs this establishment.
Our Toyota Prius was approaching its 25,000 mile service anniversary, so we had phoned ahead for an 8:00 service appointment at the nearest Toyota dealer. That morning the service writer asked me if I wanted to drive the car into the service bay (?!) or if one of their employees should. I have never heard of a service department employee giving a customer that option before, and am pretty sure I never will again. Of course, I chose the latter, but for a while I wasn’t so sure I had made the right decision. What appeared to be the youngest employee on staff was in our car, looking puzzled—poking this button and that, trying to get the darned thing going. Remember, this was at a Toyota dealer. Despite this brief moment of alarm, I must say we got great service in short order from that dealership.
The absolute kitschy highlight of the route from Springfield to the state line was in Staunton: Henry’s Rabbit Ranch. One of Henry’s rabbits is named Montana, and Henry was selling Montana For President t-shirts and bumper stickers.
Kind of amusing, but it might be that Henry is spending a little too much time alone with those bunnies.
As we crossed the Missouri state line, we searched unsuccessfully for the Route 66 State Park. The guide book description made it sound easy enough to find, but for some reason we struck out on this one.
“It Pays To Advertise”: That restored sign in Illinois must have gotten to us. In Stanton, some strange force compelled us to stop at Meramec Caverns.
Business at Meramec was slow that day, so we had two tour guides to ourselves: Joe and Skyler (our surname, as you might recall). Cosmic stuff, man…
Even with deadly stalactites hovering threateningly overhead, Liz and I managed to smile bravely.
Seriously, though, Meramec is quite the unusual place, and worth the time to see it (whether or not Skyler still works there).
One of many landmark lodging establishments still in operation along 66 is the Wagon Wheel Motel in Cuba. Liz and I were not sure we were quite ready to stop for the night, but were attracted by the notion of staying in a quaint place like this. I took a few pictures front and back, then tried to find the owner. It took several knocks on the locked screen door and then ringing the doorbell to roust him. He said there was only one room left that night, but he said he doubted we’d like it as it had only one double bed. When you’re in the middle of a long driving trip, sleeping at attention is not recommended. But I was a bit tempted again when he told me the rate: $15. What amazing old-timey pricing! I should have paid him that just for the privilege of shooting some interiors in that room, but elected to simply move on.
It was worth the brief stop to pull just off the highway in Fanning to get a shot of the world’s largest rocker.
Just west of Rolla is the town of Arlington. It was difficult to discern whether anyone still lived there. We drove through slowly and took a few pics. The only living things we saw were a couple of dogs.
On our way back out of Arlington we encountered another famous Route 66 landmark, John’s Modern Cabins.
Not that we were tempted, but the warning sign put any thoughts of stomping through the place right out of our heads.
To say the least, the term “modern” no longer applies, but this was still worth the stop. It lets you use your imagination about what John’s place looked like in its heyday.
A few miles farther is the town of Devil’s Elbow, so named for the tortuous curve in the river that used to cause logjams.
Just outside of town we made a point of traveling on a bit of authentic Route 66 pavement featuring beveled curbing. This made sure the rainwater stayed right on the road surface, or so logic tells me. If anyone knows why the road was designed thus, I’d like to know.
Gary Turner has recreated a classic Sinclair station right on the edge of 66. It’s located in Paris Springs, just west of Halltown. Liz and I pulled into the gravel parking lot, and Gary came right out to greet us. It was as if he was an attendant at a full-service station (not many of those left, are there?) sprinting out to fill our tank. Don’t count on gassing up there, however. Gary’s place is a Route 66 shrine of sorts, but nothing is for sale.
Gary seems eager to have one and all visit his landmark and take all the pictures you care to.
Just before Joplin is Halltown where Liz and I spotted this funky old storefront. The store was, unfortunately, closed that day.
We stopped for soft drinks in Carthage at a quaint ice cream shop where Liz captured the well-preserved (or restored?) Woolworth’s sign.
On the far side of town we stopped briefly at the very nicely maintained 66 Drive-In Theater. Keep in mind how nice this place looks—later you’ll see one that is not faring nearly as well.
Kansas’ share of Route 66 is a modest 13 miles, but their state association makes the most of it when it comes to signage.
Our stop in Galena was relatively long. We were reminded that 66 was known as US 66 Will Rogers Highway beginning in 1935.
My first thought when I saw this string of storefronts was that Galena is one old town!
Beyond Riverton we stopped at the Marsh Rainbow Arch Bridge—the last of its kind, according to the Lonely Plant guide. European tourists, such as these two motorcyclists, play a major role in keeping businesses afloat along today’s Mother Road.
The last thing I saw before we crossed in Oklahoma that I thought was worth shooting was this handmade sign that had so much character.
I believe it was somewhere in this state when Liz and I decided that we were ready to drop out of the Route 66 Purist Club. In Illinois and Missouri, we really tried to stay on the old pavement where it was still in existence and drivable. But the constant thumpa-thumpa of driving over all those expansion joints was getting to us.
As we drove deeper into the Southwest, we realized that many sections of 66 were now frontage roads adjacent to the interstate highway. We learned that Route 66 had been used to transport equipment and materials to work sites as the interstates were built. In other areas the pavement of the interstate was laid right over The Mother Road.
The downtown murals of Quapaw are worth a look. This one was my favorite, due in no small part to the weathered condition of the doors at the left end.
Perhaps the oddest vice in Miami, OK is the fried pickle spears offered at
Waylan’s Ku Ku Hamburgers.
In Chelsea, I couldn’t help but take a picture of this place with the odd merchandise and weathered paint on the bricks.
Four miles off the highway--and well worth the side trip--in Foyil is Ed Galloway’s Totem Pole Park. The tallest totem (marked 1948 over the doorway) is 90 feet high.
Liz (who never met a gift shop she didn’t like) would like to enter the Fiddle House museum and gift shop. It was closed—what a shame!
In Catoosa (just east of Tulsa) we saw a new housing development that was built around some original Route 66 roadbed. At the far end of that we encountered our first Route 66 Dead-End.
Then, just beyond Tulsa in Sapulpa, I found Route 66 Nirvana: the great Blue Whale swimming park. I still remember wandering around the place, muttering, “this is wonderful!” as I took a slew of shots. If a picture of this beast does not appear in the dictionary next to the word “kitsch”, then something is terribly wrong.
Liz, being the brave soul in the family, is first to venture into the mouth of Monstro (not his official name). Note the faux bamboo fishing pole and hook. There is also a white baseball cap (not visible in this shot) with a turquoise “C” on it. Got no clue what that’s about. A step or two up brings you to the top of that white slide, and there’s that ladder near the tail to bring you back up and in. Beyond that is a wood platform and ladder at the far edge of the pond.
Not to suggest that you can (or should) swim there nowadays. With the park closed to swimming for over 20 years now, I can only surmise that the occasional drunken yahoo must still come along in the dead of night to take a dip. We can only hope that all his shots are up to date.
The present-day owner lives in a mobile home on the premises. He claims that the ark behind him (not mentioned in our guide books) is older than the whale.
A sign informs visitors that pins and key chains are for sale, and interested passers-by should knock on the home’s front door “if the pick-up is in the driveway”. I had to buy one of each.
To further confirm Sapulpa’s status as the King City of Route 66 (my characterization, not necessarily anyone else’s), there is even an Al’s Route 66 Café. No self-respecting Al could pass that up!
Finally, on the outskirts of town, there was a nasty stretch of genuine Route 66 pavement. It served to remind us of why we earlier had adopted our strategy of using the interstate more.
At the top of my list of favorites in Stroud was the Rock Café. The exterior was built with rocks unearthed during the highway’s construction.
Note the blue plywood sedan from the movie Cars—more on the movie references in a couple of later entries.
I learned on the Yahoo Route 66 group that, sadly, about a week after Liz and I ate lunch at the Rock the interior was gutted by a fire. As of the posting of the Yahoo entry in May, 2008, the owner was not sure whether she would attempt to rebuild/repair the interior. (Subsequent messages report happier news: the rebuilding of Rock Café is due to be completed in mid-2009.)
This ancient little rock structure caught my eye just past Warwick.
In Arcadia, we stopped at The Round Barn (restored by volunteers to its 1898 splendor). The structure was so massive that I was unable to coax my camera flash to emit enough light for anything close to a decent interior shot.
It was here that Liz and I caught up with a group of Model T tourists. She is taking the picture that tells their group’s story.
Just past the Round Barn was Pop’s Place, featuring the structure out front that tells the story at a glance.
The Lonely Planet guide (October, 2003) references this 66 West Twin Drive-In just outside Weatherford, and indicates by the admission prices it lists ($5 and $3.50) that it was still open. Sadly, by the time we arrived, this place, like so many other drive-ins, had fallen on decidedly hard times.
The Route 66 Museum in Clinton had a lot of nice displays. However, of all such places we saw, this one was almost a little too spiffy and clean, if you know what I mean.
At the edge of the parking lot was an example of a “Valentine Diner”. These pre-fab units were built by Valentine Mfg. from 1938 to 1974, and featured only 5 to 10 stools around a counter plus a take-out window.
Liz and I stayed overnight in Sayre, OK at a very nice Holiday Inn Express. I was Jonesin’ for some Chinese food, and asked the young lady at the registration counter where the nearest such place could be found. She directed us to the Dino-Mart Chinese Restaurant. The fact that the establishment was a combination gas station / restaurant should not put us off, she declared—there were a lot of places like this in the area.
West of Sayre we saw quite a stretch of old Route 66 pavement parallel to the newer highway (just as we had seen in central Illinois).
Texola is not merely a run-down town with a scattering of defunct buildings—it qualifies as a genuine ghost town.