Come get your kicks on Route 66
From John Steinbeck, who coined the term “Mother Road,” to Paul McCartney, who answered nature’s call at a Springfield gas station back in 2008 while road-tripping incognito in a Ford Bronco, the allure of Route 66 is timeless.
If you want to see America, there’s no better place than the road that once spanned more than 2,450 miles between Chicago and Los Angeles. The journey can be a disjointed one in these days of freeways, and those who love Route 66 don’t always agree on the exact path of the road that began life in the Jazz Age and came of age during the Great Depression, when it was a veritable pipeline for Okies escaping the Dust Bowl for the promise of a better life in California. The route shifted over the years before modern highways took over, and so stops on different streets in the same town can lay legitimate claim to being Route 66 attractions.
There is no single “a-ha” moment on Route 66, a path peppered by diners, drive-ins and attractions ranging from obvious tourist traps to dive bars that fit right in, even though it was never intended that way. You’ll truly understand this road when you least expect it, perhaps when just the right song comes through the car speakers at just the right time or when the cop who caught you speeding sends you on your way with directions to a spot just down the road that will be serving the world’s best blueberry pancakes for another hour. Satisfaction comes not from big events, but from an accumulation of small pleasures.
You can spend as much time or money as you like. Doing it on the cheap requires nothing more than gas money and some planning ahead so you can hit your campground before dark. With Lake Shore Drive in Chicago marking the road’s eastern terminus, the roadway through the Land of Lincoln offers some of the best history lessons and kitsch this side of Los Angeles.
In Normal, make sure and hit the McLean County Museum of History, 200 North Main St., where they have photos and other stuff memorializing the birth and early years of Steak ’n Shake, the quintessential roadside eatery that was born in this town about 70 miles north of Springfield. Started in 1934, Steak ’n Shake grew into a mammoth company that’s now owned by Biglari Holdings, a Texas corporation that also owns such entities as Maxim magazine and First Guard Insurance Company. But back in the day, Steak ’n Shake was owned by a guy named Gus, who turned a Route 66 gas station that also served chicken into the first Steak ’n Shake gas station and fried chicken emporium. Sadly, the original Steak ’n Shake was torn down long ago to make room for a pizza joint, but the history museum is the next best thing. It’s open every day except Sunday – call ahead, 309-827-0428, to confirm hours. While you’re in the area, stop by the Beer Nuts Factory and Company Store in nearby Bloomington (103 North Robinson St., 309-827-8580). Yep – Beer Nuts, like a lot of other things, got their start on Route 66 during the Great Depression.
From Bloomington-Normal, head south to Springfield, where you’ll land on Sixth Street, home to the planet’s only Cozy Dog Drive-In (www.cozydogdrivein.com). Drive-in is a misnomer, given that there are no car hops or speaker systems in the parking lot, but you definitely need to get out of your car to appreciate this place that features posters, signs and myriad doodads on the walls that spin even the most level head.
The original Route 66 Drive-In theater, once located on South Sixth Street, has come to life anew at Knight’s Action Park, off old Route 4 (www.route66-drivein.com, 217-698-0066). The movies start in April and last through the summer, with show times starting at dusk.
Route 66 isn’t just places, it’s also events, and one of the longest lasting is the Route 66 Association of Illinois Annual Motor Tour event scheduled for June 9 through June 11 (http://www.il66assoc.org). The yearly tour that began more than a quarter-century ago meanders along the Mother Road, with participants encouraged to drive vintage cars between attractions. There will be a celebratory banquet in Lincoln, just a few miles north of Springfield.
Springfield’s own Route 66 Mother Road Festival will take place from Sept. 22 through Sept. 24, when hundreds of classic cars ranging from Studebakers to Mustangs to Pintos will be parked downtown, where live music and food will also be plentiful (http://www.facebook.com/Route66Fest). It’s turned into one of the area’s biggest car shows, so give yourself at least a half-day to check things out.
In various alignments, Route 66 has wound around three sides of the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield, but don’t wait for fair week to visit this piece of history. A long-abandoned stretch of Route 66 forms the eastern border of Carpenter Park, near Sherman. In 2002 it won a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Walk a hundred yards down this curbed concrete and you’ll be in another era.
Don’t miss a stretch of brick road a bit north of Auburn, about 20 miles south of Springfield. Illinois was the first state to pave the entire length of Route 66, and this two-mile brick portion just off Route 4 was one of the few segments where the pavement wasn’t poured nearly a century ago, and it is has been remarkably preserved. If you comb the roadside, you might even find a brick to take home as a souvenir.
The Ariston Café in Litchfield, about 45 miles south of Springfield, is a great place to eat and is also one of the oldest restaurants on Route 66 – just ask the U.S. government, which put the brick building on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006. Opened in 1924 in Carlinville, the restaurant has been in its present location since 1935. It’s a family-run operation that’s open every day except Monday and Tuesday. We recommend the fried green beans and Greek-style chicken livers. The restaurant is at 413 N. Old Route 66, Litchfield, 62056. For more information, go to the website, www.ariston-cafe.com, or call 217-324-2023.
In Atlanta, Illinois, 46 miles northeast of Springfield, old signs on brick buildings have been lovingly repainted. The J.H. Hawes wooden grain elevator, built in 1902 and restored in 1993, is the only one of its kind in Illinois. The eight-sided, pristinely maintained Carnegie library is a jewel that sparkles with the village’s rich history. Towering over most of this is an 18-foot fiberglass statue of a “Muffler Man” holding a giant hot dog, imported from a hot-dog stand in Cicero. And if the Route 66 Drive-In theater in Springfield isn’t enough for you, stop by the Sky View Drive-In theater in Litchfield, about 45 miles south of the capital city, where movies play on weekends from April through September. Call 217-324-4451 for show times and more information.
As you continue south from Springfield toward Missouri, you’ll find a restored service station in Mt. Olive. When you reach Madison, stretch your legs and walk across the Mississippi River via the Chain of Rocks Bridge, a 1.6-mile span closed to motorized traffic but open to pedestrians and bicyclists. Opened in 1929 and put on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006, the bridge links Choteau Island with north St. Louis on the Missouri side. The bridge appeared in the 1981 film Escape from New York, filmed in St. Louis and East St. Louis, as the 69th Street Bridge.
Once in Missouri, you’ll find Route 66 State Park and many other attractions as you continue on, perhaps all the way to Los Angeles. With a guidebook on the dashboard and tunes on the stereo, take your time and savor a road that’s as much a state of mind as a stretch of asphalt and concrete.