Come get your kicks on Route 66
Freeways may offer easier and faster ways to travel from A to Z, but The Mother Road provides an historic and charming weekend getaway or a fun day trip.
As a thoroughfare for Dust Bowl immigrants, Route 66 saw its heyday in the 1930s, spanning more than 2,450 miles between Chicago and Los Angeles. The route is still peppered with diners, drive-ins and other nostalgic attractions.
Countless songs, movies, books and TV shows chronicle this section of pavement, but the reality about this piece of history is that touring Route 66 requires as much or as little time and money as you like. The journey costs only the price of gas, and even that can be omitted through use of a bicycle or a walking stick.
You’re bound to make a friend or two as you explore the simple and unexpected pleasures that dot the road’s expansive landscape. From the Sears Tower to the mom-and-pop businesses to the Meramec Caverns, the grand sights and the idiosyncratic places along the way make for an unforgettable experience that has lured such celebrities as Paul McCartney, who was spotted at a Springfield gas station a few years back while he toured the Mother Road. Beatles aside, the satisfaction of a simple tour comes not from big events but from the accumulation of smaller pleasures.
Nowhere is that principle truer than in the Land of Lincoln. The road’s eastern terminus is on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive, where it winds through the Loop before taking travelers south toward Bloomington, home of the original Steak ’n Shake. From Bloomington, head south and continue on to Springfield, where you’ll end up at Sixth Street – home to the one and only Cozy Dog Drive-In (www.cozydogdrivein.com). Although no longer offering drive-in service, the eatery famous for corn dogs is a can’t-miss attraction with dozens of posters, signs and doodads that spin the head. The signature corn dogs were first served in 1946 at the Springfield Beach House, and the original Cozy Dog opened soon thereafter.
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). The new-and-improved version lights up in April and will remain open through the summer. Movies begin at dusk.
The area is also home to several 66-related events, such as the Route 66 Association of Illinois’ 25th Annual Motor Tour event scheduled for June 10 through June 12 (http://www.il66assoc.org). The tour meanders along the Mother Road, with many participants favoring vintage wheels as they take in sites.
Springfield’s own Route 66 Mother Road Festival will take place from Sept. 23 through Sept. 25, 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 its various alignments, Route 66 has wound around three sides of the 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 vintage curbed concrete and you’ll be in another era.
For pleasures elsewhere, try the 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. Don’t forget to try 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 map in your pocket and old tunes on the stereo, travel back in time and make some new memories on an old piece of Americana.