Route 66 :: June '97 -- October '97

Subject: A little lucky; a little unlucky; a little better.
Date: 7 Sep 1997 20:13:16 EDT


Across the Mississippi to Missouri; Granite City, Illinois

Crossing the Mississippi
The Chain of Rocks Bridge
The Chain of Rocks Bridge; Granite City, Illinois The Chain of Rocks Bridge; Granite City, Illinois

23:20 Granite City, Illinois :: 03 SEP 97

Well, Rolling Thunder and I have agreed to get the monthly disaster over with early in the month. Toward that end, we broke a leaf spring on the trailer. This really bungs up the suspension on the whole right side-the frame's resting on the axle. The trailer's been squeaking pretty loudly over every little bump, so we figured something was up with the springs or the bushings and were figuring on having them checked the first time it was convenient. I suppose it'll be convenient first thing tomorrow.

Fortunately, I guess, we were planning on taking a day or so to check out St. Louis, just over the Mississippi from Granite City. We can still do that, given that there's not too much difficulty finding some spring service...

Other than that it was a great day. It's even easy to forget all about the long stretch of freeway we endured between Springfield and Litchfield.

In Litchfield we stopped for lunch at The Ariston Cafe, in continuous operation since 1924, most of those years right alongside Route 66, and operated all those years by the same family. After a marvellous meal of grilled swordfish accompanied by American fries (pan fried potato slices) salad bar and minestrone soup, and after barely refusing triple chocolate suicide cake, I struck up a conversation with Nick and Demi Adam, proprietors of the Ariston. We ended up talking for well over an hour, straight through the lunchtime rush, sharing stories, information, thumbing through Route 66 books (one German publication and another Japanese-both available only in their own tongue in their own country) and photos of the folks who had stopped by and made an impression.

I asked Nick about the changes of the road over the years, "The 1980s must have been tough for you?" He nodded gravely, "Oh yeah, very tough." The Interstate by-passed the town by just a quarter mile or so, but the flow rushed by Litchfield with little reason to turn into town, or at least no reason to know something like The Ariston could be found there.

Earlier, while driving down the interstate toward Litchfield, I'd noticed some of the towns we'd passed through yesterday, lying just off the interstate. Rising out of them, perched high on slender towers were the logos for fast-food, franchise diners and chain hotels, beckoning the passers-by into town. Hovering over Litchfield are Amoco, Hardee's and Budget 8 Hotel.

"One day I drove through town," Nick continued, "and saw every fast-food franchise in America just a couple blocks away. I knew then I'd have to do something different, so I went back to The Ariston's traditional strengths: full service, white table cloth, linen napkins and great food." "Seems to have worked," I offered, "most of your clientele seem to be local." Nick grinned, "There are people eating lunch over there who drive up from Mt. Olive just about every day." Then he chuckled, "I don't know how they do it...I can't even eat here every day."

"It must seem like family to you," I observed. "Yes." he responded firmly. He's also quite proud that the waitress who served John and I has been with him for 22 years, another on shift that day has been serving at The Ariston for 18.

The restaurant was quite busy and the needs of Ariston customers interrupted our conversation many times. But he took the time to show me on his computer how Microsoft stock was faring (up by more than $5, I think). He also gave me a quick tour of his website, still just 2 months old. He's not sure yet if it's doing anything for him business-wise, so far just a few hits or so a day, but he's obviously enjoying the experience.

22:22 Jellystone Park; Eureka, Missouri :: 04 SEP 97

Apparently Germans are nutty for 66, and for them The Ariston Cafe is a significant landmark. Nick talked about one of his American friends, who works in Frankfurt. "He told me, 'Nick, I've become a celebrity in Frankfurt simply because I know you." One of the books in the Ariston 'library' is an edition printed in German and distributed only in Germany. Too bad, too, since it contains the best collection of photographs found in any Route 66 book. The Adam's have their german visitors write something in the book and it has become a funky living document of traveler folk stories. I would've liked to spend a couple more hours poring over the pages and thumbnail sketches of traveler's lives.

But it became time to push on, so after snapping a pic or two of Demi & Nick outside the Ariston, we rumbled back onto the interstate toward Staunton where we'd pick up 66 again.

We'd planned to make St. Louis yesterday, to get a small ways west of it, as a matter of fact. But the gods were smiling on us and bestowed on our journey a second happy visit with Route 66 buffs, this time Rich and Linda Henry at Henry's Route 66 Emporium, a small and nearly innocuous-looking building just south of Staunton village on the post-1930 alignment of 61.

I'd seen the building the day before on our loop down the old, temporary alignment of 1926-30 and back up the post-'30, but it was a dreary, rain threatening day. The second time we drove by it, under cool blue skies and a brisk wind, content with bellies full of fine Ariston food, John wondered aloud whether we should stop in, even as I was looking for a way to turn '50 of travel rig around. It turned out to be the right day to stop in.

Since Chicago, this trip's been a little like that. Luck and happenstance, a little coincidence, gods smiling on us. Don't know what it is, but stuff just seems to keep working out. Like breaking a spring and discovering you're within a mile of a an RV shop that can repair it, and after limping the trailer in the next morning, the repair is complete before 11AM. I mean, John and I rarely manage to pull out of the trailer park by that time. We were on the road earlier than usual today.

And so we spent another two hours yesterday gabbering with Rich and Linda, trading Route 66 stories and information. Rich and I both recalled a little Route 66 ghost town straddling the Texas/New Mexico border. The sliver of roadbed just off the interstate is wide enough to be four lane, and it's well over a quarter mile long. You can race through town at 55 mph, which we both did, flying over the rising road and realizing only after beginning the descent down the backside that the pavement abruptly ends, dumping you into a narrowing gravel and dust road. Yikes!

Vanity Plates at Henry's Route 66 Emporium; Staunton, Illinois Vanity Plates at Henry's Route 66 Emporium; Staunton, Illinois

Vanity Plates at
Henry's Route 66 Emporium

Nick had commented that the so-called 1926-30 alignment John and I had traversed was, in fact, never officially designated as Route 66; there never appeared on it a single road sign identifying it as 66. This he knew from a relative or friend (can't recall which) who'd lived all his life in Carlinsville, beside the supposed Route 66. I told him that in my research of 66 I'd learned that even though the highway was officially designated in 1926, it took quite some time after that to fully surface all 2,448 miles of the new interstate, and in some cases even longer to erect the signs.

We'd been talking about all the Historic Route 66 signs posted along the various alignments, and the fact that not all of them properly designated roadways that had once been part of 66. The four lane stretch of highway running behind the The Ariston was never designated as Route 66, which had always passed in front of the cafe. "Those guys get it wrong all the time," said Nick. "When I pointed out to them that the 4-lane out back had never been Route 66, that they should recognize the stretch of road out front, they just said, 'Yes, we know, but it's too confusing to direct drivers along the original road.'"

In fact, The Ariston Cafe had been built by Nick's father originally along Route 4, in Carlinsville in 1924, two years before the designation of Route 66. It then moved to Litchfield along the post-'30 alignment several years later, following the Mother Road.

After relaying this story to Rich he said, "Ahh, but I've got a map from that period showing the route 4 section through Carlinsville and Benld as Temporary Route 66. The section through Mt. Olive and Litchfield is shown as a dotted line, designated 'Under Construction'." Ahh, I replied, "perhaps that might explain why no one ever got around to sign-posting it."

08:30 Jellystone Park; Eureka, Missouri :: 05 SEP 97

The Emporium building itself is just a couple years old, corrugated tin on all four sides and the roof. One small corner is the shop, walled off from the rest of the space. There you'll find the Route 66 memorabilia that has, by now, become quite familiar: books, mugs, pins, stickers, road signs...some stamped in tin and and others painted in enamel, there are t-shirts, baseball caps, fridge magnets, phone cards, replica cars from various epochs of Route 66 history...mostly muscle cars. Additionally, you'll find a small-but growing-fascinating collection of vintage memorabilia from Route 66 businesses, things Rich manages to find at an auction, or things people traveling the highway bring in, or things a couple antique nut friends find and sell him for cost. So there are original enamel signs advertizing Oilzum, Pepsi, Sambo chocolate milk, perfumes, soft drinks, cars and cigarettes. The emporium includes several old Coca-Cola coolers and vending machines, of course, and out front hangs a giant Phillips 66 sign, a Firestone tin banner is tacked up next to the front door and several vintage gas pumps stand in a row. There are red tin jerry cans, oil cans and knick-knacks of every variety. It's fun to look through the 1930's parts manuals, with prices like 15 cents for a spark plug, and there's an entire wall of new parts like oil filters still in their boxes, and 5 gallon cans of engine oil, some still unopened.

To spend an hour in this place is to transport yourself a little back to a different time.

John's something of an American muscle-car fanatic. I first discovered this as we were driving away from The Launching Pad diner (famous for its fibreglass statue, The Gemini Giant, a 10' tall space-suited man holding a rocket) in Wilmington on our second day out of Chicago. During lunch I'd been thinking about the kinds of things a little good fortune would bring us on this trip, things like running across a car show. A few minutes later, back on the road, "Oh, look, a car show!" I hadn't seen it. Good thing I got a navigator. "Shall we turn back?" John asked, hopefully. I grinned. So did John when I told him I'd been wishing for one.

As we walked among the cars, John displayed an amazing knowledge of American cars. Model years and names, engine statistics, folklore... This at first struck me as odd given that he lived all his life in England. Between that and the fact that a cafe owner from Litchfield, Illinois is a celebrity in Germany, I'm beginning to realize that the significance of Route 66 stretches well and truly off the North American continent. There are Route 66 Cafes in London and Germany. In some ways, I think old 66 is or may be becoming as significant an aspect of American folklore for non-Americans as the old west.

Anyway, what I was getting to was that John asked Linda about one of the '60s era boats out front, a Riviera I think, with 400+ cc's under the hood and a wheel base longer and wider than most condominiums now for sale in Vancouver's trendy Yale Town district. When she figured he was a nut for horse-power, "Well, you'll have to see Rich's Stingray out back." In the back of the emporium, Rich showed us not only a canary yellow '72 Corvette Stingray, in need of some restoration but overall in good condition-beautiful lines on the Stingray which I remember as THE car everyone lusted after in high-school-but there is a small collection of cars from different eras including two 1938 F-350 Ford pickups. John was in heaven as he and Rich jammed and jabbered for half an hour or so, a conversation that eventually spilled outside to the other cars scattered about the property.

The emporium is more a sideline for the Henry's, among other things his primary income is as an insurance agent. "Nah, you can't make a living off this," he responded to my query about how well the business was doing. "You do it for the love of it, finding the memorabilia, meeting the folks who come through, sharing stories." While talking earlier about the two 66 alignments, Rich had commented, "I grew up on Route 66, and have travelled all of it and parts of it many times in my life. And still, people are always coming in and asking, 'What do you know about such-n-such place?' And I go, 'What place?' and they tell me about some building, or business I've never seen or heard of."

~~~~~~

After a few days on the road, driving and map-following, stopping for pictures of roadside attractions, eating at diners with friendly but not quite engaging waitresses, after a few days of sightseeing an encounter with a couple of enthusiastic, long-time dwellers along Route 66 proved to be something of a spiritual boost. John and I drove south toward St. Louis, The Gateway to the West, newly invigorated. I think it was something we both needed, though neither of us was particularly aware we'd found a rut.

Oh, and if you drive by the Henry's Route 66 Emporium someday and see 10 or so VW Rabbits half-buried nose down in the grass with their rear-ends sticking up, check out the sign:

Hare it is!
The Ra66it Ranch.

It was John's idea to make the double-bb in Rabbit using the familiar 66. In the best tradition of Route 66 roadside Kitsch, the Rabbit Ranch will be a visual entendre on two well known 66 attractions, which I'll describe to you when we get to them in the American Southwest.

~~~ Responses Sought ~~~
    "Man, wow, there's so many things to do, so many things to write! How to even begin to get it all down and without modified restraints and all hung-up on like literary inhibitions and grammatical fears . . ."
    "That's right, man, now you're talking." And a kind of holy lightning I saw flashing from his excitement and his visions, which he described so torrentially that people in buses looked around to see the 'overexcited nut.'"
  graphical element Jack Kerouac
On the Road -
an exchange between the Moriarity and Paradise characters.

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