A little lucky; a little
unlucky; a little better.
Sep 1997 20:13:16 EDT
Crossing the Mississippi
The Chain of Rocks Bridge
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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 . .
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.'"
|| Jack Kerouac
On the Road -
an exchange between the Moriarity and Paradise characters.