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

Subject: Do ya want fries with that? or, They don't serve you like this at McDonald's.
Date: Tue, 02 Sep 1997 19:16:23 -0700

18:45 Riverside Park Campground; Springfield, Illinois :: 02 SEP 97

Until today we've been following post-1930 road beds, and these have been homogenized somewhat over the years meaning the curves were taken out and the grade flattened, towns by-passed. Where there have been by-passes, we've ventured into the towns, but there's not much that can be done about the curves except to find old road. Today we managed to find plenty of that.

In Illinois, between Springfield and Staunton, a major alignment change was made at the beginning of the 30's. State Road 4 follows much of the earlier alignment through Chatham, Auburn, Girard, Carlinville, Gillespie before joining the newer alignment that closely parallels I-55 just south of Staunton. There are numerous sections of concrete highway, and a long cobbled stretch as well. Narrow, shoulderless and lightly maintained, these rough stretches wend their way around the square fields, cornering sharply with surprisingly steep banks. Approaching one such bend in the road we saw an old codger in overalls and straw hat shambling up the driveway of a magnificent old white clapboard farmhouse. John slowed the truck to a stop just as the old man reached the mailbox.

"Hi! It's a fine mornin' idn't it?" Said John. "Or," correcting himself, "I should say afternoon!"

"Eh?" said the old fella, perplexed by John's relatively light cockney.

"Nice day, idn't it?"

"Yep." Came the reply. "Following old Route 66, are ya?"

"Yeah, we are on it, aren't we?"

"Oh yeah," pointing, "you follow it down there and around the curve some."

"Right, you'd know it pretty well, wouldn't you?"

"Ooohhh, ho, yes. I've been driving Route 66 for fifty years!"

"You've lived here that long?"

"Oh, no. This is my son's house."

Some conversations reach a natural, if somewhat dissatisfyingly premature conclusion and this one had just run its course. John ended the brief awkwardness with an obligatory nicety I didn't quite make out, something like, "Gooday to you then!"

As we began to pull away, John turned to me, with a smile, "'E sussed us out right off, didn'e?".

"Yep. Saw us comin' for miles."

We drove off, the truck chewing up a good 3/5ths of the highway's width so that as we approached the curve predicted by the old man, the rare spot of oncoming traffic pulled aside to let us pass. Two pickup trucks, each with a neighbourly wave.

After four days of running the highway since Grant Park in Chicago, over 200 miles, this is the first stretch including long, meandering strips of original concrete, something like a living museum exhibit. You can squint your eyes and imagine traversing the land in an old black Ford. From your home in the hinterlands you've driven dozens of miles over gravel, dirt, mud and macadam to reach this smooth-surfaced haven of highway and now you can open her up, really feel the wind at 30 or 40 miles an hour, for 2500 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles. Photographs, film, words: these can't capture the experience. You have to drive it.

The later alignment established after 1930 is, for those who enjoy a drive, completely uninteresting, saved as an option only by two towns and some roadside attractions: a couple of original cafes in Litchfield and a monument to Mother Jones found on the edge of Mt. Olive. It's tempting to recommend following the interstate and taking the appropriate exits for these two towns. You should at least skip the miles of straight, bumpy frontage road between Springfield and Litchfield. Much of 66 parallels the interstate this closely, but nowhere is it as boring as this stretch, and not often as rough. We'd travelled plenty of highway like this in the two days previous, stopping for plenty of landmarks in the process, and getting plenty of runs through the small towns. Other than the odd old roadhouse tangent to the interstate, there was not much in the way of buildings in sight, let alone towns.

At the Route 66 Cafe in Litchfield, John and I managed some short snippets of conversation with our waitress between trips to take orders, refill sodas, and serve pie. (Me: catfish, baked potato, salad bar and soup, cherry pie; John: pork steak and fries, diet coke. Altogether delicious. Total: $13 + tip.) She was an attractive woman in her early 40s or so, long peppery hair with a dash of salt, carrying herself with a sense of self and purpose, and an efficient, friendly server. No, she didn't own the place...just working there for the past two months. Yes, born in Litchfield, lived there all her life. Change? No, Litchfield hadn't changed much at all, particularly at this end of town, which hadn't changed at all.

But as we drove away I looked again at the crumbling concrete steps of the Route 66 Cafe, and the wrought iron railing that had long ago fallen from the crumbs leaned against the Cafe, waiting for the motivation, perhaps the influx of cash, that would restore it and the rest of the Cafe. Sometimes when we say "things haven't changed" we mean no human hand has been at work. Time and the elements, however, operate on their own agenda. And as we drove through town, I looked down a wide commercial strip brimming with fast food franchises and modern retail architecture. Perhaps, she would explain, the more that things change, the more they stay the same. Route 66 has, from the very beginning, been a project of commercial import (more on that in another post). Perhaps this revitalisation of it differs from its original construction less than I had expected.

Tomorrow, we'll re-hitch the trailer and make our way to Staunton via the relatively smooth and no-more-boring-than-the-frontage-road, I-55. That way we'll make some time for a more thorough exploration of the last bit leading into St. Louis, and stop somewhere on the other side for the next couple nights in order to explore the city's rich history.

It'll be the last major city on the route before Los Angeles. Not that Albaquerque, Oklahoma City and Tulsa are small, they're just not the same order of magnitude. In any case, I was just getting into the small town frame of mind and am already looking forward to hitting the meaty centre of ruralness west of St. Louis.

~~~ Responses Sought ~~~
Come far today? Oh, where ya headed? Still got quite a way to go, then. Well, thanks for stoppin' in. And drive careful. We hear there's some weather up on the ridge. Come see us when you're through this way again.
  graphical element Tom Snyder
Founder, The Route 66 Association
From his introduction to, Michael Wallis' ROUTE 66: The Mother Road