At a little park in Joliet, Illinois, you’ll find a selection of delights: a roadside path lined with honeysuckle; stands of red birches, white oaks and ash trees casting shade; the Blues Brothers dancing on the roof of an ice cream parlor …
Well, about that. The park sits along Route 66, aka the Mother Road, born in the 1920s and ever since a neon-lit showcase of unique restaurants, quirky motor inns and kitsch. Like most National Scenic Byways, Route 66 today carries travelers more interested in the going than the getting there. The route symbolically begins at Chicago’s Buckingham Fountain and continues for 300 miles southwest through Illinois (or about 435 miles if you take all the original side roads). It crosses the Mississippi outside St. Louis and heads west to Santa Monica, California. Much of the Illinois section runs just a few yards from Interstate-55 traffic. But in towns along the way, the road feels more like the two-lane sojourn that lives in memory—American and otherwise.
“We get people from all over the United States and overseas, too—Britain, Australia, New Zealand,” Bill Gulas says through the walk-up window of the Blues-Brothers-topped ice cream shop Rich and Creamy on Broadway. “One guy found a Route 66 sign, and he was having everybody sign it.” (Why the Blues Brothers? In the film, Jake served time in Joliet Correctional Center.)
Some autographs may have been noteworthy. At Joliet’s Route 66 Welcome Center, Elaine Stonich admits she once made Paul McCartney move his illegally parked car. “One lady said, ‘Is that who I think it is?’ I said, ‘Yes, but we’re being low-key.’ ”
Low-key isn’t common on this trip. In Wilmington, Barbara Siegel-Holmes, Michael Holmes and their two teenage kids scrunch together for a snapshot under a towering fiberglass figure called the Gemini Giant. It’s one of a handful of statues installed roadside, many of them known as Muffler Men, who were used to advertise car repair—though the Gemini Giant dons a space helmet and carries a rocket ship instead of a muffler. “We’ve had people tell us, ‘It’s just a road,’ ” Barbara says. Then she laughs.
A little over 40 miles south, in Pontiac’s town square, 23 vintage-advertising-style murals burst with colorful images of old-time firefighters, trompe l’oeil antique storefronts, historical figures, even an irreverent soda-ad homage to Manet. Many were created in 2009 by 150 artists called Walldogs.
Between stops, cars cruise the string of two-lane roads at a leisurely pace. Open windows bring in a cooling breeze scented with growing alfalfa and rich prairie topsoil. Above, an endless ocean of sky; on the ground, waves of grain rolling out to the horizon. You could get lost and not mind.
A big part of the Route 66 fun is the tribe you join en route. Because most people travel at about the same pace, you may run into the same folks over the course of several days—at restaurants, museums and motor inns—and end up swapping tips about must-see statues and diners and sharing stories about your experiences.
One stop most drivers buzz about is in Dwight, where the Ambler-Becker Texaco Gas Station displays a circular red-and-white Texaco sign. Inside, a vintage fire engine fills the service bay, and a volunteer recommends other stops. Though the station no longer sells gas, hybrid and electric cars can refuel at a charging station. In Odell, 10 miles south, a rehabbed Standard Oil station displays vintage car-repair tools and sells a variety of Route 66 memorabilia.
The Bunyon Statue in Atlanta stands in mute contemplation of a hot dog outside Palms Grill Cafe, a revived 1930s diner. Inside, travelers sample the blue plate special surrounded by Art Deco light fixtures, checked linoleum floors and local girls in diner-waitress garb.
Just outside Auburn, Becky Hargett, of Becky’s Barn antiques, provides directions to little Carlinville’s imposing “million-dollar courthouse,” a stunning post-Civil War limestone and marble boondoggle that sent an official on the lam for good.
South of Carlinville, Carlin Villa Motel beckons road-weary travelers. At the old-fashioned motor inn, guests park just outside their rooms. It’s all fresh paint and bright flowers, and rooms’ windows open to let in the sound of frogs murmuring in the pond next door.
Illinois’ stretch of Route 66 ends where the Chain of Rocks Bridge (with its famous 22-degree bend in the middle) crosses the Mississippi River outside St. Louis. Downriver, the Gateway Arch stands, an iconic monument to America’s journey west, marking an iconic route that will still carry you all the way into the past.