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Hit The Road

After 90 years, the mother of all roads – Route 66 –
continues to beckon to the adventurer in all of us.

Ninety years ago, the St. Louis Cardinals were driving toward their first pennant and world championship. As they did, Midwest motorists were driving, too, over a hodgepodge of roads of questionable quality and uncertain numerology. Later in 1926, order began to emerge from chaos as a number of landmark highways were officially chartered, funded, and numbered.

museum

Above: The Litchfield Museum and Route 66 Welcome Center is a repository for local artifacts and Mother Road nostalgia. Once a busy railroad town, Litchfield was known as the “hub of central Illinois.” City of Litchfield

Below: Meramec Caverns in Stanton, Mo., is a Missouri landmark along Route 66. In addition to touring the cave – said to have been used by Jesse James for a hideout – visitors can float the Meramec River, pan for gemstones, or picnic along the river. Patrick Martin

Meramec

Among them was what would become arguably the most famous stretch of highway in America – Route 66. In the nine decades since then, Route 66 has been cemented into the public consciousness by a best-selling song, a television series, and a fervent set of fans that still embrace the road as a symbol of America’s Golden Age of Motoring.

The route is approximately 2,450 miles long, stretching from Chicago to the Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles. It crosses eight states, all of which have Route 66 associations dedicated to the preservation of the road and the historical buildings and attractions beside it.

Route 66 served as a main transport west for Dust Bowl refugees in the 1930s, post-war adventurers, émigrés to the West Coast in the late 1940s, and station wagons full of kids and their parents headed for Disneyland in the mid-1950s.

By the mid-1960s, the road became less traveled as parallel sections of the interstate highway system were completed, bypassing the small towns and Main Streets of rural America.

It was decommissioned officially in 1985. Even before that final act, the nostalgia set had begun to mobilize with car shows, road rallies, and tours.

There are many roads in America that have been bypassed by the interstate. What is it about Route 66 that’s so special? The song? The television show?

Here’s as good a guess as any – it just might be the food.

Leave the diet at home

A Route 66 outing is readily fueled by diner food from surviving eateries and roadhouses still patronized by locals and through-trippers. On such a hallowed road, it seems almost sacrilegious to eat anywhere else.

Breakfast choices abound, from eggs and fresh-ground sausage, to biscuits and gravy, to sticky buns the size of softballs.

For lunch, there’s the ubiquitous, all-American hamburger, gloriously resting between the halves of a steamed white bread bun, accompanied by bad-for-you French fries, milkshakes, or malts.

At dinnertime, there’s homemade meatloaf and real mashed potatoes, steaks, and all manner of barbecue. Don’t forget a slice of pie or cake that would make your granny jealous.

The estimated toll? As best we could figure, about two pounds per state, or one belt notch per trip.

I sampled that fare on a recent run between the Springfields – from the one in Illinois to the one in Missouri. It was a trip that consumed one night on the road, 300 miles of the route, and about 6,000 calories, give or take.

Diners and diversions in Illinois

We managed to make it almost an hour from our southbound start before pulling over at Litchfield, Ill., for breakfast at Jubelt’s, a Route 66 staple since before there was a Route 66. The bakery/restaurant, originally in Mount Olive, Ill., has been serving its remarkable selection of pastries and jellies since 1922.

The day we visited, several farmers were drinking coffee and talking business. The breakfast sausage was so fresh we thought one of them might recognize it.

Touring the Mother Road (so-named by author John Steinbeck in the Grapes of Wrath) is not all driving and eating. At the Litchfield Museum and Route 66 Welcome Center, literally just behind Jubelt’s, we were lucky enough to get a tour from one of its founders, Martha McHenry Jackson, who explained that the road just outside was the 1930–40 corridor of Route 66.

The variations on the route may not occur to the armchair traveler, but they become very real to those who run the pavement. Particularly through larger cities, there are alternate routes aplenty, some of them confusing. Motorists are advised to arm themselves with maps from the Route 66 associations in the states they traverse. Some are downloadable from the association web sites; some are available on old-fashioned paper. The best of them give color-coded variations where Route 66 has followed more than one path.

In nearby Mount Olive, we visited the memorial for labor leader Mother Mary Jones erected by “her boys” who worked the coal mines. Jones, who died in 1930 at 93, was imprisoned several times and once described on the floor of Congress as “the grandmother of all agitators.”

Memorial visiting can be hungry work, so we eased into Hamel, Ill., for lunch at Weezy’s, a low-slung bar and grill that has been a part of this Madison County village since the 1930s. Weezy’s does the humble hamburger proud.

Slow down through the Show-Me State

Travelers won’t go hungry in Missouri, either. We had a belt-busting lunch the next day at Missouri Hick Bar-B-Q in Cuba, Mo., lured in by the same billboard magic that made us stop at Meramec Caverns in Stanton, about 30 minutes northeast. Billboards are an integral part of the road art and lore of Route 66.

The billboards help orient travelers, but it’s still wise to allow extra time to get from point to point. Better yet is to have no schedule at all.

These were key themes and philosophies of a couple of Mother Road veterans.

Tommy Pike, 73, of Springfield, Mo., is the president and a founding member of the Missouri Route 66 Association. He grew up mere feet from Route 66 (Kearney Street) during its heyday.

“People think you can drive from Chicago to LA in two weeks, and probably you can, but you can’t spend as much time as you need to absorb things,” Pike said. “I like to get out and look at stuff.”

And what stuff there is to look at. There’s the World’s Largest Rocking Chair at Fanning, Mo., or maybe Redmon’s (World’s Largest Gift Store) in Phillipsburg, Mo.

Jane Dippel of St. Louis County has belonged to the Missouri association almost as long as Pike, but probably has long passed him in Route 66 miles.

Since the club’s 1989 founding, Dippel, a retired corrections employee, has driven the route every year from St. Louis to California. Sometimes she drives alone, sometimes with other enthusiasts. Riders have to be OK with her pace.

“I’m easy to get along with,” Dippel said, “but I am somewhat eccentric. I know the road so well now and I like to stop.”

Dippel can rattle off the names of diners and gas stations in obscure towns four states away. She knows which vintage motels are clean and affordable (she recommends the Munger Moss in Lebanon, Mo.) and which to avoid. She knows where the curious, one-of-a-kind attractions are. She also knows what keeps bringing her back.

“I think it’s because it goes through so many different landscapes, towns, cultures – you name it. You go from trees to the deserts. And then we’re in Santa Rosa (New Mexico) and it’s a beautiful little town.

“The people are wonderful. I’ve been in motels where there are groups from other countries and they’re trying to ask questions but they don’t speak English. Eventually we communicate what they need to know,” she said.

Route 66 is two lanes in many places, four lanes in others. It dictates a slower, gentler tour that almost forces travelers to really see what they are passing.

“With me, it definitely is nostalgic,” Dippel says. “With the younger people, it’s just the romance of the road. With me, well, I have a romance with it, too. I love it.”

Patrick Martin is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.

July/August 2016 Issue

BEFORE YOU GO

For more information, visit www.il66assoc.org or www.missouri66.org.

Pick up a Route 66 map at your nearest AAA service office. You also can make hotel reservations and get TripTik® Travel Planners and TourBook® guides.

Order free information about Illinois and Missouri through the Free Travel Information Card found online.


 

Check out events along Route 66

  • The Missouri History Museum, 5700 Lindell Blvd., in St. Louis, Mo., opened its exhibit, “Route 66: Main Street Through St. Louis,” on June 25. It features artifacts, photos, and an interactive chance for visitors to drive the road. It runs through July 16, 2017, and is free.
  • AAA Day at the museum will be from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on July 30. Music, children’s activities, vintage cars, and a Midwest RV display will be part of the day. In addition, AAA members can take a guided tour of the exhibit with curator Sharon Smith. Discounts at Bixby’s Restaurant and the gift shop will be available. Info: (314) 746-4599, www.mohistory.org
  • Springfield, Mo., will hold the sixth annual Birthplace of Route 66 Festival & Car Show, Aug. 12–14 in Park Central Square. Info: www.route66festivalsgf.com
  • The Missouri Route 66 Association will celebrate the 90 years of Route 66 with its 27th annual motor tour Sept. 9–11, a three-day event that will go east from Kirkwood, Mo., to the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis on Saturday, and west to Sullivan on Sunday. Info: www.missouri66.org
  • Springfield, Ill., will have its 15th Annual Mother Road Festival, Sept. 23–25, downtown between Washington Street and Capitol Avenue, Fourth and Seventh streets. Info: www.illinoisroute66.org
 

 

Car museum rolls into Springfield, Mo.

The Route 66 Car Museum is set to open this summer in Springfield, Mo. Businessman and avid car collector Guy Mace will open the attraction at 1624 W. College St.

Visitors to the museum will see more than 60 classic cars, including the 1926 Hudson used in the 1939 movie, The Grapes of Wrath.

Mace, who began collecting cars in 1990 as investments, wanted to share his collection by opening the museum.

“I enjoy cars,” Mace said. “I enjoy showing the cars. I think it will be a great boon to Route 66.”

Admission to the museum will be $15, with discounts offered to children and veterans. It is scheduled to open June 15.

 

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