Illinois

 

    

 

 

    

Day 3

This was the big day; driving into the beast: Chicago, Chi-Town, The Big Windy, you get the drift.  Also, I would start Route 66 today and try to get as close to St. Louis as possible before the sun set.

I grabbed an Orange Creamsicle Super-Slurpee from a  gas station next to the Super 8 and kicked OGB into gear as Bob sang, “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” an outtake of a song he gave to Nico (of Andy Warhol and Velvet Underground fame) in the sixties.  It can be found on the excellent but overpriced “Biograph” box set.

The traffic to get into Chicago was a nightmare and at one point the four-lane highway turned into one with all the construction that was going on.  I spent the entire drive into the city listening to the double album, “Blonde on Blonde.”  

A little history of Route 66:

Route 66 is known as "The Mother Road" and is one of the most famous highways in America.  It no longer officially exists as the signs were taken down in the 1970's when the four-lane expressways were built to accommodate the increasing West-ward traffic.  But interest has increased since the 1980's, with European and Japanese tourists leading the way, so there are now many books giving specific directions on how to navigate through all the twists and turns, as well as some historic markers put up by each of the eight state governments that Route 66 runs through.

Chicago is usually deemed as the starting point and Los Angeles the end, unless you're from the West Coast and heading East.  Route 66 was first started in 1926 to direct the burgeoning automobile traffic from the trading hub of the Midwest, Chicago, to the largest city on the West Coast, L.A.  It was pieced together from an existing network of streets, roads, and even dirt trails, and in 1938 became the first fully paved link between the Midwest and the West Coast.  It gained national attention when it was immortalized in the 1946 Bobby Troupe song, "Get Your Kicks On Route 66," and became a favorite vacation route for post-war families who could now afford a modest automobile and had the vacation time to discover more of America.  In the 1960's, a popular TV series called, "Route 66" further enhanced the allure of The Mother Road by featuring the cool, Corvette-driving characters of Buzz and Todd who found, "...excitement around every corner."  The romance of the open road and the various weird and wild attractions along Route 66 became cemented in the minds of many baby boomers, who would lead the resurgence of tourism along the route in the late 1980's, after the initial interest of the Europeans, in particular the Germans, who were interested in the classic cars and motorcycles of twentieth century America.

I finally got to Lakeshore Drive and Jackson Boulevard in downtown Chicago.  I was able to park the car and take some pictures of both the view of Lake Michigan and the view down Jackson Boulevard and the start of Route 66. 

Once I got back in the car and started through downtown, I saw a Route 66 sign and took a picture of it from the car while I was stopped at a light.  At this point I was about two blocks from the Sears Tower, so there was no place to get out and take a proper picture.

As I started Route 66, Blonde On Blonde ended and Bob's explosive and controversial 1966 Manchester Free Trade Hall concert came on.  This is the one where a folkie in the audience screams, "Judas!" and Dylan responds by shouting to his band, "Play f**king loud!"  Coincidence?  No, it must have been fate. 

I made it through the heart of Chicago and was heading for Joliet when I passed Lawndale Ave., which was on the map in my Route 66 Guide.  It looked like I had gone too far, so I doubled back and promptly got totally lost.  Then a guy pulled up beside me and told me my right brake light was broken.  This was not exactly the start I had hoped for, but at least he was friendly and pointed me in the right direction.  I later passed the correct Lawndale Ave., not knowing that there were two roads of the same name in the suburbs of Chicago.  Anyways, I finally got going and joined I-55 down to Wilmington where I got off the expressway to make sure I got to see the Gemini Giant outside The Launching Pad Drive Inn Restaurant.  There are numerous giants along Old Route 66 that were once statues of either Paul Bunyan or the muffler man who used to populate the highways of America in the 1950's.  Various towns and businesses bought them second-hand and converted them to different themes that suited the area or business.  The Gemini Giant was the first along the route going westwards, and it was converted to a spaceman with a really cheesy space helmet, and instead of holding his axe, he is holding a nuclear bomb.  Oh, the fifties!  At what other time could you have such optimism and paranoia coexist in one incredibly bizarre roadside attraction?

All along Route 66, there are old general stores and gas stations which have been restored in order to enhance the original character of the highway.  They don't exist as businesses, but do get some small funds from the states to make sure they are kept up, and don't fall again into disrepair.  Local historians are mainly the ones who do this work for little or no compensation, other than the satisfaction of keeping alive a part of their community's history.

After Wilmington, and a few other small towns, Route 66 opens up onto the flat fields of Central Illinois, and after driving on these roads for about two hours, I came to the famous 1932 Standard Oil gas station in Odell.  This was one of the gas stations restored by the Route 66 Restoration Committee in the late 1990's.  I stopped and joined in the brief tour with a busload of seniors that kind of stared at me, wondering why someone as young as I was would care about a gas station from the thirties.  I picked up a magnet and a bottle of 66 Route Beer (get it?) at the gift shop and left elderly tour to shuffle onto their bus as the sun began to bore down on me.

I listened to Dylan’s return to folk on John Wesley Harding and his swing into traditional country with Nashville Skyline.  Hearing his duet with Johnny Cash on Girl From the North Country while driving down the open road next to miles of flat farmland felt perfect. 

I proceeded along the very clearly marked side roads for the rest of the afternoon until I finally reached McLean, IL and the Dixie Truckers Plaza.  I put on my Cutty Whiskey trucker hat in order to fit in and entered the restaurant where I immediately felt out of place.  “You ain’t from around here, are ya boy?”  Maybe it was the fact that I had forgotten to change into my boots and was still wearing my white tennis shoes; not exactly the kind of footwear that featured prominently at a truck stop, let alone a place called The Dixie Trucker Plaza, when we weren't even in the South.  This wasn't just some truck stop either, it was a trucker plaza, and a guy in a Toyota wearing white tennis shoes was just a tourist.  Nonetheless I ordered a grilled ham and cheese and a large Mountain Dew (for the caffeine), before heading out again.

Shortly after McLean, I entered downtown Atlanta, IL to see giant number two.  The city of Atlanta bought a giant Paul Bunyan as well, but to replace his axe, they apparently thought a giant hot dog would be perfect.  It is almost as bizarre as the Gemini Giant, especially since it is located across from city hall.  I guess they’re pretty proud of their hot dogs

I continued on through Springfield and got a little lost due to some absent signage, but got back on track and pulled into Litchfield, IL at about 7pm, making for a 10 hour day.  Bob was singing “Watching the River Flow”, one of the live songs from Greatest Hits Volume 2.  I had suffered through one of Dylan’s low periods with Self Portrait and Dylan, and it was good to hear him get back on track.  I was exhausted and hungry so I checked into a Best Value Inn and went to the famous Ariston Diner which was founded in 1935.  I had a local dish called fried pork tenderloin.  It was pretty good, but it was the ranch dressing at the salad bar which was really exceptional.  The restaurant is on the upscale end for Route 66 but the atmosphere was nice and serene.

After dinner, I walked across Old 66 and some railroad tracks to go to a bar for a few beers.  There were three people in there; me, the bartender and an off-duty cop who kept doing shots and then asking the bartender to cut him off because he had to work the late night shift, before asking for just one more for the road.  The bartender was about 100 years old and took about ten minutes to get each of my beers so I only had two and then left, walking back across the train tracks in a dark sky, filled with stars, the likes of which I hadn't seen since I last went camping.  It was a quiet end to my first day on Route 66.

 

Day 4

I got up at 9am, put on my Team USA Landon Donovan t-shirt and then spent the next two hours watching the U.S. soccer team play like crap and lose to Ghana 2-1, effectively eliminating them from the Round of 16.  So I was starting out late and slightly depressed as well as anxious because I had to navigate my way around St. Louis.  Bob was singing, “When I Paint My Masterpiece” from Greatest Hits, Volume 2.  The two guide books that I had both suggested skipping the older Route 66 that goes through the middle of the city because there’s some rough neighborhoods, and that was fine with me, so I took the later, 1950’s route around the city.

Right before St. Louis though, while still in Illinois I stopped and got some pictures of The Luna Café (founded in 1924) which was a big hideout for Al Capone in the thirties when he wanted to get away from all the big city headaches of murder, extortion, and running a huge crime syndicate in the second largest city in America.  The neon sign in front of the café has a cocktail glass and the owners used to light up the cherry to let passersby know when the brothel was open for business.

  Prologue