Driving it has been called the ultimate road trip.
Route 66 is known as the Main Street of America, the Will Rogers Highway and the Great Diagonal Way.
Hip travel cats now call it the Mother Road, after author John Steinbeck’s description of the road in chapter 12 of his 1939 novel “The Grapes of Wrath.”
And after over 93 years of improvements, alterations, realignments, decline and eventual decommissioning as an official highway from the U.S. Highway System in 1985, the 2,400-mile experience known as Route 66 continues to attract.
Some say it’s even rallying a comeback among both American and international tourists who refuse to let the Mother Road fade.
Who can explain the timeless fascination?
“I think the allure of Route 66 for most Americans was that it embraced our love of travel and our love of country. It highlighted what a diverse and expansive nation we are,” said Chris Stemper, a neon sign craftsman from West Allis. “At its zenith, you could find diners, motels and attractions all along the route, but they presented themselves uniquely and individually in their natural environment and culture before corporations took over with repetitive structures and signage for their image.”
Stemper has driven the route three times, twice heading west and once heading east. “Heading west was the best,” he said.
Many may associate the road with the American Southwest as it crosses Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and ends in Los Angeles. But Route 66 begins in the Midwest just south of the Wisconsin border in Chicago and travels through nearly a third of the continental U.S.
From Chicago, Route 66 heads southwest through Illinois to St. Louis and past the Gateway Arch, another symbol of westward expansion that was completed nearly 40 years after the route opened.
Route 66 was one of the original highways in the 1926 U.S. Numbered Highway System. It predated the faster Interstate Highway System freeways in 1956 that bypassed many small towns.
When Route 66 first opened, it was largely unpaved.
In most states where it travels now, Route 66 is named Historic Route 66, one of the official National Scenic Byways similar to the Great River Road along the Mississippi River. The route is currently being considered in the U.S. Congress to be designated as a National Historic Trail.
Mother of all road trips
After all these years, does the Mother Road really deliver the ultimate mother-of-all road trips?
Stemper thinks so but said it needs to be done right.
“Make sure you stay and eat local and get to know your hosts. It is the personal touch that you will remember most about the trip,” he said. “Remember too, that the route changed around 1937. Be sure to check with a Route 66 website for maps as there are numerous hidden gems less than a mile off the road.”
One local host along Route 66 is Holly C. Barker, proprietor of the Launching Pad Drive-In, home of the 28-foot Gemini Giant in Wilmington, Ill.
“Route 66 found me and saved me. I own a mom and pop diner with a world-famous Gemini Giant statue out front of our restaurant. My partner and I have been very busy restoring our diner over the last year-and-a-half. Our plans are to travel the route this winter,” she said.
According to Barker, both history and renewal can be found along the road.
“There is an American Renaissance happening,” explained Barker. “Americans are remembering who we are, and Route 66 represents so much of what America is really about. Innovation, a road to a better life during the Dust Bowl in the ‘30s, America’s love affair with cars and the open road, the Mother Road’s ability to heal, the mom and pop small town America that foreign tourists love to see. It reminds them of the America they knew from World War II when good versus evil was clearly defined.”
The highway has been immortalized in American culture, literature, movies and art, especially after songwriter Bobby Troup wrote the classic rhythm and blues song “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” in 1946. It was subsequently sung by heavy hitters Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, The Andrew Sisters, Chuck Berry, The Rolling Stones, Depeche Mode and John Mayer, among others (some claim Chuck Berry’s rendition was the best).
“Route 66 represents so much to so many and there’s many different reasons why. Car enthusiasts, those that crave Americana living history, those taking a journey to heal from life’s experiences, and those who just love an open road adventure are all reasons why Route 66 has so much to offer,” Barker said.
She imagines hundreds of thousands of visitors have stopped over the decades to snap photos with the Gemini Giant that originally appeared in 1965 and was redone in May 2019.
“He actually looks like he’s standing taller and prouder since his restoration. He was in bad need of fiberglass repair and needed a paint job,” Barker said.
As for her Launching Pad Drive-In, the food is reflective of regional favorites such as their Famous Chicago Hot Dog and Italian Beef Sandwich.
Comfort food is typical with Route 66 restaurants, many of which have been restored.
Farther south in Atlanta, Ill., is The Palms Grill Café, a glorious throwback that’s recently been revitalized and reopened. It features home cooking and from-scratch pies served on heavy, ceramic china. The menu features a horseshoe sandwich, a regional favorite not well known outside central Illinois. The horseshoe is an opened-faced hamburger patty (or ham, pork or Buffalo chicken) on toasted bread topped with French fries and cheese sauce. It’s considered a local version of Welsh rarebit and originated in nearby Springfield, Ill., also on Route 66.
Route 66 highlights
Here’s some Route 66 highlights and tips, particular while motoring the Midwestern corridor:
- Research the route before you embark as it can be disconnected or unclear in areas. Route 66 signs are often stolen, which only adds to the confusion. About 85% of the total road remains navigable.
- Consult a Route 66 social media group such as Historic Route 66, Route 66 Navigation, Driving Route 66 and Route 66 News. Many have websites as well offering event calendars, books, maps, Route 66 “passports,” photo galleries and links.
- Time your trip to Midwestern events coming up this summer, such as the Lincoln’s Festival on Route 66 in Bloomington, Ill., July 19-21; Joliet Blues Festival in Joliet, Ill., Aug. 10; Birthplace of Route 66 Festival in Springfield, Mo., Aug. 9-10; and Route 66 Yard Sale: 100 Miles of Treasure in Devils Elbow, Mo., Aug. 2-3.
- Visit the Illinois Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum in Pontiac, Ill., showcasing plenty of artifacts, memorabilia and the world’s largest Route 66 shield mural.
- Listen to Route 66 playlists found online as you cruise. Good selections include “Free Fallin’” by Tom Petty, “Life is a Highway” by Rascal Flatts, “Born To Be Wild” by Steppenwolf and, naturally, “Route 66” by Chuck Berry.
Jennifer Rude Klett is a Wisconsin freelance writer of history, food, and Midwestern life. Contact her at jrudeklett.com.
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Route 66, the mother of all American road trips, begins in the Midwest
Source: Read Full Article