Illinois - Friday, March 21, 2008

Illinois marks more than the eastern terminus of Route 66; the state is home to some of the highway's most memorable personalities and places. I returned to Route 66 in 2008, a dozen years after our family's first trip to the Mother Road, this time both for academic research and personal relaxation. I arrived under a cloud, though, peering out my airplane window to see depressing dollops of snow smacking onto the tarmac. What had I gotten myself into? My rental car was covered with an inch of snow and I knew I'd better escape the city quickly before the rush hour gridlock commenced. My fortune was choosing Midway Airport, which had not suffered the kinds of delays and cancellations that snarled O'Hare to the north. After picking up a small car with an obnoxiously placed "spoiler" (is there anything more stupid on a car?), I motored toward Joliet where I caught an original alignment of 66. At last, I whispered goodbye to the interstate.

I had developed a detailed city-by-city itinerary of stops gathered from my review of Route 66 websites, books, and other resources (some requested through the mail), augmenting them all with Jerry McClanahan's EZ66 Guide -- a convenient, chatty, and cleverly designed spiral-bound flipbook that helped me select the places I wanted to visit. But unlike most of my previous trips, I made no reservations and bought no tickets for special events. This trip would unfold on its own rhythms, following my bliss in conversations that need not end prematurely, and allowing me to delay my departure if the weather looked frightening. I knew the direction I wanted to go and the time I had to return my rental car. Everything in between was giddily open. I say that literally because I was practically shaking with excitement in the first two hours, buzzing on the freedom of it all, not knowing where I'd sleep that night, or the next, or the next.

As my course drew me further south and west, the weather improved. The snow became sleet, which became rain, which gave way to bumpy, broken clouds, often a sign that sunshine lies ahead. That evening I would see my first peek of sun onto the fields. My first stop was Wilmington's Gemini Giant, one of those famed muffler-men transformed into space age novelty. I'd seen photos of this guy for years, but nothing matches the awesome goofiness of seeing him up close. But that was a quick moment. My first lengthy stop that day was the Odell Standard Oil Gas Station.

This is one of those defunct relics that have been lovingly restored by volunteers with the help of some corporate grant money. When I arrived in town, I quickly got lost and asked a fellow pumping gas if he knew where the Standard Station was. He assured me that where we were, along with one other place I'd passed near the freeway, was the only gas being pumped in these parts. He'd never heard of a Standard station. So I poked around town a bit before finding my way onto 66 again, heading west, and there it was. The Odell Station is crisply painted and marvelously compact. In front sits a white bench that seems like it was useful for folks awaiting a bus that might amble by. I pressed a button for a recorded message, part of which announced:

"The station represents another generation, a time when the pace was a little slower and travel was an adventure. Tens of thousands of people have passed this way before you. Some say that if you sit on the bench and close your eyes, you can sense, even hear the sounds of folks from long ago. It is a magical moment. The excitement of travel, the apprehension of what lies ahead on the ribbon of road known as Route 66. We look back on these old Mom and Pop businesses with respect. Places like this represent real America."

That nation of "real America" interests me. I can hardly imagine this place in its heyday selling Route 66 souvenirs or retelling its history from an automated audio-player. This was not "real" America but hyperreal America, a simulacrum, something even better than the real thing. Seeing these sorts of places, idealized versions of Route 66 on Route 66, constituted the research component of this trip. Like my journey, I had (and still have) a vague destination for this scholarship, but no precise timeline.

Heading toward Lexington, I found another piece of Route 66 simulacra: Memory Lane. The clouds had begun to part and I gazed outward to rays of sun that shone angular planes onto the earth, seeming to select distant farmhouses for celestial glory. West of town I spotted a barrier obstructing auto traffic from a two-lane road that curved away from the highway. Getting out of my car I walked past the obstruction and walked along the lane, a former alignment of 66 bypassed by a newer section of road. The alignment is a miniature version of the highway of America's dreams, billboards for friendly motels, Burma Shave signs, and even benches where would-be motorists can take a break. Walking the curving road, I was alone. I could scarcely hear the traffic beyond the trees. It's quiet and peaceful in this spot, with none of the bumper-to-bumper traffic that clogged the narrow, windy roads of the forties. A few miles west, the people of Towanda have created a similar walkway featuring displays of the eight states through which 66 passes. It's a nice effort, but a little too close to the current road. I prefer the sweeping solitude of Lexington. Later on that night, I stayed at Springfield's Route 66 Hotel & Conference Center, a former Holiday Inn that has been transformed into kind of Mother Road museum. The price? 66 dollars. [Continue...]

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All text and photos copyright Andrew Wood