Illinois - Saturday, March 22, 2008

The morning was cloudy and I looked west with some trepidation, not knowing what the weather promised this day. My first night on the road, though, was comfortable and relaxing, and I was ready for another twelve hours of ambling. My first stop was Shea's Gas Station, where I met both Sheas, father and son. Bill Senior is a D-Day veteran, a little more than 80 years old. His son speaks respectfully of his dad, showing me a container of sand from Utah Beach where is father's feet hit the surf. The Station is a museum of the Shea Family's dedication to the gas business. A container holds Bill Senior's Texaco uniform, complete with bow tie. The younger Bill explained that many servicemen viewed Texaco and similar jobs as merely a change from one uniform to another. The museum includes two buildings filled with decades of bric-a-brac, including a couple of Bell telephone booths. Bill junior explained that Ma Bell once paid businesses like his to keep a telephone booth on their property, until one day the company switched the deal and started charging them. We chatted for a while, moving slowly through the displays, and I was grateful for the chance to talk with folks who are exactly where they want to be. Departing after a while, I thought about how much they charged for the tour: two bucks. It seemed strangely unrelated to the experience. It could have been much more for all I cared, and still worth the price.

Heading southwest through town, I photographed a cool old donut sign and grabbed a quick meal at the Cozy Dog Drive In, home of the corn dog. I remember our first visit here, back in '96, when Jenny and I chatted with Tom Teague, the beloved author whose works inspired me and many others to hit the road for the first time. I've heard that he has since passed on. During this visit, I picked up a copy of David Wickline's Images of 66, a book so jammed with photos that it's practically a mile-by-mile survey of places, signs, and other totems. I'd heard of this book for a few months and, after flipping through a few pages, I'd become convinced. Images of 66, along with McClanahan's EZ66, is all you need for a great trip.

Finishing a tasty cozy dog, I returned to the highway, snapping a shot of Art's Motel, which has been recently refurbished to offer a new and sharply different contrast to those thousands of photos of its hulking, rusting past. I yearned for a snack at Ariston in Litchfield, but arrived a few hours too early, so I settled for poking around nearby motel and diner relics. I paid my respects at the recently revitalized Soulsby Station in Mount Olive and then headed for Henry's Rabbit Ranch in Staunton.

I had no idea what to expect when I arrived and almost two hours later, I wasn't quite sure I could believe what I experienced. Chatting about road history, comparing notes on famous '66ers, wading into politics, and waxing philosophical, Rich Henry and I shared a great conversation, all while enjoying the company of one of his many rabbits, Montana, who is a presidential candidate (sadly left out of the debates). His welcome center looks like an old gas station, but it's a replica. The "Snortin Norton" trucks outside, though, are the real thing, just like the Stanley Cour-Tel motel sign that Rich rescued from oblivion a while back. I'd always wanted to see that sign in its original location near St. Louis but missed my chance. Pulling into Henry's I couldn't believe my luck. There it was! If you ever pass this way on your own travels, make time (and plenty of it) to stop and chat with Rich. Maybe by then he will have completed his commemorative park dedicated to the many bunnies he's helped raise since his daughter decided she'd overestimated her ability to care for the two she started with. Right now the park simply offers grave markers for each rabbit that has passed over the "rainbow bridge." Ask Rich to tell you about that bridge and try not to shed a tear. [Continue...]

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All text and photos copyright Andrew Wood