By Jim Hinckley
It is a time capsule of epic proportions with an overlay of Disneyland and America’s longest attraction for a legion of international enthusiasts. It is iconic Route 66, America’s most famous highway.
From Chicago to Santa Monica this Route 66 renaissance is serving as a catalyst for the refurbishment and restoration of historic motels, restaurants, trading posts, diners, and even gas stations. For the rare businesses that survived changing times, bypass, and an often precipitous decline in revenue this reawakening is the owners reward for patience and perseverance.
To drive Route 66 today is nothing short of surreal, a sensation magnified if you are one of the fortunate ones who make this journey from behind the wheel of a vehicle that rolled from the factory in Detroit, or South Bend, when this old road was still the Main Street of America. This is a literal living, breathing time capsule where you can immerse yourself in the world of the 1960s, 1950s, 1940s, or 1930s without the sacrifice of modern amenities.
Anchoring the eastern terminus of legendary Route 66 is the shores of Lake Michigan and the urban utopia of Grant Park in Chicago. Here, early in the highways history, the crush of traffic necessitated transforming its course into two one way corridors utilizing Jackson and Adams.
Today, both corridors are shadowed by vestiges of the cities rich architectural history,
and landmarks with a long association to Route 66. An example of the latter is Lou Mitchell’s that opened at its current location in 1926, the year of U.S. 66 certification, a restaurant that remains virtually unchanged from the remodel of the 1940s. Even the tradition of providing the ladies with a box of Milk Duds continues as it has for almost a century.
Tarnished architectural gems and tangible links to another time dot the roadside as the course of old Route 66 winds west from the metropolis into Cicero, Berwyn, and Willowbrook. The giant hot dog still beckons hungry travelers to stop at Henry’s, and even though prices have changed a bit since 1938, a hearty meals is still to be found at Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket.
White Fence Farms serves up good food with a touch of whimsy and a generous amount of imagination stirring attractions. In Joliet the marquee of the stunning Rialto Square Theater still casts a glow across Route 66.
In Illinois, the treasures that cast shadows on the legendary double six are a delightful cornucopia of gems from the era of tail fins and Studebakers, the gritty days of the Great Depression, and the Model T. Some even hearken to a time when a circuit riding lawyer named Abraham Lincoln road the dusty trail that would later become the Mother Road.
In Wilmington the Eagle Hotel dates to 1836 and the Launching Pad restaurant with towering Gemini Giant is a roadside landmark from the 1960s. In Springfield, the cities first Holiday Inn masquerades as the Route 66 convention center, and the only home Abraham Lincoln ever owned is just two blocks off of Route 66.
In Litchfield, a landmark from this highways infancy, and another from its renaissance frame a one block section of Route 66. The former is the Ariston Café, a one family owned and operated café in the same location since 1934, and the latter is the Route 66 museum that opened in 2013.
At the Mississippi River, the Eads Bridge (the first structural steel bridge in America that dates to 1874) and other engineering marvels representing more than a century of highway evolution remain as tangible links to an era when U.S. 66 was yet to be bypassed by progress.
In St Louis, vestiges from the 1904 Worlds Fair and an ice cream parlor from the 1940s intermingle with vintage motels and service stations, towering skyscrapers and time worn row houses crowd the course of Route 66 as it winds into Kirkwood and Maplewood. That sets the stage for the journey westward through the Show Me State.
In Eureka a Six Flags amusement park serves as an intrusion of the modern era, and the park at Jensen Point built by the CCC in the Great Depression with its Civil War era gun battery remains a silent monument to dark days. In Cuba the Wagon Wheel Motel again provides a haven for weary travelers since 1936, but now it is also a refuge for those seeking respite from the crush of the modern era.
And so it goes as the westward journey continues. In Lebanon, in the glow of neon that dates to the 1950s, Bob and Ramona welcome guests to the Munger Moss Motel as they have for more than forty years.
The Route 66 Rail Haven in Springfield evolved from simple cabins to a modern auto court by the 1950s. Then time stood still.
At Paris Springs Junction, Gary Turner preserved the past in the form of a 1920s garage built of stone, and crafted its companion station to create a veritable window into roadside America circa 1930. The 66 Drive In Theater in Carthage still shows a double feature on hot muggy summer nights, and from there it is but a short drive to the stunning Jasper County Courthouse with its square embraced by a business district unchanged in a century.
All of this is merely a glimpse of the wonders awaiting discovery on a magical odyssey through Illinois and Missouri on the most famous highway in America. All of this is merely the appetizer for the double six courses through the center of a century old lead mining boom, twists its way through frontier era villages in the former Indian Territory of Oklahoma, and the metropolises of Tulsa and Oklahoma City, before sweeping on to the plains.
Then it runs straight as an arrow across the Texas Panhandle, and through the hearty of dusty Shamrock and McLean, the often overlooked historic heart of Amarillo, the ghost town of Glenrio and down into the broken cap rock country of eastern New Mexico. It is there where the adventure kicks into high gear.
The swirling vortex of the past and present blends century’s old pueblos with hotels from the frontier era, neon lit gems from the glory days of Route 66 with Hollywood treasures, and classic diners with the futuristic in the guise of a Tesla charging station. On the road west through the Land of Enchantment and Arizona, over the Cajon Pass and along Sunset Boulevard, the modern traveler is following the ruts of the Santa Fe Trail and El Camino Real, Beale Wagon Road, Mojave Road, and Spanish Trail.
This old road is more than the Main Street of America; it is an asphalt ribbon that links our ancient history with our future. It is a portal into another time and an amazing expedition that fills the senses. This is Route 66, America’s most famous time capsule.