On Route 66

Ooh yeah, this was my original dream, Route 66… I’ve always seen myself traveling the 66 in the middle of the desert and stopping at an old-school diner in the middle of nowhere… It’s a bit different on the strip from Chicago to St Louis. Illinois is a farming landscape, and 66 businesses almost a thing of the past. It’s actually quite desolating, a major piece of American history disappearing more each year. The Mother Road began to be built in 1926, realignments and improvements were made later, especially in the 40s, to suit the high traffic. It used to be called “Bloody 66”, the original road had no speed limit and 90-degree turns. Plenty of “mom and pop” businesses opened to accommodate the travelers: gas stations, diners and motels. Some general stores started by putting gas pumps at the front while some gas station started offering food. Other businesses were popping everywhere, and to win customers each were creating memorable signage making the road 66 a more famous and touristic drive. It all died off with the laying of the interstate highways in the 70s and the rise of nationwide chains.

To do the drive I downloaded someone’s Google Map to follow the original road as accurately as possible and see more than what brochures suggest. The map was created in 2015 but a lot of the places have closed or been demolished. There is truly nothing much left. It’s gone to the stage where little towns reconstitute old gas stations for the tourists to see. It’s kinda like the Great Barrier reef, if you don’t go see it now, whatever that’s left will be gone in a few years.

When there’s an original business still running and looking much like the old days it’s really satisfying though, a local piece of history that’s surviving globalization. We got a milkshake at the Polk-a-dot (1956), a beer with Trump voters at Cafe Luna (1924), a big meal for $7 at the Eat-Rite diner (1970) and a corn dog at the Cozy Dog (1949). This last one was founded by Ed Waldmire, father of Bob Waldmire, the famous hippy artist and lover of road 66. He lived his life traveling the Mother road and selling his art on the way. He was driving a VW combi and was the inspiration behind the combi in Pixar’s “Cars”. The studio contacted him to ask to name the combi “Waldmire”, Bob agreed, but when he received the contract he discovered it would also be used for toys in McDonald’s Happy meals. The vegetarian had strong ethics and turned down thousands of dollars. Pixar named their combi “Fillmore” instead. In winter Bob Waldmire was staying in a ghost town in Arizona, he had bought a 1966 (of course!) school bus that he converted in a comfy home. He was living out of rain water, solar panels for electricity and a wood burner for heat. We get to see both vehicles in the town of Pontiac. When Bob was sick his family brought him in the school bus from Arizona to Pontiac on road 66. The bus was so heavy they drove at 60km/h maximum. The artist died of cancer in 2009 but leaves great art, stories and a contribution to the legacy of road 66.

Note that Illinois was home to Abraham Lincoln, he was a lawyer in Springfield and he is buried there.