The 300-mile section of Route 66 angling across Illinois lures road-trippers seeking throwback gas stations, Muffler Men and the pleasure of taking their time.
At a little park in Joliet, Illinois, you’ll find a selection of delights: a roadside path lined with honeysuckle; stands of red birches, white oaks and ash trees casting shade; the Blues Brothers dancing on the roof of an ice cream parlour …
Well, about that. The park sits along Route 66, aka the Mother Road, born in the 1920s and ever since a neon-lit showcase of unique restaurants, quirky motor inns and kitsch. Like most National Scenic Byways, Route 66 today carries travellers more interested in the going than the getting there. The route symbolically begins at Chicago’s Buckingham Fountain and continues for 300 miles southwest through Illinois (or about 435 miles if you take all the original side roads). It crosses the Mississippi outside St. Louis and heads west to Santa Monica, California.
“We get people from all over the United States and overseas, too—Britain, Australia, New Zealand,” Bill Gulas says through the walk-up window of the Blues-Brothers-topped ice cream shop, Rich and Creamy, on Broadway Street in Joliet. “One guy found a Route 66 sign, and he was having everybody sign it.” (Why the Blues Brothers? In the film, Jake served time in Joliet Correctional Center.)
Some autographs may have been noteworthy. At Joliet’s Route 66 Welcome Center, Elaine Stonich admits she once made Paul McCartney move his illegally parked car. “One lady said, ‘Is that who I think it is?’ I said, ‘Yes, but we’re being low-key.’ ”
Low-key isn’t common on this trip headed south from Chicago. In Wilmington, Barbara Siegel-Holmes, Michael Holmes and their two teenage kids scrunch together for a snapshot under a towering fiberglass figure called the Gemini Giant. It’s one of a handful of statues installed roadside, many of them known as Muffler Men, which were used to advertise car repair—though the Gemini Giant dons a space helmet and carries a rocket ship instead of a muffler. “We’ve had people tell us, ‘It’s just a road,’ ” Barbara says. Then she laughs.
A little over 40 miles south, in Pontiac’s town square, 23 vintage-advertising-style murals burst with colourful images of old-time firefighters, trompe l’oeil antique storefronts, historical figures, even an irreverent soda-ad homage to French painter Édouard Manet. Many were created in 2009 by 150 artists called Walldogs.
A big part of the Route 66 fun is the tribe you join en route. Because most people travel at about the same pace, you may run into the same folks over the course of several days—at restaurants, museums and motor inns—and end up swapping tips about must-see statues and diners and sharing stories about your experiences.
Illinois’ stretch of Route 66 ends where the Chain of Rocks Bridge (with its famous 22-degree bend in the middle) crosses the Mississippi River outside St. Louis. Downriver, the Gateway Arch stands, a monument to America’s journey west, marking an iconic route that will still carry you all the way into the past.
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