Route 66 = Everything I Hoped it Would Be So Far

The Route 66 Museum in Pontiac, Ilinois

I’m blogging to you live from The Comity Buzz Coffee House in Pontiac, Illinois (about 100 miles south of Chicago on Route 66), and so far the first place I have found with Free Wi-Fi. I instantly fell in love with the place, when I saw an old upright piano with a handmade sign that said “go ahead … you know you want to play.” I sat down, and played a little Scott Joplin and Debussy … but, oh yeah, the piano is not in good shape. The 17-year-old running the place agreed nonchalantly.

I left Chicago this morning, with my first stop being the start of Route 66 at Michigan and Adams, right in front of the Art Institute. My plan was to meet my old friend Jackson (who still lives in Chicago as a rep for the Teacher’s Union) at 9:30 a.m., get in the car, drop him off at home on the Southwest Side and then continue. I got Downtown a little early, so I parked in the Milennium Park Garage (oy vey … I remember when it only cost $5 to park there for the whole day) and looked around. The Loop has gotten uber-gentrified – with Milennium Park totally transformed from what I remember it as a child. Every trip has its rough patches, and I had one this morning. I got to the Art Institute at 9:30, and proceeded to wait an hour for Jackson – calling every 10 minutes and leaving voice mail.

The Art Institute of Chicago - where Route 66 begins on Adams Street

Jackson finally called at 10:30, very apologetic (his alarm clock didn’t work – it’s Sunday morning, after all.) So we decided to meet up near where he lives on the West Side – at a diner called Bon Bon at Ogden & Ashland. I got into the car, and we met up. He bought me dessert – and we spent an hour talking politics, our frustration with Obama, etc. I probably hadn’t seen him in three years, and it was good to finally catch up.

Route 66 in Chicago follows Ogden Avenue out of town, through much of the city’s depressed West Side. In the book Road Trip USA, Jamie Jensen writes that this part is “really not worth the effort for anyone except the most die-hard end-to-ender.” That’s unfortunate, because even down-and-out places have their poetry – and while much of Chicago has gentrified in recent years, I was struck to see neighborhoods like North Lawndale (where I tutored kids back in high school at the Better Boys Foundation) virtually unchanged from the 1980’s and 90’s.

When I travel alone on these road trips, I always need to have music playing in the car – and I had popped in my new Manhattan Transfer CD as I followed Ogden Boulevard. As they sang the Louis Armstrong favorite “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans” and I looked out at boarded up buildings, it made me think about my trip to the Lower Ninth Ward two years ago – and how thoroughly disgusted I was about the lack of progress in New Orleans. I’m again reminded at how America has done nothing about the urban underclass, as the gap between rich and poor continues to deepen.

Blues Brothers ice cream joint in Joliet - my first "kick" on Route 66.

As many of you know, I had researched extensively for this trip – because Route 66 technically no longer exists, and you need to know where it is. But as Ogden Boulevard turns into Joliet Road and I zoom through the Southwest suburbs of Chicago, there are plenty of brown “Historic Route 66” signs to keep me going in the right direction. That begin said, I don’t regret the obsessive hours I spent Google-mapping Route 66, as I have print-outs for each day’s journey in my car to follow along. As Joliet Road disappears onto I-55, I put in the “Big Chill” CD soundtrack to get me going on the Interstate.

But I’m not on the Interstate for long. Just a few miles later, I exit on Route 53 towards Joliet – as the scenery changes to more and more farmland. A few blocks north of Downtown Joliet, I find my first “kick” on Route 66 – an amusing ice cream joint with life-size statues of the Blues Brothers – Ellwood and “Joliet” Jake – on the rooftop. I look forward to more such amusement as I drive to L.A. I’d never been to Joliet, and it seems like a good town – but I’m not inclined to stop right now. I’d rather keep going a little further – my mother made me a sandwich this morning for lunch, and I haven’t eaten it yet. I want to figure out a good place to stop …

The Gemini Giant in Wilmington, IL

A few miles south of Joliet, I get my wish – seeing a huge statue of the Gemini Giant – outside of the Launching Pad, a small Route 66 restaurant in Wilmington. I’d buy one of their famous sandwiches, but I have one already – so I go inside and order a Coke. I ask the nice lady if it’s okay to eat my mom’s sandwich inside the restaurant, and she says I can. So I rest up, and enjoy the nostalgic 1950’s statue. Sadly, they don’t have Wi-Fi in the restaurant.

As I said, Route 66 is pretty easy to follow down here – and every single town along the way tries to milk their connection to the Mother Road. In Gardner, Illinois, I see signs for an old historic 2-cell jailhouse – so I decide to pay a visit. When I get there, you can press a button and hear a voice-over describing the jailhouse, and how it used to house “hobos” who would travel across the country during the Great Depression. It was kitschy and cute, but kind of sad that this was the main attraction in Gardner. Frankly, I found their Route 66 sign featured below to be far more memorable.

Now, Route 66 follows the Interstate – and I put in Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits. Normally when I’m alone in the car, I would be singing along at the top of my lungs to the music. But I have a sore throat, so I quietly drive down the road as I listen to the music – and frankly, I’m perfectly satisfied doing that right now. As Art Garfunkel soars his beautiful tenor voice in Bridge Over Troubled Water, I have the Interstate on my right – and the train tracks on my left. And of course, the Illinois prairie – as flat as can be.

Finally, I should add what has been by far my biggest surprise today. It is awful WINDY!!!! today, you would think you were in the Texas Panhandle. I’ve heard Van Jones speak about how the American Midwest can be a “Saudi Arabia” of wind power to free us from foreign oil, and he’s absolutely right. In fact, as I pass Odell I see quite a few windmills powering up the open countryside. I stop at a kitschy old gas station in Odell, and talk to the manager. Without mentioning Van Jones by name, I ask her what she thinks about the wind power in central Illinois being a way to combat the insane gas prices we’re facing. She doesn’t disagree with that assessment, so I buy a Route 66 mug from her …

BY THE WAY – I took a *lot* more photos from Chicago to Pontiac than the ones you see here. You can view the rest of them on my Facebook page.

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3 Responses to “Route 66 = Everything I Hoped it Would Be So Far”

  1. Alan Cottrell Says:

    great start. look forward to more!

  2. Route 66 Day Seven: Entering the Vast Southwest … « Paul Hogarth’s Personal Blog Says:

    […] Gas Station in Vega, TXAs I wrote the other day, Van Jones has said we have a real “Saudi Arabia” of wind power that can be harnessed […]

  3. My Top Ten Insights from Traveling Route 66 « Paul Hogarth’s Personal Blog Says:

    […] was largely unnecessary – as the Land of Lincoln does a great job promoting Route 66. Every town milks its connection to the Mother Road in the most ridiculous way – from the Gemini Giant in Wilmington, to the old […]

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