I left Champaign-Urbana this morning, and wanted to make up as much time as I could. So I hopped onto I-74, heading due west towards Bloomington. I popped the Beatles “Hard Day’s Night” CD into the car, as the drab flat landscape and cloudy sky could have put anyone to sleep without those harmonizing Liverpudlians. In fact, when “Hard Day’s Night” was done, I decided to put in the “Beatles for Sale” album since I was on an early Beatles fix.
Arriving just outside of Bloomington, I get back onto Old Historic Route 66 – which follows the I-55 as a frontage road, heading due south. So here’s the deal with all these small towns along Route 66. They milk their “historic” heritage for what it’s worth, which drives the gullible tourist like me to stop in every town and check the Americana.Arriving in Atlanta, Illinois, I notice this huge statue of Paul Bunyan. Impressive, but living out in California and having our own up on US-101 in Humboldt County, yeah … it’s been done. I stop into a small cafe to get coffee, and chat with the locals. I ask the waitress if there are good places to eat in Springfield she would recommend. She say, “stick around here for lunch.” Yeah …. Thanks, but no thanks. I have a conversation with a 65-year-old man who regales me with stories about taking Route 66 as a child. When I ask his name, he says: “you won’t believe it … It’s Necessary.”
Necessary conversations, perhaps? Zooming down on Route 66, I put in my Best of Nat King Cole CD that I bought right before leaving. The contrast between the hurry of the Interstate with the open road of Route 66 is incredible, with the train tracks on the left (along with the occasional grain elevator.) I would stop on the roadside more, but it’s so incredibly windy that it’s not pleasant to leave the car. So I continue to drive through many small towns.
Arriving in Springfield, it’s almost lunch – so I’m ready to grab a bite. But my geeky Google-Map directions totally by-passed the heart of town, so I have to retrace my steps. I decide to go to a place mentioned in the Let’s Go Roadtripping guide, because it’s close to the State Capitol.I won’t bore you about Springfield’s historical import. This is my first trip to Springfield since 1992, when I came on an 8th Grade class field trip. I went to Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Chicago, so we were steeped in Lincoln culture and why Springfield mattered. More recently, Barack Obama kicked off his presidential campaign one cold February morning in 2007 in front of the old State Capitol building. I’ll tell you what I discovered that’s new and original- right as I turned onto 6th Street in Downtown Springfield, is the district office of Congressman Aaron Schock (R-IL.)
Aaron Schock is one of those Teabagging Republicans, and what’s crazy is he’s only like 28 years old. I don’t know if he’s gay, but I’ll let you be the judge. It turns out that Springfield is in his district, so I walked into the office. A nice old lady greeted me as I walked in. Rather than be an obnoxious San Francisco homosexual and ask her inappropriate questions about her boss, I just picked up a very helpful “Illinois Route 66” guide that she had on the reception desk. Then, I walked over to the State Capitol, found out the legislature is not currently in session, but went inside to take pictures. You can view all of them on my Facebook page.South of Springfield, Route 66 travelers have two choices – follow the later alignment along the Interstate, or take the original 1920’s alignment along Illinois Route 4 – just a few miles to the west. It wasn’t hard for me to pick which one. As we zoom down Route 4, I occasionally see signs for “Historic Route 66” where you can travel the original 1920’s alignment. At one point, the road is literally made of red bricks – and I decide it’s called the Red Brick Road. I feel like a Munchkin in the Wizard of Oz as Nat King Cole sings in my car: “it’s a Barnum & Bailey world, just as phony as it can be, but it wouldn’t be make-believe if you believe in me.” It was a truly surreal experience with both going on.
As I pass by the small town of Virden, Illinois, I can’t resist but step out and take pictures – as it has an adorable town square, straight out of Back to the Future. Of course, Hill Valley didn’t have a grain elevator in the background like Virden. Further south, I come across Carlinville, Illinois – which has an even more fabulous town square. But I choose not to get out … it’s really awful windy, and I’m trying to make good time to St. Louis.
At this point, I deviate from Route 66 – and take Illinois Route 108 due east towards I-55, so I can re-join the other Route 66 alignment as it passes the towns of Litchfield and Mount Olive. I take Nat King Cole out of the CD drive, and put in the Doors – as the opening organ riff of “Light My Fire” plays as I blast full speed down Route 108.As Route 108 meets the I-55, I get back on Historic Route 66 as it follows the Interstate due south towards St. Louis. In Staunton, Illinois, I notice a curious tourist shop called Henry’s Rabbit Ranch – which sounds interesting. Before I walk in, I suddenly realize that I’ve read about this place because of the sign in the window that says “Sorry, We’re Open.” The shop is the most ecletic collection of Route 66 memorabilia I have ever seen, complete with Rich Henry’s pet rabbits in their cages. I buy a really high-quality Route 66 roadmap, and a CD of Route 66 songs to play later on the trip. As I chat with Rich about my travels, he says: “wow, you’ve done your homework.”
Heading further south, I’ve had enough of the Doors – so I randomly pop in another CD into the car. It ends up being Tom Waitts, and I think: “well, Joe [Eskenazi] would approve.” Tom’s raspy voice to jazz music carries me along as the gray skies and windy weather shows no sign of stopping as I drive through southern Illinois towns like Edwardsville.
Driving to St. Louis, I always think about the Chevy Chase movie National Lampoons Vacation – where the Griswolds arrive late to St. Louis and get lost in a really bad neighborhood late at night. That appears to be what everyone says about St. Louis, but I’m not gonna take Rich Henry’s advice (who’s a St. Louis native) and get on the Interstate. So my plan is to arrive in town when it’s still light out, know where I’m going so I’m not lost, and just keep driving along.As I cross the McKinley Bridge into St. Louis at approximately 5:00 p.m., I can tell it’s a really bad neighborhood. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, and have known my share of inner city decay – but nothing quite prepared me for my first impression of St. Louis. And here’s the ultimate irony: the neighborhood I was driving through was called Hyde Park. But I really fault travel guides who tell Route 66 travelers not to go through these areas. Amid all the boarded up buildings, there were some really beautiful murals painted on the walls. As I head southeast on Florissant Avenue, I see the Gateway Arch of St. Louis right in front of me – which is quite an impressive sight.
I finally check into a Youth Hostel on 12th Street in the Soulard District, a “nice” neighborhood just south of Downtown. Soulard was created as a French neighborhood in the 18th century – and all the buildings are red with narrow streets of cobblestone. Frankly, it reminds me of Georgetown in Washington DC – or Beacon Hill in Boston. And I can totally see why this place could be gentrified. As I mosey down 12th Street, I notice all these political campaign signs to vote “Yes on E” on Tuesday, April 4th – which (oh my God!) is tomorrow. What? I come to St. Louis, the day before an election?
So what is Prop E? It’s an earning tax, that the City’s fiscal health desperately relies on. If Prop E fails, St. Louis will lose one-third of its income. I ask the barflies at Tucker’s Place about it, and they say: “the only people against it are those Tea Party cocksuckers.” Looks like I came to the right bar tonight … Tonight, I’m gonna hit some of the gay bars in the Soulard neighborhood … And if you live in St. Louis, please … remember to vote “Yes on E” tomorrow. Your city’s fiscal health depends on it!!