Route 66 Day Nine: Entering Arizona …

April 12, 2011

Me at the Petrified National Forest

While you could definitely travel Route 66 eastbound from Los Angeles to Chicago (as opposed to westbound, which I’m doing), I really don’t see why anyone would want to. Because the further west you go, the more impressive and incredible the vacation is. I finished New Mexico today, and am now blogging to you live from Holbrook, Arizona. And tomorrow, I take a side trip to the Grand Canyon for a couple days – which I’ve never been to, and which I fully expect will be everything I have dreamt about.

I left Albuquerque this morning, and – at New Mexico native Rob’s suggestion (see comments from yesterday), I grabbed breakfast at the Frontier Restaurant. Route 66 is pretty easy to find in Albuquerque – because it is the main drag (Central Avenue), running through the whole city. So after breakfast, I head due west towards the Arizona border.

Rio Puerco Bridge

West of Albuquerque, Route 66 follows the Interstate as a frontage road for several miles. Even though you’re seeing exactly what people on the Interstate are seeing, there’s a wonderful bonus. You can actually stop your car at any time, and take incredible shots – like the ones I took at my Facebook page. And, of course, you have small local surprises like the Rio Puerco Bridge – an old (now defunct) segment of Route 66 that I stop and take pictures. Pretty soon, however, I need to get back on the I-40.

I’m now zooming down the Interstate, as the New Mexico scenery starts to take a flat perspective – and I’ve got my CD of University of Oregon On the Rocks playing. OTR is an amazing male acappella group at Eugene that used to come down to Berkeley and perform often when I was there. I harmonize with their songs, as the low hills and yellow sagebrush zoom by. But I yearn to get off the Interstate soon …

By sheer luck, the opportunity to get back on Route 66 happens just as my favorite track on the On the Rocks CD starts playing: Ave Maria. The soaring vocals and tenor harmonies inspire me, as I meander slowly through the almost-gravel roads in the New Mexico desert. Pretty soon, Route 66 follows New Mexico state road 124 – but there are still very few souls around – as I jump at every opportunity to stop the car and take a shot of the scenery. This is a flatter section of New Mexico than yesterday, but it’s still spectacular nonetheless.

As I arrive in Grants, it’s almost noontime – but I don’t feel rushed to get lunch. But I see a small Western gear store, and think – while my cowboy gear is complete, there’s one thing I don’t have just yet. Every cowboy has two hats – a felt hat to keep you warm before Easter, and a white straw hat for the summer to keep you cool. The hat I bought in Amarillo, TX was a felt one and should serve me well – but there have been times in the car where it’s been so hot, that I regret not buying a straw hat. In Grants, a storekeeper is selling them for $15. It’s just too good of an offer to refuse.

My new straw hat from Grants, NM

I figure I can wait until Gallup to have lunch, so I hop back into my car and head due west. With the open road, now is the perfect time to play the Pulp Fiction soundtrack – as I sing along to the iconic film clip of my High School generation.

After a few miles, I come up to the village of Thoreau (as in Henry David) – but the locals pronounce it “thru.” I debate on whether to stop there for lunch, but wonder if it will be another one of these small depressing Route 66 towns. But the Pulp Fiction soundtrack is playing “Lonesome Town,” and Bobby Darin’s haunting voice convinces me to turn right and check out Thoreau. I pass by the Wagon Wheel Cafe, which does not look very inviting on the outside. But as I walk in, I see it’s a local Mexican favorite – and order a beef burrito for lunch. Seriously … they put all those taquerias in the Mission District to SHAME there. I compliment the waitress, as I leave Thoreau with a full stomach.

The Continental Divide - between Grants & Gallup, NM

Going towards Gallup, right before having to get back on the Interestate I cross another important Route 66 landmark: the Continental Divide. It is here that all rivers going west end up into the Pacific Ocean, and all rivers going east end up into the Atlantic Ocean. And by chance, I run into the same English couple who was having lunch at the Midpoint Cafe in Adrian, Texas – and they oblige by taking a photo of me in front of the sign. All things considered, however, most of what we have at the Continental Divide is incredibly tacky and touristy – and I am eager to get back onto the Interstate to get to Gallup. After all, Gallup New Mexico is one of the towns listed in Bobby Troup’s iconic song, Get Your Kicks On Route 66.

I didn’t really know what to expect in Gallup, besides grabbing a cup of coffee. When I arrived downtown, however, I found a pleasant surprise: an impressive museum on Navajo History, run by a non-profit that assists the poverty stricken community with basic services such as health care and education. All proceeds in the museum gift shop go to help their programs, so I decided to plunk down $100 and buy an authentic Navajo kachina doll.

An installation of Kachina Dolls at the Navajo Museum in Gallup, NM

It goes without saying that what this country did to the Native Americans was genocide. We all learned in school about the Trail of Tears, how thousands of Indians were deported to Oklahoma – only to take that away from them 60 years later. But the truth is even worse: Adolph Hitler was so inspired by the Trail of Tears, that he studied it while developing the Nazi Holocaust. Meanwhile, the Navajo Museum had an informative movie on the Navajo “code-talkers” who used their dialect to transmit secret codes to win World War II. As I leave Gallup, Route 66 west of town is full of trailer homes. It really puts things into perspective, about what the white man has done over the centuries here.

Leaving Gallup, I put the White Album in my CD player – for no reason except that I haven’t listened to the Beatles since somewhere in Illinois. West of Gallup, Route 66 follows both the Interstate and the railroad tracks – while the magestic landscape of yellow New Mexican sagebrush meets the red Arizona rock. It is quite a sight to see, as the road meanders due west to the Arizona border.

Petrified wood at the Petrified National Forest

When I cross the state line, I get a pleasant surprise. Arizona, for some reason, does not have Daylight Savings Time – so it’s 2:30 p.m. (not 3:30 p.m.), which means I will have PLENTY of time to see the Petrified National Forest before it closes at 6:00 p.m. Just like the Grand Canyon, a government shutdown would have precluded my ability to visit the Petrified Forest – so I drive on the Interstate and get there at 3:30 p.m. Route 66 goes right through the Petrified National Forest, which makes it a must-visit when you’re taking this route. I won’t really add much to what needs to be said – you can see all the dozens (and dozens and dozens!) of photos I took over at my Facebook page.

It’s possible to drive through the whole park in less than 45 minutes. But with the extra hour, I just couldn’t help myself – I stayed there for 2 1/2 hours (until the park closed at 6:00 p.m.) And to be perfectly honest, I could have stayed even longer. It was one of the most peaceful and spiritual experiences I’ve had on this trip. There really is something about standing all alone on a cliff and shout “ECHO!” – only to hear your voice travel through the park.

Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, AZ

I’m now spending the night in Holbrook, Arizona – which is just 20 miles west of Petrified National Park. And here’s the best part: I’m sleeping in a wigwam tonight – at the world famous Route 66 landmark, the Wigwam Motel. Each teepee has its own bed, TV, shower and toilet – but no Wi-Fi connection. Which is why I’ve been here at Butterfield’s, a local steak house two blocks away, where I’ve had dinner. And the waiter has been most patient, as I sit here for two hours uploading all my photos and blogging about my trip. I’m really excited about going to the Grand Canyon tomorrow!!


Route 66 Day Eight: Enchanted by the Land of Enchantment

April 11, 2011

A mural in Tucumcari, NM

I’m just going to come out and say it. On my trip so far, New Mexico has been by far the most beautiful state. I know completely understand why artists, lesbians (and I’m sure lesbian artists!) have been flocking to the Land of Enchantment – as the natural beauty of its landscape will inspire anyone. Today was also a special day for me, because I bought the final installation of my real Western cowboy gear: a bolo tie!! I now have boots from Kansas, a Steston hat from Texas and a bolo tie from New Mexico.

I left Tucumcari this morning, after getting my tires checked for their air. Route 66 west of town is not safe, so I hopped onto the Interstate with R.E.M. blasting in the stereo. The scenery was quite spectacular with mountains and brushweed in the distance, as I sang along to songs like “Losing My Religion” and “Shiny Happy People.” Near the village of Cuervo, I exit the Interstate to take an old segment of Route 66 that guidebooks were raving about. Now keep in mind that yesterday I had some pretty rough gravel to deal with west of Glenrio. But with my tires in good shape, I decide to risk it – and because I’ll be driving slowly, I switch R.E.M. for some Leonard Cohen.

Old Route 66 south of Cuervo, NM

The next few miles was the most rewarding and beautiful part of my trip so far. I was going 25 miles an hour, not because I really had to – but because I wanted to. I had the whole place to myself, as Leonard Cohen’s mellow bass voice echoed throughout the car. As the car made its slow trip along the old road, I saw two deer – and about six cows – strolling along the road. You even have birds laying down on the asphalt because no one’s around, only to have them fly away when they hear a car coming. Going that slowly and being in touch with nature made me realize how far away I really was from everything, but I had this amazing sense of feeling totally safe and comfortable. This was not the Texas Panhandle – it was the desert prairie of New Mexico, and nothing wrong can happen here. I really encourage you to see all the photos I took on my Facebook page.

As I approach the city of Santa Rosa, it’s 11:00 a.m. – too early for lunch, but I can still stop to buy a bolo tie. Well, the town was deader than a doornail. It’s Sunday, and almost everything closes down in New Mexico. But even on other days, Santa Rosa looks like it wouldn’t have much to offer. So I stop for gas, and then take Route 84 – which will take me north towards Santa Fe. Rather than the straight drive to Albuquerque, I’m doing the scenic route.

Las Vegas, New Mexico

I put my Paul Simon “Graceland” CD into the car stereo, and drive up the scenic route towards Santa Fe – singing along happily with the hills and brushweed surrounding me. By 12:30, I’m close to Las Vegas. Las Vegas is not technically on Route 66, but it’s only a few miles away – and I’m curious to see what New Mexico’s namesake to the Gambling Den is like. And besides, it’s time for lunch.

I arrive in Las Vegas, and am enchanted by the town square and historic architecture. I stop at a traditional New Mexican restaurant called La Casa de Loera, and chat with Mike the waiter. I ask him where I can buy a nice bolo tie in town, and he says there’s a great store in town called Tito’s where they make their own jewelry.

Me and my bolo tie!!

But it’s Sunday, and Tito’s is closed – as are most other places in town. So at the restaurant owner’s suggestion, Mike looks up Tito’s number in the phone book, and asks him if I can come over to the store and buy a bolo tie. Tito says that his wife Mary is over at the store right now – even though they’re closed. Mike walks me to the store.

I should add that I never asked Mike (or Tito) to do any of this for me. But this is what New Mexican culture is like – so friendly and down-to-earth. I walk into the store, and Tito’s wife Mary is there to greet me. “You want a bolo tie,” she says – as she shows me a couple of their hand-made wares. I really like the turquoise one, and she offers me a $25 discount for it. Then, she indulges my request to take a picture of me in my new bolo tie. She suggests we take it in front of a painting of the Las Vegas landscape.

I walk out of the store totally pleased, because now I have my Western gear complete. And I didn’t have to wait until I got to Santa Fe to buy a bolo tie, just to get conned by some tourist trap. “Santa Fe is overrated,” says Mike. Before leaving town, I check my e-mail – and see that my friend George (who I hung out with back in Oklahoma City serendipitously) commented on my Facebook status: “stop listening to your CD’s and put on the radio … New Mexico radio is awesome!” I keep that in mind, as I get back into my car.

Pecos National Park

From Las Vegas to Santa Fe, Route 66 follows the Old Santa Fe Trail – which is steeped in its own history. As I follow the road amid the hills and forests, I think about how this trail was used by the Pueblo Indians, the Spanish Conquistadors and the U.S. army in 1846 who invaded Mexico to start the Mexican War. All the while, I have found a great radio station to listen to – Radio Free Santa Fe, which prides on its local independence.

A few miles away, I am in Pecos. That we don’t have a government shutdown doesn’t just mean that I can go to the Grand Canyon next week. It also means I can visit a lot of other national parks in the area – such as Pecos National Monument. Pecos was an ancient Pueblo village, until the Spaniards discovered it in 1581 and tried to convert everyone to Christianity. The park allows a beautiful tour through what are both old Pueblo ruins – as well as an ancient Spanish church that was later demolished. I take 45 minutes walking through the area, as I reflect on what has happened to this part of the world. But I don’t have much time … really want to get to Santa Fe.

Historic Plaza in Santa Fe

I’ve been to Santa Fe once before – when I was in High School, and on vacation with my family. And I remember it as a fun historic place, with a Plaza in the center. I was quite disappointed this time – the Plaza is nice with its historic adobe architecture. But the stores are all over-priced tourist traps, or uber-gentrified places like Sotheby’s. And at 4:00 p.m., the Plaza had nothing but homeless street kids – which reminded me of Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, or Haight-Ashbury. I can see how as a 17-year-old, I would have thought it was cool. At 33, however, I’ve grown tired of that scene.

But I don’t want to trash Santa Fe – because I was only there for an hour. I will vouch, however, that the people are really nice. When the parking attendant (two blocks from the Plaza) learned I would only be there for an hour, he didn’t charge me – “just as long as you leave by 10:00 p.m.” And when I ordered coffee at a nearby bar, I didn’t have the cash – and the bartender refused my offer to pay with a debit card. That’s what New Mexico is like. Everyone here is so nice and laid-back.

Route 66 Hostel in Albuquerque

As I leave Santa Fe and head due south, Radio Free Santa Fe becomes harder to listen to – so I switch around the dial and find an Albuquerque station that plays ”
“Generation X” music. The mountains north of Albuquerque are nothing short of amazing, as I zoom down the I-25 with cars hitting 70-80 miles per hour. At Algodones, I exit the Interstate – and takes Route 66, which follows the El Camino Real all the way to Albuquerque.

As I drive along the Camino towards Albuquerque, the mountains lie on my left in all their majestic glory – while I sing along (and laugh) to all these old songs on the radio that hearken back to my 8th Grade and early High School years. The road goes through a couple Indian Reservations, before becoming more and more urban – until I finally reach my destination for the night. I’m staying at the Route 66 Hostel on Central Avenue for the night, which is by far one of the cleanest and most friendly youth hostels I’ve ever stayed at. It’s been another great day …

Route 66 Day Seven: Entering the Vast Southwest …

April 10, 2011

First, let’s start with some good news. Late last night, President Obama cut a deal with the House Speaker on the budget – which means the federal government will not shut down next week. While the terms are probably terrible (Democrats always negotiate against themselves, because they’re pathetic), in the short term this is great news – because now I can go to the Grand Canyon. Of the 3 things that could go wrong on this trip, so far I’m scoring 2-0. I also had fun last night visiting Amarillo’s gay bars, spending most of my time at Sassy’s – which has karaoke on Friday nights.

This morning, I just had one thing to do before leaving Amarillo: buy a cowboy hat. I found a nice Stetson at Cavender’s – a great Western gear store, where the clerks were all very helpful. They had a special on belt buckles, so I got one too. As you can tell, I’m gradually changing my wardrobe. I got cowboy boots right before Oklahoma, a cowboy hat and belt buckle in Texas and my goal tomorrow is to buy a bolo tie in New Mexico!

Cadillac Ranch - just west of Amarillo

For the rest of Texas, Route 66 is a frontage road just along the Interstate – so I head due west to my first stop: world-famous Cadillac Ranch. In 1974, a group of artists set up this installation of ten Cadillacs – buried half-way into the ground, with spray paint all around them. I was all excited about my new Stetson hat and was ready to show it off, but as I stepped out of the car by the ranch it was WINDY!!! This is the Texas Panhandle – and with nothing but flat countryside for miles around, this part of the country is famous for its wind. So I leave my hat in the car, and head towards the ranch.

Cadillac Ranch looks a bit anti-climactic from the road, but as you walk towards it (with the wind beating feverishly into your face), it is quite amazing. It’s appropriate that these cars are all nose-dived into the ground like a burial, as the automobile is not a sustainable mode of transportation for the 21st Century. I took a lot of photos on my Facebook page to capture the feeling of it all, but believe me – the wind did not make it very easy.

I leave my mark on Cadillac Ranch

Visitors are allowed – perhaps even encouraged – to bring spray-paint, and contribute to the artwork on Cadillac Ranch. As I speak to a group of French tourists who are there, I notice that someone left a yellow spray-can on the ground. Naturally, I can’t resist – and, while struggling with the wind, manage to write “PAUL WAS HERE” on one of the Cadillacs. Not original, I admit … but I couldn’t think of anything clever. It’s truly amazing that a world-famous landmark like this allows anyone to come up and spray-paint it.

I get back into the car, and head due west on Route 66. I don’t have a very wide selection of country music, but I pop in the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?. As the bluegrass tunes swell in the car, I look around the flat expanse of land and realize how I am truly in the middle of nowhere. This isn’t like Illinois, where you’re never far from a small town. In the Texas Panhandle, you’re the only person for miles. And my GOD is it windy out here!

Magnolia Gas Station in Vega, TX

As I wrote the other day, Van Jones has said we have a real “Saudi Arabia” of wind power that can be harnessed to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. I see a few windmills, but not nearly as much as we could use. Ironic how Texas, whose Panhandle could be the answer to our energy problems, is so fixated on drilling more oil.

Pretty soon, I stop in Vega … a small town of 800 people that has made a good effort to prop up its Route 66 landmarks. There’s a beautifully restored gas station, that has been around since before the road was even commissioned in 1926. But all in all, the town is pretty dead … Not much reason to stick around here for long. Adrian, Texas is only a few miles away – and I’d like to stop there for lunch.

Adrian, Texas - the middle of Route 66

Adrian has even fewer people (less than 200), but it’s a famous Route 66 landmark for being exactly halfway between Chicago & Los Angeles. And there’s a great restaurant called the Midpoint Cafe, so I go in to have lunch and celebrate a milestone on the journey. Cristina the waitress is very nice, and I order their “signature pie” – a very rich chocolate pie with ice cream all over it. We chat about how many tourists come here, as a British couple is eating lunch at a booth nearby and I end up buying a coffee mug from the giftshop. After lunch, I ask Cristina to step outside and take a photo of me by the sign.

West of Adrian, the guidebooks say you must get back on the Interstate – so I get off the frontage road and onto I-40. Almost immediately, the scenery quickly changes from flat plains to lush vegetation. We’re still in Texas for another 20 miles, and it’s still very flat – but it’s definitely starting to look a lot like New Mexico.

Glenrio - a ghost town

Right at the border, I exit the Interstate at Glenrio. Just like Texola (which I visited yesterday), the guidebooks all say it is a ghost-town. I would say that Glenrio was even more depressing than Texola. I did not see a person, and only heard a few dogs barking when I stopped to take pictures. Abandoned buildings are everywhere, and a faded sign that advertised the last motel in Texas is a shell of itself. Like so many Route 66 towns, Glenrio was devastated by the Interstate – and never managed to recover. It reminded me a lot of the Disney-Pixar film Cars (which I saw before going on this trip.) It’s worth it to show the following clip from that movie:

Now I’m off the Interstate, and I take Route 66 through Glenrio as the O Brother soundtrack comes to an end. At the New Mexico border, the road suddenly turns to gravel – and I’m in a dilemma. Do I keep going, or do I play it safe by going back on the Interstate? I’ve learned that when you’re traversing tough roads and must go slow, I need to put in music that I probably won’t sing along to. So I put in “Every Breath You Take” by the Police.

The road west of Glenrio

The road is rough here, and I’m bumping along at 25 miles an hour. But I see on the map that the next town (San Jon) is not far away. If the road really continues to be this way, I can always get back on the Interstate. For now, I must go slow. It allows me to think more pensively about this trip, as I have the whole place to myself. As the road crosses a few bridges, I think this must be what the Joad Family experienced in the Grapes of Wrath (which I had read right before going on this trip) – and how much tougher traveling across the country would have been back then. As Route 66 gets closer to the Interstate and becomes a frontage road going into San Jon, the road is paved again – and it feels safer to drive on. I later read that after Glenrio became a ghost town, they actually unpaved that part of Route 66 – because it was too expensive to maintain. San Jon is depressing too, but it’s not a ghost town.

One benefit to driving so much yesterday, is that my drive today was relatively short. It’s only about 4:00 p.m, and I’m only one town away from my destination: Tucumcari, New Mexico. Tucumcari is famous for its thousands of motel rooms, so I figured it would be a nice place to spend the night – and do pretty much nothing else.

When I arrive at my hotel, I begin to understand why (despite thousands of rooms in Tucumcari), I truly picked the right place to stay. The Blue Swallow Motel is run by a sweet couple who lives on site, and they have refurbished it to keep its 1930’s charm. Bill shows me my room before checking me in (and makes a point about it), and we talk for a while. I ask him about the Free Wi-Fi that was advertised, and he asks me why it’s important. When I tell him about this blog, he says: “well, in that case I’ll give you Room 12. It’s got the best wi-fi signal, and it’s where my daughter stays when she comes home from college.” Bill & Terri check in on me later in the evening to see if I’m okay, and give me some helpful instructions – like where to go do my laundry this evening. I highly recommend any Route 66 traveler who spends the night in Tucumcari to stay at the Blue Swallow Motel.

Route 66 Day Six: the Long Drive into Texas

April 9, 2011

Route 66 in Western Oklahoma - somewhere between Clinton & Elk City

I’m blogging to you live from the Big Texas Steak Ranch in Amarillo – home of the “Free 72 Oz. Steak.” Well, it’s only free if you can eat the whole thing in less than an hour – and if you can’t, they charge you $72 for the meal. I settled on their 18-ounce steak. It has been a very long drive for me today (longer than any other day on the trip), as I drove from Oklahoma City to Amarillo. I was reluctant to drive that far, and had a contingency plan to stay in McLean, TX. But when you plan these trips, it’s important to think about where you spend the night – and if it’s a fun place with stuff to do. Having seen McLean, I’m now very glad that I opted to drive an extra two hours to Amarillo.

With all the fun from last night, I left Oklahoma City later than expected – as I watched Fox News while munching the hotel’s free breakfast, nervously getting news about a federal government shutdown. If the government shuts down, my reservation to the Grand Canyon will be cancelled.

Oklahoma State Capitol Dome

Before leaving town, I just have one quick trip to make – visit the Oklahoma State Capitol Building, which is right on Route 66 as I head due west. It’s a very impressive building, but my friend Karina told me something about it yesterday that was quite shocking. When they built it 100 years ago, they ran out of money – and couldn’t finish the dome. The state finally completed the dome a few years ago, but had to solicit private donations. So as you look up at the dome, you see the various “sponsors” who helped pay for it – including Phillips Petroleum Company, and (gasp!) Halliburton. I guess it makes sense, though – Oklahoma is completely run by right-wing Republicans, and in 2008 it was the only state where Barack Obama failed to win a single county. But still, it was quite repulsive to see this.

It’s now 10:30 a.m. – and I figure that if I can make it to Amarillo by 7:00 p.m., I’ll be okay. So I head on Route 66 west on a four-lane highway, with the soundtrack to The Commitments playing full blast as I sing along. Pretty soon, however, the scenery becomes flat Oklahoma prairie – and it’s clear that we are entering a whole new part of the state. This place is wide and expansive, and the rest of my trip today will be like that.

El Reno, Oklahoma

After I pass the city of El Reno, Route 66 gets really bumpy and gravelly – and it’s becoming increasingly apparent to me The Commitments is not good music for this trek. I need something more mellow for the difficult road gravel, so I pop in Elton John. At one point, the road deviates – and I’m offered two choices: either the “original historic Route 66” that goes through Calumet, or the “paved Route 66.” Given the time constraint, I reluctantly opt for the paved part of the route.

Finally arriving in Weatherford, I am exhausted – and low on gas. I start wondering how much longer I could take a trip like this, assuming Route 66 keeps going that way. But after I fill out the gas tank, I realize how far I just drove in less than two hours – and given the circumstances, I can handle it. I also notice that Clinton, OK is only a few miles away – and they have a Route 66 Museum. So I figure that’s a good place to stop to have lunch.

Route 66 Oklahoma Museum in Clinton, OK

While having lunch in Clinton, I realize that there are *two* Route 66 museums in the area – an Oklahoma Museum in Clinton, and a Route 66 National Museum in Elk City (not that further away.) The die-hard purist would go to both, but I only have time for one. After the waitress coaxes me to visit the one in her hometown, I decide to – and have a pleasant 45 minutes there. The museum in Clinton does a good job chronicling the “Okie” sharecroppers in the Great Depression who migrated on Route 66 to escape the Dust Bowl, and it also shows how Route 66 played a role in America’s love affair with the automobile in the 20th Century.

Heading out of Clinton, Route 66 is now a mere frontage road to the Interstate. But unlike in places like Illinois, the road is not always well-paved – and you have to be careful about how fast you’re driving. Moreover, the directions are not that good – and at this point, not having my geeky Google-Map printouts would have been problematic. At one point between Clinton and Elk City, I can’t find the frontage road – and have to get back on the Interstate.

Elk City, Oklahoma

In Elk City, I’m low on cash – so I decide to drop by a bank. I see the Bank of Western Oklahoma, with its slogan “where people come first.” When I go inside and inform the teller I have a Bank of America account, she says “we won’t charge you a bank fee – but they might.” Oh, wow! I wish every bank were like that. Leaving Elk City, I try to get back on Route 66 – but miss the frontage road and end up on the Interstate again. As I drive down I-40, I look wistfully at the side road – annoyed at myself that I’m not driving the two-lane highway. At the first opportunity, I manage to finally get back on.

Texola, Oklahoma

Now we are in Western Oklahoma, with the Texas border a few miles away. It’s a desperately poor area, with small towns having been ravaged by the Interstate. I stop in Sayre, which is relatively prosperous – but it goes downhill form there. As I approach Texola (right at the border), I had been told it was a ghost town. Boarded up buildings and shells of what were home abound – and all I see are a few old men doing garden work. They look up when they hear my car rolling down the road, as if any stranger coming to this town is somehow unprecedented. It’s sad, really … these towns were once thriving, but now there are very few opportunities left to stick around.

As I cross the Texas state line, I continue on Route 66 – which is a frontage road to the Interstate. I’m in the Texas Panhandle – it is flat, there is absolutely no one around for miles, and the only signs of life are depressed boarded up ghost towns. In other words, now is the perfect time to play Bruce Springsteen. So I pop his “Greatest Hits” CD into the car, as the opening riff of “Born to Run” echoes as I sing along with the Boss at the top of my lungs.

Route 66 Texas History Museum in McLean, TX

A few miles later, I come across the small town of McLean, Texas – population: 800. I had heard about McLean, because someone on YouTube put up a really awesome video of an old news clip from 1984 – which described the decline of Route 66. At the time, McLean was one of the very last towns to be by-passed by the Interstate – and the town was nervous. As I arrive in town, I visit the Texas Rope-a-Dope Museum – which also features the Texas Route 66 Museum. I chat with the owner, who has lived in McLean her whole life.

She tells me that 50 years ago, McLean had 2,500 people – or more than 3 times its current population. “The same month the Interstate came in,” she said, “the bank went out of business.” Which is really ironic, if you watch that YouTube video. The only person in McLean who was not unhappy by the looming Interstate by-passing their town was a local Bank President, who said “progress is progress” and “we have to accept this.” He was out of a job within a month …

Groom, TX: an hour east of Amarillo

Getting back on Route 66, it is almost impossible to follow the old route if you didn’t do your homework with Google Maps. And in some places, it is simply impossible to take Route 66 at all – so at various stretches, I have to get back onto the Interstate. But by now, I don’t really care – because frankly, there is nothing to see here at all.

But before I get back on I-40 to do my final sprint to Amarillo for the night, I can’t resist but stop by the gigantic cross in Groom, Texas. We are in Bible Belt territory – and the Texas Panhandle is the most reliable Republican part of America. Right near the cross is a shrine by the Knights of Columbus – dedicated to the “sanctity of life and the innocent victims of abortion.”

Now, I am staying at the Big Texan Motel in Amarillo – just off I-40. I was reluctant to make plans to stay there originally (after having viewed pictures on their website), because the place looked so amazingly tacky.

But I’ve decided it’s a fun place – and it’s right next to the Big Texan Steak House, where no one tonight was dumb enough to think they can eat a 72-ounce steak. But I did have an adorable band come to my table, and play “Home on the Range.”

I invite you to view photos of my ridiculous hotel on my Facebook page. But for now, I’ll just leave you with a picture of a gigantic boot – right in front of the restaurant …

Route 66 Day Five: Entering Oklahoma …

April 8, 2011

Purchased at Bilke's Western Outlet in Baxter Springs, Kansas

Today was another fun-filled day on my Route 66 road-trip, as I headed into Oklahoma – officially leaving the Midwest. And there was just one thing I had to do before leaving Kansas: buying a nice pair of cowboy boots. I’ll wear them for the next several days – so that by the time I get to the Grand Canyon and ride a mule, I should have gotten them fit very well.

After the Red Brick Inn in Baxter Springs gave me a delicious complimentary breakfast, I got into the car to go to my first stop: Vinita, Oklahoma – the hometown of Sister Bernie Galvin. Anyone who has worked in San Francisco on social justice issues knows Sister Bernie, and when she heard that I was traveling Route 66 she contacted her family. I was set to meet her brothers Tim and Mike at 11:00 a.m., and Tim had promised to barbecue some steaks. With my cowboy boots on (and my pink Macy’s button-shirt), I popped my Johnny Cash CD as I crossed the state line into Oklahoma. After a brief stop in Miami (which the locals pronounce “Mi-a-muh”), it was off to Vinita …

Tim Galvin's barbecued steak lunch.

Tim and Mike (and his son Mike) were ready to greet me as I arrived, with steaks all barbecued and ready to be eaten. Tim and Mike have both worked for labor unions over the years. The Galvins have been in the area for generations, and their grandfather knew Will Rogers. “He tried to trade our grandfather’s bicycle for a horse,” said Tim – as we spent a pleasant lunch talking about politics, and what I have to look forward to on Route 66 today. They told me about the world’s tallest soda-pop bottle in Arcadia, as well as the world’s only Round Barn. “I’m sure they don’t do any square-dancing there,” he quipped. Tim says I should take some of the left-over steaks, but I tell him I don’t have a cooler. So he takes a styrofoam cooler from his garage, fills it with ice, and wraps up one of his steaks for me to eat down the road.

As I head off Southwest on Route 66, the landscape is flat. But this is not the boring flat Illinois prairie. Oklahoma’s lush orange fields give it a whole new feel to it. Of course, now is the perfect time to sing along to the entire score of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! – so I throw in the CD. There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow; there’s a bright golden haze on the meadow; The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye, and it looks like it’s climbing way up to the sky. Oh, and yes … all the cattle are standing like statues. In this part of Oklahoma, Route 66 is an efficient four-lane highway – which most locals use, because the Interstate is a toll road. I make really good time on it, as I sing along to every song on the album.

Will Rogers Museum in Claremore, Oklahoma

Now we’re in Claremore – the hometown of Oklahoma’s favorite son, Will Rogers. The cowboy, humorist, vaudeville actor and newspaper columnist was a legend in his time – which is still very much felt here. Route 66 is actually called the Will Rogers Memorial Highway in Oklahoma, so I give myself an hour to take a look. The museum was pretty incredible, as it chronicled his early life as an actor – until his wife convinced him that he was a far more talented writer. The museum is complete with famous witty sayings that Rogers said, and the influence he had on U.S. Presidents before his tragic death from a plane crash in 1935. Rogers was part-Cherokee, and he was always fond of saying “my ancestors didn’t come on the Mayflower, but they were there to meet them.”

Before leaving, I buy a CD from the gift shop of Will Rogers’ old radio broadcasts from the 1930’s. One thing that has fascinated me about Oklahoma is why the state is so conservative – it was literally the only state in the nation where Barack Obama failed to win a single county. But when you listen to Will Rogers, he was anything but a right-winger. While laced with humor, his commentary was serious about the need for jobs to help the unemployed – and his comments about FDR were a little too prescient today. “The Republicans have a plan,” he said in 1933: “do nothing, and hope that means Roosevelt can’t do nothing either.” Of course, FDR wasn’t afraid of Republicans.

Blue Whale in Catoosa, OK

As Route 66 approaches Tulsa, I just have to stop to visit another roadside landmark. Before leaving on this road trip, I mentioned on Twitter that I was doing Route 66 – and the Blue Whale of Catoosa sent me a tweet, inviting me to come drop by. The Blue Whale was once in a child’s amusement park, and preservationist have kept it as a roadside landmark. Definitely one of the fun, kitschy things that you find along Route 66!

Approaching Tulsa, I could stop for more than gas – but it’s already 3:00 p.m., and I’m eager to get to Oklahoma City. While Tulsa may have things to offer, the only thing it reminds me of is Oral Roberts University – so I move on. Now, the Oklahoma landscape has improved for the better. You still have the lush orange scenery, but now Route 66 is not flat – but the whole stretch from here to Oklahoma City is rolling hills.

Depew, Oklahoma

Another thought on Oklahoma. Yesterday, I commented how much poverty I saw in Missouri – and to be honest, I expected Oklahoma to be very much the same. But there’s a critical difference here. Oklahoma seems to be more proud of its Route 66 heritage, and there are more fun things to do along the road – even in places that may be economically depressed. Take Depew, for example – a small town of 501 people. They just have a general store, but I found it so much more charming than the towns in Missouri.

Now, Oklahoma City is getting closer – and I’m rolling pretty well on Route 66. But it’s getting late, so I take a brief stop in Stroud to grab a cup of coffee. Before Oklahoma City, I just have two things to do and they’re both in Arcadia: visit the Round Barn, and visit the world’s tallest soda-pop bottle. As I get back in the car, I play Journey’s Greatest Hits to keep me focused on the road – and while driving, it makes me feel like Will Schuester.

World's largest soda-pop bottle in Arcadia, OK.

I finally get to the Round Barn, but the gift shop closed an hour earlier – and it looks like the place is reserved for a party tonight. You can view a photo of it at my Facebook page. And then, just a little bit further, is the world’s largest soda-pop bottle. Frankly, I’m underwhelmed … having seen the world’s largest rocking chair yesterday. It’s not even made of glass!! But later that evening, my friends in Oklahoma City say it’s really cool when lit up. I guess I just got there too early, when it was still light out.

At 7:00 p.m., I arrive in downtown Oklahoma City – having found the city really easy to navigate. I meet up with my friend Karina at the Wedge, an awesome pizzeria in Bricktown – where we order the “American Pie.” I met Karina at Netroots Nation in 2008, when she worked for Andrew Rice – Oklahoma’s Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate. She has worked in Oklahoma Democratic politics for several years, and has just switched jobs. She promises to take me to a gay bar in Oklahoma City after dinner, but first suggests we view the Oklahoma City bombing memorial.

Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial

On April 19, 1995 at 9:00 a.m., Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols exploded the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City – killing over 200 people. On this site, the city has built a tasteful memorial with a reflecting pool – with chairs to commemorate all who died in that tragedy. And at night-time, the site is peaceful and beautiful.

Afterwards, we head to Boom! – a gay bar northwest of downtown, where practically everyone knows each other. The bartender explains to me that a lot of young gay men in Oklahoma City are part of a softball league, so they get to know each other in different venues. It was frankly a more close-knit and healthy environment than what I’ve seen in San Francisco. As it gets late, I head back towards Bricktown to check into my hotel for the night. I’m ready to start blogging, when I get a call from my friend George – who just happens to be in Oklahoma City for the weekend at his cousin’s wedding, and who has been following my blog on Facebook. We meet up for about an hour at a piano bar downtown – before last call at 2:00 a.m. forces us to leave. What a great unexpected way to end my day in Oklahoma City. Tomorrow, I have a lot of driving … as I head due west to Amarillo, Texas.

Route 66 Day Four: Deep Poverty in Missouri

April 7, 2011

One of many murals in Cuba, Missouri that describe the town's history.

Last night, a friend of mine who grew up in St. Louis put this message on my Facebook page: “welcome to redneck territory.” I found it rude and insensitive – but after having crossed the entire state of Missouri on Route 66, I sadly have to concur. Overwhelmingly, the one thing I saw over and over again was trailer homes. I commented yesterday about the level of poverty from St. Louis to Cuba, but that Cuba – where I stayed last night – seemed to be different. Well, Cuba was the exception to the rule – being one of the few Missouri towns on Route 66 to display fancy murals in the town that give travelers a reason to stop and admire.

After grabbing breakfast in town, I head due west on Route 66 – as I have a long day planned ahead of me with a lot of driving. I pop in the Route 66 CD that I bought from Rich Henry in Staunton, Illinois – and just as the Bobby Troup classic “Get Your Kicks on Route 66” song starts to play, I come across another landmark: the world’s largest Rocking Chair.

World's Largest Rocking Chair - just west of Cuba, MO.

Sure, it’s totally absurd – but it’s exactly those types of kitschy Americana gags that make driving Route 66 so fun, as you get your “kicks” on the Mother Road. Back in Illinois, every town seemed to milk the fact that it was on Route 66 – with historical signs aplenty to lure the gullible tourist. In Missouri, you see a lot less of that – just small town after bland small town, so things like the world’s Biggest Rocking Chair is very rare.

And it may just be because the poverty in Missouri is so acute. For miles and miles as you pass these towns, all you see are decrepit trailer homes – along with an increasing number of churches: Assembly of God, Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. You also see an increasing number of cheap adult movie stores – what I found particularly ironic at one point was a porno billboard next to a “Jesus Saves” billboard. All in all, these are not the towns that a traveling tourist would want to stop into – so I just keep on driving through the Ozarks.

Route 66 - amid the rolling hills of the Ozarks.

Oh yeah, the Ozarks … Here’s the real irony of Route 66 in Missouri. While the towns are so much poorer than Illinois, the scenery is rich with rolling hills and lush vegetation. No more bland flat Illinois prairies – this is the Ozarks, with its caves and mountains that paint a great picture for the road traveler. I pop some Bob Dylan to get into the mood, but after a couple CD’s it becomes obvious that a better choice of music is Roy Orbison – the Ozark Hillbilly whose tenor echoes through the hills.

The occasional town is worth stopping, such as Waynesville (the seat of Pulaski County) – but the vast majority are just not enticing. Even Rolla I expected to be more interesting, but all I did was find a Bank of America to collect more cash and then leave. My geeky Google Map printouts that have detailed turn-by-turn directions are far more useful in Missouri than Illinois – because while Missouri does have Historic Route 66 markers, you kind of have to know where they are. At one point, I run into a French tourist who is motorcycling Route 66 and gets lost. I explain to him in French how to turn around, cross the Interstate again, and then find Route 66 over there.

Downtown Springfield: Church + Welfare Office.

It’s now almost 2:00 p.m., and I still haven’t stopped for lunch. But I figure that Springfield, the largest city I will be going through today (and the Birthplace of Route 66) should be a good stop. Springfield has a fun downtown, and I find a place to grab a sandwich – but one thing that struck me as I walk by the central square is this: a church, right next to the state welfare office.

As I have lunch in a local diner, I talk to a waiter about what it’s like living around here – and I tell him how struck I have been at the level of poverty. “Well, we got all kinds,” he said. “We’ve got the trash, and then the filthy rich.” Of course, I haven’t really seen the filthy rich along Route 66 – but it tells me the gap between rich and poor is pretty severe out here. I was expecting Route 66 to be depressing in Oklahoma or Texas, where the Interstate by-passed communities that became ghost-towns overnight. But what I didn’t expect was to see the sheer number of trailer homes that dot the landscape. Occasionally, you see something that may be a Route 66 tourist landmark – only to find it closed, or taken out of business.

Jasper County Courthouse in Carthage, MO.

After a longer-than-expected drive from Springfield to Carthage, I decide to grab coffee in town. Carthage is the county seat of Jasper County, and the town square (complete with its courthouse) is impressive. Everything is exactly what it was like in the 1950’s, and the antique stores surely have some great deals. But still, you don’t see it as the kind of place that attracts tourists – and it’s sad to see the level of poverty being what it is in these parts …

It’s now 4:30 p.m., and I’m eager to get to my hotel for the night – in Baxter Springs, Kansas. Route 66 only goes through 13 miles of Kansas (after Missouri & before Oklahoma), so I decided to spend the night there – after a whole day of Missouri. I pop in my Marvin Gaye CD to keep going, as Route 66 traverses the underwhelming towns of Carterville, Webb City – and even Joplin. Given that Joplin is one of the cities quoted in Bobby Troup’s Route 66 song, I would have expected more.

Rainbow Bridge, on Route 66 in Kansas

Shortly after Joplin, Route 66 crosses the state line into Kansas – as it moseys through Galena, which is likewise depressed and has seen better days. But further down the road, I find a real treat: the Rainbow Bridge, the last covered bridge of its kind along Route 66 and I step out for a moment to get some air and take pictures. I then get back in the car, and proceed to my destination for the night: Baxter Springs.

More than any Route 66 town I have seen today, Baxter Springs is more catered towards tourists – with hotels and restaurants. I’m staying at the Red Brick Inn, located inside a building that once housed a bank that Jesse James robbed back in 1874. The Hotel has a cafe on the first floor, but it’s closed … so at the owner’s suggestion, I take a short drive to the Weston Cafe for dinner. There, the charming waitress and the local customers charm me about what a great town they live in – and I know I made the right decision to stay here for the night …

Route 66 Day Three: Hitting the “Show-Me State”

April 6, 2011

Wagon Wheel Motel - in Cuba, Missouri

I’m spending the night at the Wagon Wheel Motel in Cuba, Missouri – approximately 83 miles west of St. Louis, in what is the start of the Ozarks. While I didn’t cover much distance today, it was a memorable and jam-packed day. And of course, one of the old rules when it comes to traveling is – do your homework, but always be sure to double-check with the locals before you go out and do something. I learned this lesson (again!) last night, when I told the barflies at Tucker’s Place that I wanted to check out Clementine – St. Louis’ oldest gay bar, and just two blocks from where I was staying in the Soulard. They said: “oh no, try Bastille next door.” I went to Bastille, and they had a great drag show … It’s a lesson I learn on every trip, and am sure to experience time and again on this trip.

This morning, my first plan was to visit the Anheuser-Busch Brewery (a few blocks south of where I was staying) – where they give you a free sample of Budweiser at the end. Of course, the first tour wasn’t until 10:00 a.m. – which delayed the start of my day. But once the tour began, I was as happy as Homer Simpson … moseying about the Brewery, thinking “mmmm, Beer.” The tour is free, and the company clearly sees it as free advertising for its product. If anything, the tour is very much propaganda for how wonderful Budweiser is as a beer.

The Anheuser-Busch brewery in St. Louis.

We are first greeted with a glowing biography of founders Eberhard Anheuser and Adolphus Busch that reads like a Horatio Alger novel: “The Anheuser-Busch story is a story that embodies solid values, vision, courage and integrity. It clearly demonstrates that hard work, commitment and a passionate belief in quality can form the foundation of success.” Of course, we also learn that there were about 50 breweries in St. Louis in the 1850’s (from the many German immigrants who came here) – and Anheuser-Busch drove them all out of business so that today there is only one brewery left. Story of success, or the rise of corporate monopolies? I don’t think the tour guides wanted to answer that question.

Once I got my sample of free beer, it was 11:30 – but there was one last thing I had to do before leaving St. Louis. When I was in college, I had a crazy landlord named Charlie Forline – who, while amusing and eccentric, was also ripping us off by renting out an old Victorian from the owner and overcharging his subtenants so that he paid nothing. In 2001, I confronted him about it – and nearly exactly 10 years ago (on April 9, 2001), he committed suicide by jumping in front of a BART train. He was buried in St. Louis (his family was from Franklin County, Missouri), so I had to go to pay my respects.

Charlie's grave, on the Forline family plot in Valhalla Cemetery.

The Cemetery was northwest of the city, so I took the opportunity to drive through more of St. Louis. I looked on the map, and saw that Martin Luther King Drive would take me right there. Every city has a Martin Luther King Drive, and the sad part is that they all go through very poor, very black and very dangerous neighborhoods. St. Louis is no exception, and I was again appalled at what I saw. (The good news, at least, is that St. Louis voters ended up passing Prop E.)

I got to the cemetery, and checked in with the office. Charlie’s family had lived in the area for years, as they had purchased a plot at Valhalla Cemetery way back in 1911 for $250. I found Charlie’s grave, as well as his father (who died six years ago) and his mother (who died just three weeks before Charlie killed himself.) I believe that it was his mother’s death, along with the uproar at what was going on in the House, that ultimately drove Charlie to kill himself. I’m glad I went there today, but I wondered how many people had come to see him. After all, he had no siblings and his parents are now dead.

By now, it’s almost 1:00 p.m. – and I really need to hit the road. While it would be nice to visit the Gateway Arch, it’s not like I didn’t have a chance to view it all over St. Louis. As I hop on the Interstate to re-join Route 66, I drive right by it Downtown. I have photos over on my Facebook page.

As Route 66 heads out of St. Louis, I inevitably have to get back on the Interstate – but only for a short while. I need some music to keep me going in the car, so I randomly pull out the “West Side Story” soundtrack – as the car zooms down I-44. Now I am definitely in Missouri, because the scenery is totally different from Illinois. No more drab, flat countryside – it’s all rolling hills from here to Oklahoma!! Route 66 exits the Interstate after a few miles, and by now I’m hungry. So I stop at what looks like a restaurant, only to find out it’s now a tire shop. “Yeah, they kept the sign for historic purposes,” says the proprietor – but I get him to recommend me a good place for lunch in the area: the Third Rail Bar & Grill in Pacific, MO. I get one of their “Hippie Burgers,” which is actually quite good.

Route 66 in Missouri is not as well marked as in Illinois, so my geeky Google-Maps are more useful here. But you still have signs present – you just have to look more carefully, because they’re not in the distinctive brown shade.

Union, MO - the county seat of Franklin County

As Route 66 winds down along I-44, I come across the city of Union in Franklin County – where Charlie Forline grew up. Two months before he died, Charlie did a trip to his family home in Union – where he saw his mother for the last time, his father was placed in a retirement home, and he took the whole family belongings back to California. It was upon his return that I confronted him on the rent overcharges, and he threatened to kill me with his great-grandfather’s Civil War sword. So I was curious to check out his hometown. The downtown was very cute, and I had a delicious peach cobbler pie for dessert at a nearby bakery. But still, not much to see here … time to head down towards Meramec Caverns.

I had never heard of Meramec Caverns before planning a Route 66 trip, but once you go it is almost impossible not to hear about it. It’s the largest cave open to the public in Missouri, and is famous for being the Hideout for Frank & Jesse James after the Great Train Robbery of 1872. Route 66 now follows the Interstate in a straight southwest direction. But unlike Illinois, which is so flat that you are driving almost as fast as the cars on the Interstate, Route 66 in Missouri is all rolling hills. I have to slow down the car a lot, because the speed limit is a little too fast for my comfort here. As I get closer to Meramec Caverns, the number of billboards advertising it is almost ridiculous.

Entrance of Meramec Caverns, with a tacky log cabin of no historical import whatsoever.

I get to Meramec Caverns in time for a 4:30 tour, and read up some interesting stuff about its role in the Civil War. Missouri was part of the Union, but as a slave state had many loyalists to the Confederacy. During the War, Union troops took over Meramec Caverns to build gun powder – so a group of local Confederates from Franklin County raided the Caverns and got them out. Two young men in that effort were Frank & Jesse James, who ten years later would hide out in the Cavern after the Great Train Robbery. It’s entirely possible that Charlie’s great-grandfather was part of this effort as well, as after all he was a Franklin County resident who fought for the Confederacy (complete with sword!)

The tour of Meramec Caverns was pretty spectacular, and I took a lot of photos – most of whom, sadly, did not turn out very well with flash photography. The knowledgeable guide took us through beautiful rooms of stalagmites and stalagtites – with the tour (in all its tacky Americana) concluding in a room that blasted Kate Smith singing “God Bless America.” Her rendition, as first performed in 1946 at Meramec Caverns, is what made the song famous.

Meramec Caverns, with the Meramec River running through it.

Now it’s almost 6:30 p.m., and I have to get to my hotel reservation in Cuba, MO. Fortunately, that’s only about 30 minutes away – so I get back in the car, and pop in my “Best of R.E.M.” CD that should help me focus on the road. Unlike in Illinois, where every town on Route 66 plays up its kitschy tourist traps to make you stop, I’ve noticed a lot less of that in Missouri so far. One factor may be that it’s a much, much poorer part of the country. The number of trailer homes I saw along the road today (along with Assembly of God churches) was quite noticeable, and frankly depressing.

But as I get to Cuba for the night, check into my hotel and grab dinner in town, I notice that the town is a lot more lively and colorful than other Missouri towns I’ve seen so far. And when I sit at the Frisco Bar & Grill and talk to the locals, a woman asks me: “have you seen the world’s biggest rocking chair yet?” Nope, I haven’t … because it’s further down Route 66, past Cuba as you head southwest. I can’t wait to see it tomorrow!

Route 66 Day Two – a Windy Way to St. Louis

April 5, 2011

An old 1920's segment of Route 66 south of Springfield, IL - I call it the "Red Brick Road."

I’m blogging live from Tucker’s Place in the charming Soulard neighborhood of St. Louis, with adorable local barflies. If you speak French, that’s really funny because soulard is the French word for “drunkard.” It’s been a lovely day driving down Route 66 from Bloomington, IL to Saint Louis – but it has been an extremely windy day. Locals tell me this is quite extreme for even the Midwest.

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.

Paul Bunyan statue in Atlanta, Illinois

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.

Congressman Aaron Schock's office in Springfield, IL

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.

Town square in Virden, Illinois - with grain elevator in back.

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.

Henry's Rabbit Ranch in Staunton, IL

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.

The charming Soulard neighborhood in St. Louis, just south of Downtown.

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!!

A Fun Night in Champaign-Urbana …

April 4, 2011

Me an Phil Reese at Emerald City with the Yellow Brick Road

I ended up staying nearly an hour in Pontiac, Illinois – which (so far) has proven to be the funkiest and most enjoyable town on Route 66. And because I had plans to stay in Champaign Urbana for the night (which was actually an hour out of my way on the trip), I decided to speed things up a bit. So I got back in the car, and hit the road – putting in a little country music to get in the mood. I played Rooster McClintock – a bluegrass band in Humboldt County who played at my friends Earl and Melissa’s wedding two years ago.

As the car zoomed down Route 66, I again had the train tracks on my left – and the Interstate on my right. It was truly beautiful to have the whole open road to yourself, while cars on I-55 are stressing out with traffic (and probably not getting there much faster than me.) When I got to Bloomington, which seemed like a cool college town but not very distinct, I deviated from Route 66 and headed towards Champaign. But because my friend Phil wasn’t gonna be home for a few hours, I said: “hey, forget the Interstate. Why not explore more of this area?” So I took U.S. Route 105 all the way to Champaign – as it sped through the Illinois cornfields with remarkable efficiency.

Champaign-Urbana, of course, is home to the University of Illinois. And it’s crazy that despite growing up my whole childhood in Chicago and knowing countless people who went there, I had never been until tonight. I met up with Phil Reese, a gay blogger who writes for Bilerico Project – who plays tour-guide for me that evening. After a wonderful meal at a Spanish Restaurant, he takes me to Emerald City – which he says is the only “out” gay bar in Champaign. While there are other gay bars, Phil explains, the others claim to be “mixed.”

At Emerald City, all the drinks have a Wizard of Oz theme – with apparently the most popular drinks being the Good Witch and the Yellow Brick Road. The Tin Man drink has a cucumber theme (which doesn’t sit well for me), so I go with the Yellow Brick Road for its tasty mango flavor. All in all, a fun mellow night at Emerald City – and Phil seems to know every gay person in Champaign-Urbana. A bartender even calls him one of those “Administrative Gays.”

Phil’s about to graduate from U of I with his Masters Degree – and has a job interview in DC this week for the Washington Blade, the oldest LGBT paper in the country. So of course, we are all keeping our fingers crossed for his success!! Champaign is a fun town, but tomorrow morning I head back towards Route 66.

Route 66 = Everything I Hoped it Would Be So Far

April 3, 2011

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.