Contributed by: Joe
There’s a particular kind of restlessness in Americans, and throughout our history that itch has lead us from the first East Coast settlements to what author Louis L’Amour called the far blue mountains of the Appalachians, ever westward, wagon trains of the mid-1800s departing from Kansas City giving way to the smoke-blowing locomotives of the late 1800s and early 1900s, replaced by what mass producer Henry Ford wrought, leading finally to the late 1920s and a thin ribbon of concrete stretching from Chicago to California. The West was open, Route 66 the conduit — like wagon trails and railroad tracks before it — of Americans’ unquenchable wanderlust.
Act I: St. Louis
I stayed with an old college friend in St. Louis the Thursday night before my trip began, and of course we had to go out for a little while that evening, drinking beer at some Southside bar or three.
I slept in.
Before I began my trip, I decided that I didn’t really want an itinerary, preferring to go wherever the road took me, not exactly Kerouac — but also not a family vacation where Dad has everything planned down to the mile and minute, and what do you mean you have to go again? Besides, I was going solo, with no Dean Moriarty along to make things … interesting. Because I didn’t have a plan, and because I got a late start, I decided to begin my trip downtown.
Besides driving Route 66, the plan was to sample cuisine from various restaurants and diners and little hole-in-the-wall places along the way. And because I was already downtown, that meant eating at the nearly 70-year-old Eat-Rite Diner at 622 Choteau Avenue. A squat white cinderblock building, Eat-Rite is a 24-hour greasy spoon a blistered 3-wood away from the Mississippi River. If you want something on the menu that isn’t fried, get a slice of pie. Or maybe a soda.
Eat-Rite — cash only — has no booths or tables, only fixed stools around its L-shaped counter. Where each stool stands, the counter edge is rubbed yellow where forearms and elbows have rested for generations. On the counter top, ovals of yellow mark the spot where hundreds of thousands — maybe millions — of plates have sat. There’s a cigarette machine and an ATM to your left as you walk in the door; to your right is a Lord of the Rings pinball machine and a CD-playing jukebox, and the latter three stick out like an insistent atheist at an Alabama tent revival.
For the waitress and cook to the lifers, Eat-Rite — which isn’t exactly on Route 66, but it’s close enough to be a way station — is almost like home. Ken Ort, a St. Louis stagehand, has been a meal-a-day regular for 20 years. Eileen Cottrell (fired at least once, she said) has been a waitress and cook for 35 of her 66 years. And 81-year-old Opal Henderson, recently deposed neighborhood salvage yard queen (she was meeting her lawyer there), has buried a husband and four of her seven children during her 62 years of coming to Eat-Rite.
With $2 in my pocket, I got a soda before I noticed the ATM. Flush with an extra $40, I got a cheeseburger and fries and immediately had buyer’s remorse. For on the menu is a variation of what seemingly every greasy spoon has, a combination of eggs, potatoes meat, chili and cheese. At Broadway Diner in Columbia, it’s called the Stretch. At Eat-Rite, it’s called the Sling. What better way to start a day of driving than by throwing down a challenge to my gastrointestinal tract? Alas, it was not to be, and I bid my diner companions adieu.
A trip along Route 66 in St. Louis wouldn’t be complete without a stop at Ted Drewes Frozen Custard at 6726 Chippewa for a concrete. I ordered a mini with M&Ms, and how in the world anyone could eat more than a mini is beyond me. Good stuff, but lord, it’s rich.
Properly sated, it was time to hit the road.
Act II: The Road Most Traveled
Blame President Eisenhower. After World War I ended, Ike traveled with a military convoy across the country on the nation’s first cross-country road, the Lincoln Highway. The convoy left July 9, 1919, from near the White House, and 62 days later it reached San Francisco and Lincoln Park. The experience, and the example of Germany’s autobahn that he saw during World War II, shaped Eisenhower’s idea of what a highway system should and could be. As the 34th president of the United States from 1953 until 1961, Eisenhower championed a U.S. interstate plan, and in 1956 construction began on the system we know today.
Missouri is bisected and dissected by four major interstates: Interstate 70, which starts in Maryland and ends when it hits I-15 in Utah; I-55, which runs south out of Chicago and ends at the far end of Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana; I-35, which goes from the Mexican border in Laredo, Texas, to Duluth, Minnesota; and I-44, which starts in St. Louis and ends in Wichita Falls, Texas.
Chippewa, also called Highway 366, generally follows Route 66, and that’s the route I took out of St. Louis. I met up with Interstate 44 at Sunset Hills, merged into traffic and gunned my Toyota four-wheel-drive pickup up to 65 mph to keep from getting run over. Any semblance of the original Route 66 was submerged beneath six lanes of concrete and asphalt, and onward I flew.
Americans love to travel, it’s true, and we got our wanderlust honestly as a nation of immigrants from lands an ocean (or two) away. But it’s a peculiar thing. Since the interstate system really got up and running in the 1960s, it has become the automatic option when Americans take a trip by automobile.
For all practical purposes, driving today is a means to an end rather than an end in itself, a chore to be endured rather than enjoyed. And I’m as guilty as the next person.
In 1999, I went to Mardi Gras in New Orleans for the beads and the beer and the, ahem, clothing-optional women. I left Champaign, Ill., about 2 a.m. after working the second shift putting out the sports section for The News-Gazette newspaper. I drove 12 hours straight through, Interstate 57 to I-55, stopping only for gas and bathroom breaks. By the time I got to my buddy’s house, I was nearly catatonic, road-whipped and sleep-deprived into numbness.
Oh, I’ve got other examples. Setting the cruise on my ’98 Mustang Cobra at 95 mph and flying along I-40 from Flagstaff, Arizona, to the Texas border, where state troopers were thicker than flies in a July feedlot, so I quickly rediscovered the brake pedal. Driving from Jacksonville, Florida, to Columbia in one shot, Interstate 10 to I-75 to I-24 to I-64 to I-70, 10 to 15 mph over the speed limit at all times and a little less than 14 hours from door to door.
I drive fast. I’ve got the 26-year speeding ticket history to prove it.
But when I finally reconnected with Route 66 outside Pacific (and the Eastern Missouri Correctional Center, address 18701 Old Highway 66), I fell into the rhythm of the two-lane road. I went from 65 to 70 on the interstate to 50 mph or slower on Route 66. It was a warm February Friday, and my truck without a radio and I were headed to Cuba. We had all the time in the world to get there.
Part III: Cuba Libre
John Steinbeck called Route 66 the “mother road” in The Grapes of Wrath, and the name stuck. Westward fled the Dust Bowl Oklahomans and Texans in the 1930s, the Mother Road birthing a generation of desperate dreamers hungry for the Promised Land called California. In its totality, Route 66 winds its way from Chicago to Santa Monica, California, more than 2,400 miles across eight states — including 317 miles across Missouri — and in the road’s heyday, it made small towns into boom towns to serve the weary travelers.
It’s about 50 miles from Pacific to Cuba along Route 66. Pre-war bungalow-style sandstone houses dot the countryside. Single- and double-wide trailers (“mobile homes” if you’re selling them; “tornado magnets” if you’re living in one) are scattered just off the road here and yonder, ubiquitous features along Missouri’s two-lane blacktops and gravel roads. Cattle graze in hillside pastures, the ground too rocky to bother planting crops. Although it’s a particularly sunny and warm February day, the countryside is mostly gray and dull, waiting for the Earth to complete its axial turn and restore life with spring’s warm embrace.
Route 66 in these parts is almost always a Highway 66 byway, with very little of the original pavement and exact route remaining. Route 66, like many old highways, has been changed and bastardized through the years to suit particular traffic and town needs. As such, the road hopscotches I-44, alternately running north or south of the interstate.
Putting along on the outer-road byway, cars, trucks, vans and semis fly by on the interstate, everyone rushing to get somewhere faster, faster, faster. But on Route 66, the pace is serene, and the farther away from I-44 I was, the better I liked it. Route 66 has hills and curves and character, Marilyn Monroe to Interstate 44’s featureless Olive Oyl.
Without a radio, I had nothing to distract me from the experience, nothing to intrude on my solitude. The only sounds were the truck’s engine, my knobby tires singing against the pavement and the wind whistling through my open window. Although I didn’t check it, I’m sure my blood pressure was the best it’s been in ages. My heart rate was about 60 beats per minute (I checked it with my wristwatch), and my breathing was slow and deep. Contemplation came easy, my mind adrift with free-association thoughts, one idea, one memory, one perception bleeding naturally into the next as Route 66 and its various byways dipped and curved, leading me south by southwest.
Newly, first-time engaged, I thought about my fiancée and our 2-year-old daughter, missing them more than a little, hearing their voices as the road unspooled before me. “Hi, Daddy! What doing?” my daughter hollers into the phone every time I talk to them on my trip, making me smile, making my heart swell.
Solitude can be a cruel mistress, too. You try having the Sesame Street theme song run through your head over and over and over (and over) for a half-hour straight.
Can you tell me how to get,
How to get Sesame Street out of my head?
How to get Sesame Street out of my head,
Out of my head … out of my head … out of my head …
Believe me, it’s the 10th circle on the road to Dante’s hell. And you’re singing it now, aren’t you?
Through or around little towns I went: St. Clair, Stanton, Oak Grove (yeah, there are two Oak Groves in Missouri, which is so dumb there ought to be a law against it), Sullivan, Bourbon and Leasburg. Before getting to Sullivan, road signs painted in rich blues, yellows, reds and oranges cropped up every few miles, enticing travelers to visit Meramec Caverns.
Road signs are a particular blight along Missouri highways, visual pollution that detracts from the state’s natural features, its natural beauty. Interstates 70 and 44 are littered with them, giant metal poles reaching skyward, advertising everything from tractors to hotels to adult “superstores.” I fantasize about wielding a Paul Bunyanesque cutting torch and laying waste to them, a clear-cutting avenger stalking Missouri’s highways, giving travelers’ unencumbered views of the countryside — especially my beloved Ozark hollers and hills. (Of course, I stopped and took pictures of a Meramec Caverns sign promoting it as a Jesse James hideout, but to my mind I’m only a little hypocritical for doing so. At least Meramec Caverns uses old-style wooden signs slung low to the ground that don’t pollute the view. I’m gonna stick with that story, thanks.)
Driving Route 66 away from eyeshot of I-44 afforded me an almost complete lack of road signs, which suited me just fine.
I got to Cuba in the afternoon and cruised past my way station for the night, the Wagon Wheel Motel. A sign pimping the world’s largest rocking chair had caught my eye, so I drove through Cuba to Fanning, which is four miles west on Route 66. There the behemoth sat at the Fanning US 66 Outpost, more than 42 feet tall, 20 feet across and tipping the scales at nearly 14 tons; Paul Bunyan indeed.
Brenda Lehmuth was behind the counter when I entered the combination store and gift shop. There wasn’t another soul around, which I found to be the case nearly everywhere I stopped along my trip; evidently, February in Missouri isn’t prime Route 66 traveling time. However, Lehmuth, on the job all of four days, said she’d already met folks from across the United States and several countries. We chatted for a few minutes, and then I headed back to Cuba to check in and figure out a place to eat.
Cuba is the Route 66 Mural City, as designated by the state legislature in 2002. Viva Cuba, a beautification organization, commissioned 12 murals painted on public buildings from 2001 to 2007, including one on the Cuba Free Press building commemorating Bette Davis’ 1948 stay in town. Seems the paparazzi aren’t a new phenomenon. From the city’s mural Web site:
In November 1948, Academy Award actress Bette Davis and her husband arrived at the Southern Hotel. Reporter Wilbur Vaughn asked for a photo. Refused, he snapped a photo anyway and was chased by Davis’ irate husband. He escaped, and the stolen photo appeared in the Cuba News and Review.
That’s just all kinds of awesome.
My Wagon Wheel cabin was pretty darn nice, too, with the best bed of the trip, no small thing to a guy who likes to sleep. In continuous operation since Robert Martin built the Tudor-style sandstone cabins in the 1930s, owner Connie Echols has been renovating them since buying the place in September 2009. Inside my room, the old radiator still stands, but there’s a new heat system mounted on the wall. There’s a new shower stall and a modern sink and vanity. A flat-screen TV with a boatload of channels (and why I watched “Jerry Maguire” late into the night, I have no idea). And in the biggest nod to life in the 21st century, free wi-fi.
In the year and a half since she’s owned it, Echols, 61, has 10 renovated rooms to rent with four almost there and five that aren’t almost there yet. Even though she knew the place needed work, she didn’t know it, you know, needed work.
She expects to be done renovating sometime this century.
After getting back from supper and drinks at Frisco’s Grill and Pub downtown — I had the catfish — I slept well and late, Tom Cruise notwithstanding. Friday had been unnaturally warm, and I figured Saturday would be the same. In shorts and a T-shirt, I opened the door to a typical February day; I retreated and changed into warmer clothes so I wouldn’t freeze to death, and then it was off to Lebanon.
Even though I didn’t meet and talk to any Route 66 travelers, I found the business owners along the way willing to share their time and stories. The best way to meet folks is just, you know, talking to them, and everybody I met wanted to talk — and sometimes talk and talk and talk — for which I am most grateful.
Part IV: Lebanon
Diana’s Diner in St. James is what you expect of a diner along Route 66: lots of chrome or stainless steel inside and out, Route 66 signs, a counter with red and black stools and coconut cream pie covered in plastic wrap. Breakfast was cut off at noon, and I was able to get biscuits and gravy with 15 minutes to spare. Johnnies Bar, adorned with a Miller Lite banner celebrating 50 years on Route 66, was right down the street, but I figured it was a little too early in the day for a beer or three. You know, especially since I was driving and all.
At St. Robert, I found the Route 66 All American Drive-In closed and gutted, but 5 and Diner was right up the street. It had been a couple hours since my late breakfast, so it was time for dessert at 5 and Diner, which has gone all-in on the 1950s Route 66 theme. Its exterior shines even in the rain, and little Route 66 road signs are etched into its window corners.
The diner counter was just inside the front door. Hanging white lampshades had Route 66 road signs painted on them, and the seemingly requisite posters of Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause led the way to the bathrooms. I found the menus, which were adorned with all sorts of 1950s trivia, particularly fascinating. Did you know that Silly Putty made its public debut in 1950? Me neither. In 1952, Mr. Potato Head sprouted, and in 1954 the IBM Electronic Brain booted up. James Dean took his last ride in his Porsche Spyder in 1955, the same year that Disneyland opened. And it was in 1959 that the anatomically impossible Barbie had her coming-out ball at the New York Toy Show.
I drank a perfect vanilla milkshake, and although I didn’t need that piece of coconut cream pie, I wanted it. Stuffed, I waddled out to my truck and got back on the road.
Before making my trip, I knew in a general, nonspecific sense that Route 66 was sort of a big deal. I knew nothing. There are preservation groups and associations in every state the road passes through, including the Route 66 Association of Missouri, which publishes the quarterly Show Me Route 66 Magazine. A Google search of “Route 66 groups” turns up more than 11 million results, and a search for “Route 66 books” yields 1.3 million. I’m pretty sure there aren’t 11 million groups and 1.3 million books about Route 66, but there’s a bunch.
Among American roads, only the Pacific Coast Highway comes close to having the cachet that Route 66 does, and that’s only because of the scenery along the PCH.
One of the easiest ways to get a sense of how big a deal the Mother Road is, to get a sense of just how many people make it a part of their lives, is to look at guest books.
On my way to Lebanon, I had to get back on I-44 for a spell, but at Exit 135 I got off the highway and back onto Route 66. And there I encountered Mr. C’s Route Post. Scott Cameron and his son, Matt, opened the souvenir shop last August after relocating from Wilmington, Illinois. Their guest book — like pretty much every guest book along Route 66 — reads like a world travel map, with people from Japan, Australia, South Africa, Dubai UAE, all over Europe and every state in the nation represented. I added my name to the list.
As Scott showed me around, he told me little bits of his story and how he came to open a store a few miles east of Lebanon. He’s in his “early 70s” now, and when Scott was a kid, his family took trips via Route 66. He served a tour of duty in the Army as an ambulance driver from 1956 to ’58, and he took basic training at nearby Fort Leonard Wood. A year after getting out of the Army, he and a friend took Route 66 to Enid, Oklahoma, where they joined up with a traveling carnival for the summer, running the merry-go-round and the nickel pitch from Kansas to Texas, where they finally got off the ride. In my younger days, I dreamed of working in the Alaskan canneries and camping on the beach for a summer, but the carnival sounds like a much better adventure. In later years, Scott worked in management for blues guitarists Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy, and he’s been involved in helping artists like those receive the royalties they were denied early in their careers.
Scott sells candy, of course, from the 1950s — I mean, not candy that’s been laying around since 1950 (which would be kind of adventurous, no?), candy that was popular in that decade — such as Moon Pies, Boston Baked Beans and Cherry Mash, which is made about 200 miles north in St. Joseph. He also owns the Route 66 Soda company, which makes soda the way it should be made, without caffeine but with real cane sugar. The orange reminds me of the Nesbitt’s I loved as a kid, and the black cherry is better than anything Vess ever produced. I wish I was getting paid to say that.
After talking to Scott for 20 minutes or so, I said goodbye and drove on to Lebanon to check in at the Munger Moss Motel. I opened my room to a faint whiff of that old hotel smell — the scent of history, timeless — which you can’t find in Holiday Inns or Mariotts along the interstate. The coolest feature was the original stucco archway leading into the tile shower stall.
June marks 40 years that Bob and Ramona Lehman have owned the 65-year-old Munger Moss Motel, its famous sign a Route 66 welcome beacon. Last November, with grants, donations and some of their own money, they spent $20,000 to refurbish the sign, and hundreds showed up at the relighting ceremony, Ramona said as we talked Sunday morning in the motel office.
The Lehmans raised four children, two boys and two girls, leading to three grandchildren and one great-grandchild. But amid the joy, there’s also been heartbreak. It’s a hard, hard thing for a parent to outlive a child. My paternal grandmother buried my father 11 years ago and then her oldest son in 2006. Although she never said it, my uncle’s death seemed to take the life out of her, and four months later, she was gone. The Lehmans have known my grandmother’s pain. Their oldest son was killed while riding a horse, Ramona said, a hitch in her voice, the fragile scab easily torn. “We cried a while,” Ramona said, “and even crawled in a bottle for a while.” Then cancer took their youngest son when he was just 21. The Lehmans persevered. “You can let tragedy in your life destroy you,” she said, “but we had to become strong.” I didn’t know what to say, humbled that she shared this part of her life we me, a stranger. We talked a little while longer, and then it was time for me to leave. Springfield, Joplin and the end of the road lay ahead.
Part V: Springfield, Joplin and Beyond
Springfield is the self-described birthplace of Route 66. In the many histories written about the road, Cyrus Avery of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and John Woodruff of Springfield get much of the credit for championing creation of Route 66, which gained traction after Congress passed legislation in 1925 to set up a national highway plan. One year later, the nascent road gained the “66” designation.
Springfield, a short 40-mile drive from Lebanon, was a Route 66 traveler’s dream from the 1930s to the ’60s with a plethora of motels — most with stone exteriors — gas stations and restaurants along the road. Today, the majority of these have gone out of business, have been turned into something else or cease to exist altogether. I drove around Springfield for a couple hours, trying to spot some of the old businesses and going twice through the construction zone downtown, but it’s hard to see things that aren’t there. One place that’s still in business since it opened in 1947 is the Rest Haven Court motel, which is where I stayed Sunday night. I could have stayed at the Route 66 Rail Haven motel, which has been in the same location under different names since 1938, but it is run by Best Western these days. I figured a real Route 66 experience didn’t include staying in a hotel that, aside from the exterior, could pass for any Best Western across America. No thanks.
On Monday, I drove out of Springfield along four-lane Chestnut Expressway until it turned into highway 266, getting me back on track. Shortly after passing through blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Halltown, I took a right turn off 266 onto Old Route 66 headed for Gary Turner’s Gay Parita Sinclair gas station. I found Gary sitting in the office smoking a cigarette and talking on his cell phone. While he chatted, I took in the office, which is filled to overflowing with old oil cans, soda coolers, signs, toy Sinclair trucks, a 1903 cash register, a 1943 calendar, the oldest cigarette machine I have ever seen and just stuff stacked and piled everywhere. Set Turner to talking, and all you have to do is nod and say “yep” every once in a while to keep the conversation going. He’ll tell you that he collects junk, that he loves junk — and after taking in the office, you might be inclined to believe him. He’ll tell you how it got the name Gay Parita (Gay and her husband Fred Mason built it in 1926 gets you the “Gay” part, and Parita means, Turner says, “equal” when translated from Italian — although Turner will tell you that Gay was more equal than Fred). He’ll tell you that he’s happy to pose for pictures, complete with an old-time service station attendant’s cap. He’ll pull out 8 x 10 glossy photos, sign “Gary to” and have you sign your own name below it. He’ll tell you at 12:30 p.m. that he has to meet his tax man at 2, so he can’t stay long — then he’ll proceed to stay as long as you’d like. He’ll ask if you want to see his garage — and then he’ll take you to his gift shop. He’ll tell you that everything in the gift shop is made in the USA and that he won’t sell anything that isn’t. He’ll take you to his garage where he stores his 1929 Ford touring car and his 1948 Ford truck painted bumblebee black and yellow. He’ll tell you that he once worked at the Knott’s Berry Farm theme park in California. He’ll tell you that his family worked as “fruit tramps” in California when he was 8 years old. He’ll get in his car and pop into the tape deck a recording of a song he wrote, “Dream of My Life,” which is traveling Route 66, while you stand shivering in the cold northwest wind. He’ll tell you that all he does is sit and talk to folks — and you’ll definitely believe him.
And you’ll tell yourself that you’ve just met one of the most interesting characters in your life.
From Gay Parita, I took Old Route 66 to Spencer, a ghost town that is being restored as a tourist stop complete with an old Phillips 66 station. It was cold, so I snapped a few pictures and headed on down the road to Carthage, where the 66 Drive-In sits on the town’s western edge. From Carthage it’s on to Carterville and Webb City and then into downtown Joplin. Route 66 — which is actually called 66 here — heads west out of town, and in a couple of miles I turn right onto Old Route 66, which is most definitely the real deal because it’s narrow and beat all to pieces. I pass the Hogs and Hot Rods Saloon, and before I can hit the brakes, I’m in Galena, Kansas.
I turn around and stop at Hogs and Hot Rods to chat up the locals, and I’m pretty sure I got a month’s worth of the Recommended Daily Allowance of secondhand smoke during the half-hour I was in there. A Kansas fan tells me he’s going to be sick when he sees my Mizzou hat, and I tell him I broke out in hives when I crossed the state line. The bartender, Michelle McDonald, tells tales of hundreds, maybe thousands, of bikers stopping in once the weather starts warming up. Behind the bar is a sign that says “Stupidity Should Be Painful.” It’s truly my kind of place.
And that’s it. My tour of Route 66 in Missouri is done. I’m happy that I’ll be heading home soon to my fiancée and daughter, but I’m also a little wistful, too. I think back to all the things I’ve seen and especially the people I’ve met, the dreamers and adventurers who form a family along Route 66. Now the road — this road — is in my blood, I’m a part of that family, and I know someday soon, I’ll be back. Someday soon, I’ll be back.
— 30 —