As an aficionado of small towns and the people who live in them, there seemed no better way to explore those not yet visited than by following the path of the road that once connected them: Route 66. The towns still exist, and the pavement that was once called Route 66 still connects them, but the route itself has ceased to exist. The good news is that its small town wanderings west is still known, and my riding partner and traveling companion, Ed, had the software that would show us the way with a pink (or magenta, depending on your color perception) line and the willingness to ride east from his home in Seattle to undertake the quest.
The bad news is that regardless which way you’re going, west or east, Route 66 starts or ends in Chicago. Our goal was to get a photo of our BMW bikes under the signs that noted the end of the route. We were going west, but being a city, we’d call it a win with either sign. The east bound terminus is at Lake Shore Drive and Jackson St. Because it’s a one-way street west, the start of Route 66 is on Adams St. When we got down town, after following US 41 from Oshkosh south until it turned into Lake Shore Drive, we didn’t get a photo with either sign. It wasn’t worth our lives.
A festival was going on, and throngs of people in shorts and t-shirts and sports bras were heading into the fenced off area, that blocked off Jackson and seemed to keep a loud music monster caged. Circling back on Indiana we were hoping for the Adams St. sign, but it was on the corner in a bus only lane. And we’d passed an articulated CTA bus just before turning left. And a cab that wanted by thought he could use part of the lane not filled with motorcycles. Calling it a good attempt and vowing to service as each other’s witness that we’d started Route 66 from the start, we wandered around and finally found our way out of the city.
Round about Joliet we reconnected with the pink line and the brown signs that the mark the historic route. We stopped at the Rich and Cream on Broadway ice cream shop because the fiberglass Blues Brothers were dancing on its roof. We didn’t get ice cream. The line was too long. Around Wilmington we met the Gemini Giant, and not only is he taller than I am, his feet are bigger.
It was here that we started to see history of an era passed. The buildings wore engraved names and dates at their cornices. Under one cornice marking the birth of URAD in 1909 was a modern sign over the door that read “Bienvenidos.” On the corner was a building proclaiming the Newlin Block, and it had a turret that allowed people within to look down both streets. It would make an excellent writing room. It was now home to the Cyber Café Latino and the Dental Arts Care office.
While wandering the streets, looking at the past that had survived to the present day by still serving a purpose, Ed and I started to formulate a plan for the rest of our journey. What interested us were the building we were seeing and the people we were meeting there. They had history with the place and could talk about the challenges of progress in their hometowns. This we didn’t find in the city, where the new replaced the old instead of repurposing it. The people were generally from somewhere else. That last part is a guess because striking up a conversation was impossible in traffic, and whether they were driving or walking to a festival, they were too engrossed in their phones to see what was around them.
Riding into Odell, Illinois, a series of signs said, “Odell, a small town with a big heart, where everybody is somebody,” crystalized our decisions to skirt the traffic and crowds and modernity of cities as we followed the pink line. One city looks like any other these days. The really interesting nouns – people, places, and things – were in the small towns. Cities don’t have Standard Oil Stations like this one, built in 1932, with the garage added in 1937, that are on the National Register of Historic Places. It would also save us a huge amount of time. With so many interesting places to explore, we weren’t making much progress on Route 66, which traverses more than 2,600 miles on its way to LA.