We’ve enjoyed our time in Chicago, but we have nearly 3,000 miles ahead of us so today it was time to hit the road.
The first thing we learned today is that Labor Day in America is not like Bank Holidays in the UK, in the sense that things close. All the things. First off, we had to change our rental car pickup from a few blocks from the hotel to out at the airport, which meant a cab ride out with our luggage and then a drive back into the city to the start of the road before heading back out. On the plus side, there was very little traffic.
The other problem we had was that we’d intended to start our journey with breakfast at the famous Lou Mitchell’s, but alas that too was closed.
|And we're off!|
(Purists will grumble that Route 66 never really started here and the sign should be a block over, but the original start is now one way in the opposite direction, so this is as good as you can get. And it has a shiny brown sign, so that’s good enough for us.)
Heading out into Illinois, our first stop was Joliet:
Sadly the museum was closed, but it was a gorgeous day and we got some lovely views of the river.
That bridge - the one pointing upwards - was supposed to be our road. We considered Thelma & Louise-ing it, but on reflection decided it was a bit early in the trip to be plunging over precipices. The nice thing about the American grid road system is that it's easy to work around road closures, so that was only a minor detour.
Our next stop was Wilmington, IL, where we made a new friend:
A little further down the road we stopped for lunch at the Polk-a-Dot Drive-In and made even more friends:
We also caught up with a massive group of Scandinavians on Harleys that we'd run into earlier at a gas station and would do so again at several stops on the road. They make a really impressive sight when they roll into and out of a place, but it doesn't seem the most comfortable way to travel across the country! We would also run into a French pair from Surrey - which is where Fi lives! - several times, and some people from Germany. We learned from the American equivalent of the Big Issue that 60-70% of travellers on Route 66 are from overseas, and it seems that we Europeans comprise a large chunk.
For most of the way through Illinois, we were on a frontage road running parallel to the Interstate, with the original Route 66 sandwiches between us. I doubt even the hardcore folks take the original road:
|Helpful sign, just in case you didn't notice the lack of tarmac|
A lot of businesses and even towns along the road shut down when they were bypassed by the Interstate, but the people of Illinois have done a brilliant job of restoring things to give a flavour of the old Route 66. An example of this is the gas station in Dwight, where we met a lovely guy who told us all about life on the road in the 50s.
Our next stop, in Pontiac, was an example of a whole town that's gone all-out to attract the many Route 66 tourists. As well as the Route 66 Museum, there are murals all over the town. Some are paintings of old businesses, some are old-fashioned adverts, and they've very cunningly put a massive one on the back of the museum building that ensures the town's name makes its way into every Route 66 photo album.
I was also especially fond of the random brightly-painted cars dotted around the town. Kind of like the Bath pigs a few years ago, they make you want to wander around the town to find them all.
|We traded in our rental SUV for something a bit snazzier|
We also made a long stop in Towanda, where a stretch of just under a mile of the original abandoned road has been spruced up by students and volunteers into a Memory Lane. Walking along the whole length, you pass a billboard for each state that Route 66 passes through, as well as a very helpful map painted on the ground.
|Working out which way to go next|
|View from the old Route 66 across a Borrow Pit to the Interstate|
Our final stop of the day was in Atlanta, which like Pontiac has gone all-out to present a bit of historic Route 66 to tourists. It's a shame we couldn't have been there when some of the businesses were open, but we did get to meet our second giant of the trip.
Finally, we headed for Springfield, IL, where we holed up in the Route 66 Hotel. This place is amazing - it has all the neon and kitsch you could possibly want from a Route 66 trip, and we paid all of £36 for a room with two queen beds. Not too shabby!
Illinois has been a massive surprise: we had expected it to be somewhere we just had to get through on our way to the good bits, but so far it's been enormous fun, thanks primarily to the efforts that have been made to preserve this part of the route. Also, massive props to the state of Illinois for their efforts in signing the route: those little brown signs saved us on more than one occasion when the road signs were too small to read.
Firsts in Illinois:
- I survived my very first 4-way stop, albeit with some over-politeness
- Our first roadkill :-(
- First time getting lost! (Only once, and to be fair Google Maps agrees with us that the road on our directions doesn't exist)
- Fi's first time driving in America (nobody died)
Miles so far: 214.2
Next up, we cross the Mississippi into St Louis!