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Road Trip Diaries, Day 3: Route 66 Day 1- From Chicago to Raymond, IL

It was the dawn of a great day – our first day officially on Route 66! Although this day was mostly wonderful, it didn’t start out that way as the valet informed us our rental SUV had a flat tire. AAA and a friendly Chicago Firestone took care of the problem much quicker than either initially stated, but we were still behind. Eh well, the Firestone was in a shopping district area that seemed to have a mix of old and new businesses. There were a lot of great looking signs, and we really appreciated the opportunity to see more of the Second City! The Firestone folks were extremely friendly and they, too, got the new tire on much faster than they thought they could. However, after all that we were still in Chicago hours later in the morning than we planned, and we were also more than ready for a proper breakfast. I had said we were going to stop at Lou Mitchell’s restaurant come hell or high water, so off we went. As a bonus, we got to drive right by the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) – the line for the Skydeck was already going down the street and around the corner. But without further ado, here’s a mere smattering of great sites, web links, some photos, lessons learned, and other tips and random thoughts from Day 1 on the old route, in order that they were encountered:

  • Historic U.S. Route 66 BEGIN – The “official” BEGIN sign is at the intersection of Adams and Michigan. Eric patiently drove us all the way back to this intersection from the Firestone, but we were really hungry at this point and wasn’t about to make him stop the car just so I could get a picture. So, we only got a crappy photo from the road. According to many things I’ve read, although you’re on 66 at this point, Adams and Michigan was never the actual start of Route 66 (see the page I’ve linked to, above). I’ve since learned there is a newer, more colorful sign at Adams and Wabash, which I didn’t see, but I’m confused because I don’t think 66 ever started there either. (Note that there are also historic END signs nearby.)
  • Lou Mitchell’s is a Chicago institution that’s been around since 1923 and serves as the official breakfast starting point of many a 66 traveler. We were delighted to find that street parking on Jackson Street near the restaurant was very easy but then again, we were there well past rush hour time. You can’t miss the Lou Mitchell’s neon signage out front. There is both indoor and outdoor eating (and the latter is right next to another Historic U.S. 66 sign). Since it was so hot, we went indoors where we saw some other travelers hauling in their bags! Lou Mitchell’s is famous for handing out mini boxes of Milk Duds as a “starter”; that was the first thing the hostess grabbed from a big bin by the door. I was amused to see a sign over the bin asking customers to please not just snatch up the Milk Duds. Eric ordered the Norwegian salmon and onion omelet and I got the salmon eggs benedict, both with sides of delicious fresh sliced hash brown potatoes, as well as a Chicago chocolate egg cream. Each meal also came with a big slice of toast and a little fruit dish. Everything was absolutely delicious and filling. Since Lou Mitchell’s is famous for its bakery, we couldn’t leave without getting a slice of their marble pound cake (moist and gooooood) for the road, along with a Lou Mitchell’s Route 66 T-shirt. Lou Mitchell’s, you made my morning! And now I’m missing you.
The Lou Mitchell's neon sign

Start your trip off right with a classic 66 breakfast!

And what a great bakery they have!

…And what great baking it is!

  • Iconic and funky fresh signs – I had heard there wasn’t much to see on the first 20 miles or so of 66, but that wasn’t the case for us as we saw plenty. Among many cool signs, we passed the great old Cozy Dog sign with the giant hot dog and fries – “It’s a meal in itself!” along with some other 66 landmarks. There were quite a few I wasn’t expecting such as a hilarious Las Vegas knock-off sign proclaiming WELCOME TO FABULOUS MCCOOK (which is a suburb of Chicago). Eric and I also learned we are a better driving and navigation team than I had thought. Of course, it helped us both out that Illinois marks its old 66 routes very well with the historic brown signs! But because there are multiple different alignments in some areas, it’s a good idea to know exactly where your “must-sees” are.
  • Dell Rhea Fried Chicken is a famous old restaurant in Willowbrook with a great neon sign. The road dead-ends right past the restaurant, so we had to turn around and find our way back on another alignment at that point. We were full from our late breakfast so we didn’t eat at Dell Rhea, but snapped pictures and noted the windows were full of chicken teapots and other tchotchkes!
  • I think Bollingbrook might have been when we started to come across a particularly large number of industrial plants, warehouses and other such buildings. Seeing things like that reminds you of America’s once glorious industrial history and makes you feel like you’re looking at the heart of America … not to get too sappy about it, but it really does. It’s a cool feeling.
  • We passed the White Fence Farm and then the Stateville prison in Joliet. Joliet is definitely where things started to get especially interesting. We came across a giant spooky-themed mini-golf and “fun” complex called Haunted Trails, complete with Dracula and a giant spider on the roof!
  • Rich ‘n’ Creamy ice cream stand at the Route 66 Park –(Rick’s 66 Garage, with some memorable signage, is just across the street) – Elwood and Joliet Jake (otherwise known as the Blues Brothers) dance on the roof of this small shack, once known as the Kreamy Delite, next to a delightful “Kicks on 66” ice cream cone sign. We pulled in to get a treat and stroll through the park. It was there that something hilarious happened. The little stand has one of those small customer service windows that you slide up and down. As the staffer slid the window up to hand us our cones – a chocolate and vanilla twist in each hand – the window suddenly came sliding back down. The hand holding my cone was safely extended past the window, but the other hand was not – and the window sliced right through the middle of the dessert, coming to a stop right on top of the cone held in the man’s hand. I quickly grabbed my cone and then turned away as fast as I could because I was giggling and didn’t want to be rude. The man quickly got Eric a new cone and he rejoined me and we couldn’t help but have a good giggle. As for the ice cream, it tasted just like the stuff that comes out of those self-serve ice cream machines you see in dining halls and on cruise ships. Not really knocking it for that – on a boiling hot day in July, it’s refreshing.
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The Blues Brothers on the roof of Rich ‘n’ Creamy

  • The Route 66 Park (formerly Broadway Greenway Park) surrounding Rich ‘n’ Creamy was great! There were informative plaques, restored vintage gas pumps, walking paths, two great pieces of public art, a playground, and an overlook where you could see the now-shuttered Collins Street Prison in the distance (way in the distance) where parts of The Blues Brothers was filmed.
  • Joliet Historical Museum and Route 66 Welcome Center is located in an old church building, which still has the beautiful stained glass windows in what was once the sanctuary. It’s hard to miss due to the great hanging neon sign right out front. There is also Along with a very friendly staff, there’s a ton of stuff about both Joliet and Route 66 crammed inside. The front of the museum has a large Route 66 exhibit with photo ops, vintage cars, a guest book, more Blues Brothers statues, maps, a great gift shop, guest book, electronic postcard station, and a “drive-in” with videos and recordings. To tour the museum itself, you’ll need to pay an admission fee ($7 person when we were there), which is worth the cost. Joliet is a city that’s obviously very proud of their history and of their Route 66 heritage and they have put a great deal of thought and work into their museum which covers the complete history of Joliet – including a space exhibit about NASA lunar space module innovator John Houbolt, who grew up in Joliet – and it is all extremely well done. (For even more, head into the basement to find loads of Route 66 information on the walls!) We liked it so much we stayed much later than we planned. Eric was particularly thrilled with the temporary  Space:  The Final Frontier exhibit, which featured many original works of art from science fiction novels and movies that he recognized. We also kept coming across random Star Wars figures inside some of the display cases! A staffer explained that these were from a recent Scavenger Hunt for kids and gave us a flyer from the event. How fun! Further proving that sometimes the best part of the old route is the people you meet, we also chatted with two older gentlemen at the museum who told us they were Amtrak train guides, and one of them very kindly gave us free 66 information to take with us! Outside the museum was another great piece of Joliet artwork, Route 66: The Mother Road that I absolutely loved and wish I had a miniature of.
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The Joliet Area Historical Museum and Route 66 Welcome Center is beckoning you! Stay in me for hours and hours!

  • A replica Bluesmobile on a stick (like the ones used for The Blues Brothers movie) can be found in a gas station parking lot as you head out of Joliet.
  • The Gemini Giant is a very famous figure on Route 66, and he’s still located outside the old Launching Pad restaurant as he has been since 1960. The Launching Pad restaurant closed over 3 years ago and hasn’t found a new owner yet, but the inside still looks good – as does the Giant, who posed for pictures with several tourists while we were there. (He is actually a repurposed Muffler Man, and quite tall.) The restaurant’s drive-thru menu in the back mentions some awfully tasty items, so I hope someone will be able to purchase and re-open soon!
  • Polk-a-Dot Drive-In has been on 66 in Braidwood, IL since 1956, as the rotating sign out front proudly proclaims. It’s hard to miss as it’s surrounded by statues of Elvis, Marilyn, and more (and yes, that includes more Blues Brothers!). Stopping for lunch here, we found vintage decorations, tabletop jukeboxes, and a real jukebox that still spins records in the corner. Eric had a cheeseburger and cole slaw and I had a shrimp basket. Everything was delicious – great road fuel! The only thing I didn’t like were the heavy bathroom doors that made me feel silly because I thought someone was in the bathroom when they weren’t and waited outside for at least 5 more minutes than I actually had to! So there’s a tip for you – yank that door HARD! (And there are more decorations behind it!)
  • Driving down the old Route 66 past somewhat heavier traffic on the neighboring Interstate is a fantastic feeling. You’ll love it. There are just a couple of times where you have no choice but to get on the Interstate to bypass a dead-end – often, a part where 66 literally lies under the superhighway.
  • In some areas you’ll find even older parts of the road on the other side of the 66 alignment on which you drive. Some are blocked off and completely undriveable, some dead-end, some stop at a cliff overlooking a lake. We found a particularly old segment in or near Gardner, Illinois, that is being removed; I believe it’s shown on page 197 of this report and if that’s it, the two old lanes were once southbound 66. The pavement is cracking and grass pokes through; faded paint lines can still be seen. In some places nothing remains but weed, green grass and the odd concrete crumble. But it’s in much better shape than other areas we saw! If you pass through Gardner on your way to Dwight, pull over and check this out before it’s gone. You can almost feel the days when 66 was jam-packed with people.
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Southbound lanes of the Mother Road, leading nowhere now.

  • Odell is a small town with a big heart, as its Burma-shave style signs proudly proclaim! (Don’t know what Burma-Shave signs are? Click here. They’re fun – you read each line of a rhyme as you drive along!) There’s a lot to see there, but we were trying to make up for some time, so we just drove through. We did catch sight of a beautifully restored old gas station. I look forward to spending more time here next trip.
  • Meramec Caverns barns can be spotted along the route and there’s a particularly good example in Cayuga, IL with a turnout (overlook) so you can pull in to snap a picture. What’s a Meramec Caverns barn? Meramec Caverns is a Missouri tourist attraction (some say tourist trap), still in existence and very popular today. In the days of 66, farmers along the route were often paid to have an ad for it painted on their Route 66-facing barns. The end result was many, many miles of roads dotted with “barn ads” (much like one might find endless South of the Border ads on the way to Myrtle Beach today). The “barn ad program” was eventually taken out of existence by some lawmaker who found it a nuisance (what does he think about billboards today, I wonder)? and launched a campaign, but many Meramec barns still remain. The Cayuga one is in a good shape.
  • Pontiac is another great small town, well-known for its many beautiful murals. We had a bit of a time getting in and out of Pontiac due to some construction roadblocks. It’s home to the famed Old Log Cabin Inn restaurant, which we somehow completely missed seeing what with all the turning around we were doing.
  • The Route 66 Association Hall of Fame & Museum is an absolute must-see in Pontiac! I wanted to see it so bad that we are lucky we did not get a speeding ticket trying to beat the clock as closing time was near. We made it with less than 10 minutes to spare and the friendly museum staffer was happy to see us. This museum is PACKED inside and out with history, murals, displays, salvaged pieces of red brick road, and saved items from demolished beloved Route 66 sites, such as the Wishing Well Motel wishing well and sign out back! It also has the “Road Yacht” of 66 Hall of Famer, John Steinbeck Award-winner, traveling artist, 66 preservationist, Cars movie inspiration, and vegetarian, the well-loved Bob Waldmire. (We picked up some Bob Waldmire-illustrated postcards at the Joliet Museum gift shop – they’re beautifully done!)
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    One of many great relics behind the Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum in Pontiac … and that’s just outside the building.

  • Memory Lane in Lexington and Route 66 Park in nearby Towanda are two attractions that have turned parts of the old road into biking and/or walking paths. You can find informational signs, billboards, and Burma-Shave signs along the way. Many of the Burma-Shave signs are readable if you’re driving on the open alignment of 66 as well. Eric and I delighted in reading these aloud to each other as we passed, with Eric always enthusiastically stating “BURMA-SHAVE!” in an commercial announcer’s voice at the end.
  • Funks Grove Maple Sirup (yes, that’s an intentional typo) has been offering 100% maple syrup – a treat the Funk family has been tapping themselves since at least the 1820s. We passed a billboard for it, but unfortunately were too late to stop in and buy any …
  • Atlanta, IL is home of the Bunyon Man, another Muffler Man statue (like the Gemini Giant), holding a hot dog this time. Right across the street is the historic Palms Grill – we planned to eat dinner there, but at an hour before the closing time I found online, it was shut up tight. We weren’t all that hungry yet, so we decided to just move on, eat the last of our beef jerky, and pull over at the next Route 66 place we found. Sadly, the 66 Arcade Museum next door was also closed!
  • If you’re thinking “I’m noticing a ‘we didn’t have time for …’ theme here”, you’re absolutely correct! The first day was just too jam-packed with activities for two novice 66ers to see it all before closing time. That is one reason I had planned for us to get up and head out to Lou Mitchell’s around 6 AM. We left a tad later than that as I’m never quick to drag my butt out of bed, but we were still in good shape until the tire incident … and the numerous turnarounds, endless roadblocks, and the extra time we found ourselves spending at several sites. Lesson learned so that you don’t have to: Assume Murphy’s Law about starting your day out and leave way more time than you think you need, because sometimes even the best-laid plans go awry! Thankfully, I had planned much lighter days for the rest of the journey. The first day really has way too much good stuff for you to see – and if it’s your first time on the route, you’ll be far more enraptured than you thought (and my excitement level was already high).
  • The aforementioned roadblocks were especially bad in some areas. The road can go for many miles without an easy way to get back to the Interstate if you need it, so that’s another reason you need that extra time. In one of those “all you can do is laugh” moments, Eric and I drove down a long, long stretch of route right alongside I-55 only to find a big fat roadblock waiting for us, and no way around it. We figured out how to go back in the opposite direction to rejoin I-55 and bypass it only to reach THAT end to find … another roadblock! I could almost hear the Mother Road laughing, “Oh, you THINK you’re going to get on the Interstate that ended me!” (The second roadblock was just a hair away from the exit we needed, so Eric just drove around that one.) Anyway – be prepared for situations like this, because that’s one thing I really was not counting on encountering to the level that we did.
  • The Auburn Brick Road is a 1.53 mile stretch of red brick road -yes, real red brick – from 1932 that is still driveable today. This was a must-see for me, but the directions I had made it sound like we would just come across it while passing through Auburn. If you are reading this, know that is not the case and click the link I’ve posted above to see the simple directions to use. We were past Auburn when I realized we hadn’t seen it. My wonderful husband turned around and drove all the way back and we spent a long time going through the cornfields only to never reach it. Eric was obviously miserable from hunger and he hadn’t packed enough road food for himself. (Another lesson learned – don’t skimp on your filling snacks if you eat as much as my hubs does, or really at all.) So after what seemed like a long, long time of fruitless searching, I told him we should get back to I-55, find a late dinner (we never really ate much after the Palms was closed), and take it the rest of the way to our hotel in Raymond (which was still quite a ways away).
  • The Nilwood Turkey Tracks is another thing we had to miss. Nilwood is not far from Auburn, so if you’re traveling the same alignment, you’ll see both.
  • Let me tell you, there is nothing like speeding through miles and miles of cornfields listening to the sound of bug after bug splattering against your windshield. It sounds like big drops of rain falling fast … splat … splat … splat. I grew up in the country with plenty of corn, and I have never seen or heard a dead bug musical quite like that in my whole life.
  • Dinner was at a Hardee’s drive-thru off 66. Not the supper I envisioned for us, but Tendercrisp chicken sandwiches taste pretty damn good when you feel famished. Lesson learned: Never, ever, ever put off eating dinner when you’re “not that hungry.” We should’ve made finding dinner a priority after we found the Palms closed back in Atlanta … and if we couldn’t find a 66 hot spot nearby, well, tough luck. Your car isn’t the only thing that needs fuel for the road, you know.
  • At long last, we made it to our hotel, the Magnuson Grand Hotel and Conference Center, on a very isolated, pitch black stretch of Route 66 in Raymond, IL. (Some sites list this as Carlinville, but others say Raymond, and Raymond is where it is on the map.) I’ll write more about it in my next Route 66 post.) It was quiet, save for some noisy cicadas in the surrounding woods, with a few welcoming lights in the dark. The staff inside was friendly, the indoors was decorated with a delightful nautical theme, and the shower was hot and refreshing. The mattress was comfier than any we’ve slept on in a long time and felt like heaven. The day might not have gone 100% perfectly, but the hotel was perfect, and the next day would be wonderful.

Here’s to Day 2 on the Route … and a return trip next year, to see all we missed! (Let’s be realistic … you can’t see it all in one trip anyway unless you’re out there for months …) Pro tip: Have a traveling partner who can go with the flow and is patient, helpful, resourceful, and a great car buddy. It helps if he/she also has a great sense of humor and can laugh at the little mishaps!

(Sorry, Eric is already taken.)

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