I would guess most people that like to drive around less touristy parts of the country in search of charming small towns, historical gems and regional food specialties, like I do, have given some thought to driving Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles. Some have been fortunate enough to do it. I’m not one of those lucky souls. I have a vision issue that limits how much driving I can handle and my wife doesn’t relish the thought of spending a long vacation primarily in a car. But that doesn’t mean we can’t explore smaller sections of the Mother Road over shorter periods of time. And that’s what we did in early November of 2011. After flying into Chicago and grabbing a rental car, we headed southwest, into the heart of Illinois.
Unfortunately, while I have the majority of photos I took during this trip, some appear to be missing. I’m trying to jog my memory, but remembering every detail of a vacation from a decade ago is a chore. I’ll do my best.
As we drove gradually further from Chicago, we passed through a series of towns, including Joliet, where we stopped to pick up a mug for my brother-in-law’s collection at the University of St. Francis. Joliet also has the distinction of being the city where Route 66 and the Lincoln Highway, another road with plenty of historical significance, intersected for a period. Both still pass through the town.
I had spent a lot of pre-trip prep time looking at photos of old restaurants, motels and kitschy attractions on Route 66 and was psyched to get my first close-up taste of these things; well, maybe not too close as far as the motels go. The first good opportunity we had was in Wilmington, Illinois. A drive-in restaurant called the Launching Pad was closed for the season, but it’s main non-culinary attraction was still on hand. I’m referring to one of the Mother Road’s famous roadside giants; the Gemini Giant spaceman, which stands tall and proud in the corner of the parking lot.
With the first bit of Rt. 66 kitsch under my belt, I was ready to eat. We chose the Old Log Cabin in Pontiac, IL, which first opened as a lunchroom and gas station in 1926 and doesn’t appear to have gone through a lot of radical changes over the years.
My wife tried a breaded pork tenderloin with green beans and tots, while I went with a hot roast beef sandwich and mashed potatoes smothered in brown gravy. I hadn’t quite gained a significant interest in pie at this point, so I by-passed the opportunity to order some for dessert, something I have rarely done during later food trips.
Among the cool things you see along Route 66 are very old gas stations, like this one.
We made another college mug stop at Illinois State University in Bloomington before moving on to our first destination; Springfield, the capital of Illinois and the longtime home of Abraham Lincoln.
It was fairly late when we arrived and we settled for dinner at a Midwestern fast food chain that I wish we had in the East. Culver’s makes Wisconsin-style butter burgers with fried cheese curds on the side and an array of frozen custard treats for dessert.
Most of the following morning and afternoon were devoted to Lincoln-themed activities. There are many reminders of his connection to Springfield in the downtown and historic area.
The highlight of the morning was a visit to and tour of the Lincolns’ home. The tours are led by Rangers from the National Park Service. It was a one story home when the Lincolns moved in, but they expanded it as their family grew along with Abe’s law practice. The home was very tastefully decorated. Abe and Mary slept in separate rooms, as was common then. There were chamber pots inside and an outhouse in the back.
After leaving the Lincoln house, we walked past both the current Illinois state house, with its obligatory Lincoln statue, as well as the old capitol from Lincoln’s time.
One of the food items that most interested me on this trip was the smashed, thin Midwestern style of burgers with crispy edges that I’ve written about in a couple earlier posts. I had one at Culvers. Lunch on this day would take us to a smaller, regional chain called Krekel’s for another. As we were about to arrive at Krekel’s, I noticed there was a Robin Roberts Stadium next to it. Roberts was a hall-of-fame Phillies pitcher from before my time who turns out to have been from Springfield.
The burger, which I had with onion rings on the side, was slightly disappointing if memory serves me. It was still nice to be eating a burger outside on a beautiful day in Lincoln’s home town.
Following lunch, we checked out the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in the heart of downtown Springfield. It’s a beautiful building and I believe I took more photos of the inside than I’m providing here. But these are all I can find at this point.
We had one more major Lincoln attraction to get to that day, and it turned out to be the most spectacular of all and one of the more memorable sight-seeing experiences I’ve had. The memorial in which Lincoln’s tomb sits is fairly spectacular-appearing at first site. It looks like a smaller version of the Washington Monument with several striking statues around the base, beautiful grounds and a famous Lincoln bust created by Gutzon Borglum nearby.
We were enjoying the exterior of the monument when to our surprise, a door at its base opened and a park ranger stepped out just far enough to wave to us to join him inside the monument for a private tour. The interior is spectacular, to say the least. There are numerous statues of Lincoln, including a replica of the one at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.
I truly love Abraham Lincoln and struggled a bit to maintain my composure when we got to his actual burial tomb.
It had been an extremely rewarding day that I’ll always remember fondly.
For dinner that night, I believe we went to a Chinese restaurant, but I don’t have the photos and don’t recall the restaurant or meal well enough to write about it.
We pulled out of Springfield the next morning and rejoined the Mother Road as we headed for St. Louis. After passing through several small towns, we approached the Mighty Mississippi and the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge, which crosses it. The Old Bridge, which was built in 1929 and closed to motor vehicles in 1970, used to be designated as part of Route 66, but is now only open to foot and bicycle traffic between Madison, IL and St. Louis, MO. The New Chain of Rocks Bridge is fully operational and open to all vehicles between the two states.
The Old Bridge is a scenic wonder and we enjoyed walking part of it and checking out the views from above the Mississippi. But I was eager to get to our next meal stop across the river, so we hopped on over to the New Bridge and made for Carl’s Drive-In in Brentwood, just outside of St. Louis. It’s appropriate that a classic little burger and root beer shack like this, with nothing more than a counter and stools inside, sits on Route 66. I mentioned in my top ten list the other day that the double-cheeseburger I had at Carl’s is in my pantheon of great roadfood that I’ve eaten over the years. It’s the perfect embodiment of the style of burger that I like most.
Under other circumstances, I’d have probably ordered a root beer float or a shake at Carl’s, but these weren’t normal circumstances. Carl’s is only a ten-minute ride from the Ted Drewes Chippewa location, which also sits on Route 66. Ted Drewes is one of the best-known frozen custard stands in the country and is known for their concretes, which they serve upside-down to demonstrate how dense their custard is. We skipped the concretes and went with sundaes; vanilla custard with cherry topping for my wife and vanilla with caramel and chopped nuts for me.
Unfortunately, all of the photos I took of our activities and food in St. Louis the following day are gone.
I know we started the day with an early lunch at the Crown Candy Kitchen, a classic old shop known for their malts and sundaes. If memory serves me, I had an egg salad sandwich and washed it down with a shake or malt. These are online photos to show you what the place looks like. In contrast to these photos, there was a line out the door and an overflow crowd inside when we ate there.
We also visited the Missouri History Museum and the St. Louis Zoo in the city’s beautiful Forest Park and were extremely impressed that entrance to both venues was free of charge. You don’t see that in many major cities.
We had to hurry back to Chicago to catch our flight home during the morning and early afternoon of the trip’s final day, so we took the interstate. But we did veer back onto Route 66 one final time for a last meal. Our choice was the Palms Grill Cafe in Atlanta, Illinois. We started our Route 66 journey with a roadside giant and we would finish it with another one. This time, it was a huge muffler man holding a hot dog right across the street from the restaurant.
The interior of the restaurant looked like it was pulled from the set of a 1950s movie. Unfortunately, I have no photos of our food and don’t recall what we had.
At the time of this vacation, I had thoughts of doing similar trips to other sections of Route 66, but it hasn’t happened yet. Nonetheless, I’ve got itineraries ready if we’re able to do it at some point.