The journey begins with muffler men, the Blues Brothers, rabbits, and more.
One of my lifelong dreams has been to travel across the United States. First, it was by bicycle, back before I was old enough to drive. Then it was to drive, and later to do it by motorcycle. Now that I’m living in a camper van and working remotely, I found myself in the perfect position to turn this dream into a reality.
But what route do I take? This is a big country. I met some fellow travelers online who planned to travel the entirety of Route 66, often called the Main Street of America. What better way to experience a cross-country journey than by following in the footsteps (tire tracks?) of so many who have gone before me along this route?
Joliet to Pontiac
While Route 66 Illinois officially begins in Chicago, our group of three vans, four people, three cats, and one dog met at Route 66 Park in Joliet. All great journeys begin with ice cream, so we indulged at Rich & Creamy, a stop from the Mother Road’s golden era that still operates today — though with the addition of the Blues Brothers dancing on the roof. John Belushi’s character was known as “Joliet Jake,” so there is a great deal of association going on in this city.
There are so many interesting sights to see in Joliet that we spent the entire day there. There are many interesting statues and mosaics in Route 66 Park. Across the street is Dick’s on 66, a garage with many interesting old cars on display. It’s still in operation today. The Joliet Area Historical Museum features a Route 66 visitor’s center. Finally, I had to visit the Old Joliet Prison, which featured prominently in the opening scenes of The Blues Brothers. I took the opportunity to recreate the famous shot where Elwood picks up Jake upon his release from prison, except with my van instead of the Bluesmobile.
Not to worry — we got to see the Bluesmobile itself on our way out of town the next morning. Even the next town we went to, Elwood, lends its name to one of the Blues Brothers.
On a more serious note, we visited the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery. This isn’t where Lincoln is buried, but a military cemetery like the more famous Arlington one in Washington, DC. We paid our respects to those who served, then moved onto the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.
This is a protected area that has been returned to its original state as a grassland prairie. Development or farms have taken over most of Illinois, so it’s interesting to see a sample of what it looked like before civilization took over.
Rolling down the road into Wilmington, we stopped at the Launching Pad Restaurant to see another famous Route 66 sight: the Gemini Giant. This is one of many “muffler man” statues that appeared all over Route 66 during the 1960s. Originally made to sell mufflers, with the man holding a muffler in his arms, these have been converted over the years into everything from Paul Bunyan holding an ax, to this guy, a spaceman named after the Gemini program, which was the latest and greatest space-age technology at the time. The statue has remained, but the restaurant fell into serious disrepair over the years until recently, when new owners restored it to its former glory.
Next was yet another classic Route 66 Illinois stop, the Polk-A-Dot Drive-In in Braidwood. It’s more than 50 years old and looks like it hasn’t changed much since the day it opened. Along with the classic 1960s diner vibe, there are also statues of famous figures of that era scattered all over, from Elvis to Superman to Marilyn Monroe to Betty Boop. And yes, the Blues Brothers make yet another appearance. I tried dancing with them, but even the dummies have better moves than I do.
Across the street, there are some interesting animal sculptures made out of what looks like spare car parts.
On to Gardner, with two very small places in the center of town that are worth a look. One is a tiny two-room jail, built in 1906 and still standing today. It looks the same as it did back then, though fortunately you don’t get locked up in there anymore. I didn’t, anyway.
Next door to the jail is a recreation of the famous Riviera Roadhouse. The original building started life as a horse-drawn streetcar but was converted into a restaurant for early Route 66 travelers in 1928.
The original restaurant burned down in 2010, but this replica now exists in a different location for tourists to check out. Building it right next to the two-cell jail is an appropriate choice since some say that gangster Al Capone used to visit the Riviera regularly, thanks to its alleged offerings of illegal gambling and alcohol. It’s probably a good thing its original location wasn’t next door to the two-cell jail.
Like the jail, the Riviera was open to go inside and see for myself. It’s similar to the classic railroad car diners that later became popular, but smaller due to its past life as a streetcar. There’s nothing quite like going inside and poking around for myself to get a good idea of what a roadside diner like this would’ve been like nearly 100 years ago.
Our day ended with dinner at Baby Bull’s Family Restaurant in Pontiac. We spent the night at a nearby Walmart parking lot. Many Walmarts offer free overnight parking to travelers. Sam Walton was an RVer himself and encouraged his stores to allow it. This brings in business from travelers who are already parked there for the night anyway. Local ordinances and store management policies mean this isn’t guaranteed to be the case at every store today, but many still do it. We spent many nights at what I call “Chateau Walmart” during our Route 66 journey.
Pontiac to Lincoln
The next day we explored the center of Pontiac. This is a great place to park, get out, and explore on foot since there are many places to see that are quite nearby. Our first stop was the Pontiac-Oakland Automobile Museum, which I’ve already written about. Next was the Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum. The first floor is a celebration of Route 66 Illinois. Every town it passes through has its own section of glass case around the walls, showing off historical Route 66 related documents and artifacts from that town. We learned a bit about where we’d already been, and where we were about to travel.
In the center of the room sits Bob Waldmire’s 1972 Volkswagen Bus. Waldmire was an artist who traveled Route 66 extensively, doing van life before van life was cool. Later he was a pivotal member of Route 66 preservation efforts, helping to track down and map the various alignments the Mother Road had over the years.
One of his later creations, the “Road Yacht,” a heavily modified school bus that he traveled in later, is on display out back. Waldmire’s story is fascinating and worth a read in itself. He and his van even inspired the character of Fillmore in the Cars movies, who is also a hippie VW bus.
Upstairs there are many other exhibits, such as this recreation of a house from the 1940s. The radio is even playing one of FDR’s fireside chats. There’s a room with newspapers reporting historic events of World War II all over the walls and more. This leads into the Livingston County War Museum, which was closed when I was there. I’m sure it offers just as rich a look into the area’s military history as the other museums do with their particular subjects.
Finally, the numerous murals painted on buildings around the center of town are worth walking around and exploring as well. These detailed works of art capture Pontiac’s history well and give us a glimpse into the past.
These include Bob Waldmire’s final work, a complete map of Route 66 that’s exactly 66 feet long. He completed it just weeks before he died.
Finally, we moved on from Pontiac. Our next stop was Sprague’s Super Service Station in the town of Normal. This unique building, which was used as a gas station, auto repair shop, and house all in one, dates back to 1931. Today, it’s a combination of a museum and a gift shop. It’s also on the National Register of Historic Places, and the exterior looks the same as it did in the 1930s.
We had to stop in Atlanta. More murals awaited us, as well as another Muffler Man, this one holding a giant hot dog. This one is known as the Bunyon Giant, poking fun at the more well-known Paul Bunyan statue. It used to stand outside of Bunyon’s hot dog stand in nearby Cicero but moved to Atlanta after Bunyon’s closed in 2002. I sent a picture from here to my FIXD co-workers at our main office in the more well-known Atlanta in Georgia, just to amuse them.
Lincoln to Springfield
Our last stop for the day was the town of Lincoln. While places named after Abraham Lincoln are common today, only this town was christened by Lincoln himself in 1853. When asked to perform the ceremony, he’s said to have replied, “Nothing with the name of Lincoln has ever amounted to much.” The ceremony was short and sweet, literally, with Lincoln choosing a watermelon to provide the juice he poured on the ground. He ate half of it and called upon “the youngest American on the ground” to share it with him. He also brought a pile of watermelons on a cart and shared them with all who gathered for the occasion. His funeral train stopped here before moving on to his final resting place in Springfield.
Today, Lincoln, Illinois, is a shell of its former self and a classic example of how the towns Route 66 served have declined since the interstates replaced it. Along this entire row of buildings, only one has a business occupying it, with many others being condemned.
Lincoln is, however, home to the world’s largest covered wagon, certified by the Guinness Book of World Records. The Railsplitter, as it’s known, stands 24 feet tall. A statue of Abe Lincoln reading a law book sits on the front of it. Although it’s only existed since 2001, it embodies the spirit of unusual sights and attractions all along Route 66 during its heyday. It certainly fits in today.
The town of Elkhart is just on the other side of the railroad tracks from Route 66. It’s a quaint little town that hasn’t changed much since the interstates bypassed it. There’s a beautiful mural of the town on the side of a building. A Ronald McDonald statue sits on a bench, nowhere near an actual McDonald’s restaurant, for no apparent reason. That’s Route 66 for you.
Springfield to Livingston
Next, we entered Springfield, the capital of Illinois. Very quickly we found it impossible to keep our caravan of three together through traffic and intersections. There was nowhere to pull over and wait for the others when we got separated. Parking was extremely limited because our vans were too tall to fit in the public parking garages. We ended up declaring “every van for itself” for the day, leaving each of us free to explore Springfield as we wished. We regrouped at a nearby Chateau Walmart that evening.
Since I was already parked nearby, I checked out the old state capitol. This is where Abraham Lincoln served as a state Senator and delivered his famous “House Divided” speech opposing slavery. It’s also where Lincoln, as well as Barack Obama, announced their candidacy for President.
Springfield is also the home of Lincoln’s tomb. While his memorial in Washington, DC, is more famous, his tomb is actually here, in his former home of Springfield. With the difficulty I was having navigating and maneuvering around the city, I didn’t make it there. I ended up heading to Chateau Walmart early, getting some work done and waiting for the others.
On our way out of Springfield the next day, we detoured off the main road to travel a special 1.4-mile section of Route 66. Preserved in its original form as a brick road on top of concrete, it’s open for the public to drive and get a taste of the original Route 66 experience. This road is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Later, we traveled to another old Route 66 Illinois alignment, this one on a concrete roadbed. They made this before engineers understood how to split concrete into sections that allow it to expand and contract with temperature, so this section is somewhat rough. We spent a little while on it, but once we’d had enough of the bumps and rattles, we hopped back on the newer alignment in much better condition.
In the early 20th century, you could order practically anything from Sears. This even went so far as to include houses, the precursors to modern modular homes. You could literally order what you wanted from a catalog and have it delivered to your property. These homes were popular across much of the eastern US, but Carlinville, Illinois, has an entire neighborhood of them.
In 1917, Standard Oil opened two new coal mines in town, which saw an explosion in its population. They needed a lot of new housing fast and turned to Sears-Roebuck. By the end of 1918, they had built a new neighborhood of 156 Sears houses for their workforce. It’s fascinating to see how they are all so similar, yet different at the same time. Parts and even entire floors were mixed and matched interchangeably. You can tell this is the case when the windows on the first and second floors don’t line up with each other.
Continuing down the road to Staunton, we visited one of the most well-known sights along modern Route 66: Henry’s Rabbit Ranch. Proprietor Rich Henry had done his own Route 66 road trip in 1993. When his daughter’s rabbits had done what rabbits do and multiplied, he decided to open his own roadside tribute to all things related to rabbits. The original bunny family continues today, countless generations later. I didn’t get to meet the rabbits, since they had already moved inside to avoid winter’s cold temperatures.
Henry’s isn’t just a shrine to rabbits of the furry sort. Anything vaguely related to them is fair game, including the Volkswagen variety. In a tribute to the more well-known Cadillac Ranch (which I’d visit later), Henry created his own version but using Volkswagen Rabbits cut in half and turned on their ends. He also has many intact Rabbits around the place, including some of the old Rabbit-based pickup trucks.
I got to chat with Henry himself and showed him pictures of my own VW pickup truck conversion, which I built using a 2004 Jetta and a Smyth Performance kit. He got a kick out of it.
Livingston to St. Louis
Moving onto Livingston, the Pink Elephant Antiques Mall was a must-see. Built out of an old school, of all things, this place is absolutely packed with antiques, particularly from the Route 66 era. Numerous statues stand around the property as well, including animals (a pink elephant, of course), a UFO, another muffler man, and a 20-foot tall statue of Donald Trump. We got ice cream from the attached shop shaped like an ice cream cone, as you do in such places.
After an overnight stay at the Love’s truck stop in Hamel (another parking option for travelers like us), we drove out to the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge. This bridge, which has a unique 30-degree bend in the middle, used to carry Route 66 Illinois across the Mississippi River to Missouri. A bridge for the new Interstate 270 opened nearby in 1967, and the older bridge was closed in 1968. Its fate remained undetermined for 20 years, being too expensive to maintain as well as to tear down.
In 1980, John Carpenter filmed some scenes for Escape from New York on this abandoned bridge. In 1991 a pair of gruesome murders took place on the bridge. Finally, the Trailnet group restored the bridge and connected it to their 300 miles of trails on both sides of the river, opening it to pedestrian and bicycle traffic in 1999. While one of our group walked all the way across the bridge to Missouri, I only went halfway, taking in my first-ever look at the Mississippi River.
Our vans couldn’t cross this bridge, though, so we had to move on to another way. Our final stop in Illinois was the Cahokia Mounds, which was the site of a major Native city 1,000 years ago. It’s directly across the river from modern-day St. Louis, Missouri. Although many think of Natives from this era as simple nomadic people, the population of 13th-century Cahokia was equal to or larger than the population of 13th-century London, England, according to some estimates. These mounds are the only remnants of that once great city, which was abandoned around the year 1350.
You can see the St. Louis Arch from the top of the biggest of these mounds. That was our next stop, leaving Illinois behind and starting the second chapter of our journey through Missouri. But that’s a story for another time.
Recovering autocross and track day enthusiast. Once turned a VW Jetta into a pickup truck. Lives in a van down by the river. Dream car: 2001 Subaru WRC rally car.