Lost in St. Louis, Journey to Uranus, and Waiting Out Tornadoes.
We left our intrepid Route 66 travelers in Illinois, about to cross the Mississippi River into St. Louis, Missouri. Our first destination was the Gateway Arch, which isn’t so much a “must-see” as a “you can’t help but see.” It towers 630 feet above the ground, and you can see it for miles around.
This was a good thing because Google Maps got us completely turned around and lost attempting to find the actual park. It even tried sending us under a bridge with eight feet of clearance, which two of our three vans couldn’t fit under. We ended up just pulling over, getting the pictures, then declaring “every van for itself.” Once again, there was no way for us to stay together, so we agreed on a place to regroup later, then went our separate ways.
Escape From St. Louis
I hopped on Interstate 44 west out of St. Louis and took a detour to a T-Mobile store. I found a phone in the parking lot at Cahokia Mounds and having identified that it was a T-Mobile phone I hoped they could identify and return it to its owner.
From there, my next stop was the Route 66 State Park visitor center in Eureka. It’s located on a section of old Route 66 ending at a closed bridge. It’s a bit strange sitting at a picnic table in the middle of Route 66, looking out over a bridge with no roadbed.
The visitor center itself is the former Bridgehead Inn, a Route 66 roadhouse built in 1935. Inside there are displays showing the history of Route 66 Missouri from the 1930s to the 1960s, as well as items from all up and down Route 66 during that time. The nice woman working at the front desk gave me a map detailing the major sights on Route 66 Missouri has to offer. This would prove useful in our travels across the state.
I got back on I-44 and continued west, crossing the old Route 66 in the process. It couldn’t get any more clear how the Interstates just ran wherever they wanted to, with no regard for previously existing roads (or neighborhoods, but that’s another story). Soon I left the interstate, rejoined Route 66, and regrouped with the others. It had already been a long day of driving, but since we couldn’t find free overnight parking near St. Louis and the campgrounds were overpriced, we pressed on to a Cracker Barrel to have dinner and spend the night.
The next morning we were treated to an impromptu car show in the parking lot. A local classic car club was apparently meeting for breakfast, so we got to take a look at their classic cars and imagine them traveling Route 66 together.
We also met an aspiring van lifer, who wanted to see all of our vans to get ideas for her own, as well as Debbie, who also spent the night in a converted wheelchair van very much like mine. She was heading in the same direction we were, so we invited her to travel with us. Being new to van life, she accepted, and our convoy grew to four vans instead of three. We loaned her one of our two-way radios to keep in touch on the road and set a course for Cuba — the town in Missouri, not the country.
Murals in Cuba
As we’d already seen in Illinois, Route 66 Missoui is loaded with painted murals depicting the places it passes through along the way. Cuba is particularly well known for them, having more than any other place I saw on this journey.
It feels like the town’s entire history is represented on the sides of its buildings. Missouri had sympathizers on both sides of the Civil War. It was a flashpoint for many battles, including some in the Cuba area. A series of murals depict battles and skirmishes that took place around Cuba.
The great aviator Amelia Earhart once made an emergency landing in Cuba, which caused quite a stir. She fixed her stricken airplane, then continued on her way into the history books.
President Harry Truman was from Missouri and served as a Senator from 1934 until he became FDR’s Vice President in 1944. In 1940, he campaigned in a tough race for re-election, including a speech right here in Cuba. Depicted here is that speech and the only two people who showed up to listen to him as others kept hurrying past. When he learned that they were all heading to a homecoming fair, he picked up the Coca-Cola box he was standing on and went to the fair himself, hoping to find a larger audience.
Now a small restaurant, Weir on 66 embraces its past as a Route 66 service station, with murals depicting this history on what used to be the garage doors. This is one of the few places depicting mid-20th century Route 66 history rather than other historical events in the area.
These are only a few of the numerous murals in Cuba. If you visit, I recommend doing as we did — park, then get out and walk around the center of town on foot. There’s a lot to see, and we spent the entire morning seeing it.
Finally, we returned to our vans and took a short drive down the road to the Fanning 66 Outpost. This store has many things for many people. The front section is a Route 66 gift shop, with everything you’d expect from such a place, plus amazing local fudge, popcorn, and sodas. (I couldn’t resist the temptation of a Route Beer 66 and some cinnamon roasted cashews.) Farther back, you can find all the kitchen gadgets you’ve ever wanted for sale. Farther back still, it’s a feed store for the local farms. It also appears to have had an indoor archery range at one time.
At one time, it was also home to the world’s largest rocking chair. Built in 2008, it’s over 42 feet tall. It held the title for seven years, when Casey, Illinois claimed the record with a 56.5-foot tall rocking chair. Both of them are too tall for me to sit in.
Fly Me To Uranus
We rolled down the road to Rolla, took care of mundane necessities such as laundry and showers, and spent yet another night at Chateau Walmart. The next day started with a pleasant drive down Route 66 parallel to Interstate 44. The geography changed from the flat, empty, and straight of the Great Plains to green forests, hills, and curves. I hadn’t seen territory like this since leaving the northeast. It was fun and much more enjoyable than the plains where you could watch your dog run away for three days. Later our drive took us down Route Z, which is the old Route 66 preserved in all its former four-lane highway glory.
A short distance off this highway lies the Devil’s Elbow Bridge, another older alignment of Route 66. This and the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge are the only two curved bridges on Route 66. This one, however, is still open to traffic, though it doesn’t get very much with two major highways nearby.
One might think the bridge is named for the unexpected curve in the middle of it, which has probably surprised many inattentive motorists. In fact, the name comes from the community of Devil’s Elbow, which is surrounded on three sides by the Big Piney River. Lumber used to be sent down the river, and would often get stuck in these curves, inspiring this colorful name.
Our next stop was Uranus. No, not that planet that’s tipped on its side, but Uranus, Missouri. Here lies a fun tourist attraction that exists for no reason other than fun and juvenile puns about the name of the place. Yes, there’s even a fudge factory. I tried the chocolate mint and chocolate peanut butter varieties. They were quite good.
Uranus’ humor extends beyond rude comments of the type you’d expect to hear from Beavis and Butt-head. The place is scattered with signs telling you not to do the things you’re already doing. Uranus even has a police car standing by, so don’t get caught reading these signs, which is strictly prohibited.
Another automotive oddity in Uranus is this brightly decorated double-decker bus. I’d never been inside one before, and it’s open to explore, so I took the opportunity to do just that. I enjoyed the decorative artwork inside, which is something you don’t get in London.
After getting our laughter out of our systems, we moved onto Lebanon to explore the Route 66 museum there. This is one of the better ones to stop and check out as you cross the country. It does a great job showing the history of Route 66 Missouri. While of course, it focuses mainly on Missouri, it includes all of the other states the Mother Road ran through as well. It includes recreations of a 1950s gas station, as well as a diner from the same era.
This picture looked quite familiar to me, even if we are about 100 years apart. For early travelers, a long road trip was a massive undertaking. People had to bring everything but the kitchen sink with them, and even that might come in handy. Once highways and the facilities that go with them were built, anyone could travel long distances with practically no equipment or planning at all. Yet with the van life movement, we’re coming back full circle to bringing everything with us, and not relying so much on finding things on the way. The main difference is that it’s much more difficult to find a legal place to park overnight now than it was back then.
Speaking of overnight parking, since there wasn’t much available in Lebanon we briefly hopped on Interstate 44 and stayed at a nearby rest area in Conway. Much to our surprise, it felt like we hadn’t left Route 66 at all. The grassy area between the main building and truck parking was a tribute to Route 66, complete with road signs and small pavilions covering picnic tables decorated like many of the landmarks along the way. We threw together what we had for a spur-of-the-moment potluck dinner underneath one of them.
The next morning we had a short drive to Springfield. Yes, this is the second Springfield we’ve seen in two states. Contrary to popular belief, there is not a Springfield in all 50 states. There is, however, a Springfield in 34 of them.
Springfield, Missouri, considers itself the birthplace of Route 66. It was the home of John Woodruff, who, along with Cyrus Avery, mapped out the route that would become the Mother Road. In 1925, Congress enacted the law that would create the national highway system. On April 30, 1926, Woodruff sent a telegram from Springfield’s Colonial Hotel proposing that the road from Chicago to Los Angeles be named Route 66. It is upon these facts that Springfield stakes its claim as Route 66’s birthplace.
Unfortunately, the major Route 66 places to see here were closed while we were here. The main visitor’s center is only open on weekends, and Mother Road Antiques closed for the winter at the beginning of October. We got pictures but were sad that Springfield turned out to be a bit of a bust.
It was at this point that we heard about some strong thunderstorms, and potentially tornadoes, across Oklahoma and Texas. They would be precisely where we were going, and when we’d intended to be there. We decided to take a day off the road to let them pass. The storms rolled over us in the middle of our second night there, weakened to safe levels without tornadoes.
Two of our four vans went their separate ways at this point. I stuck with the couple, cat, and dog who remained, and pressed on to Carthage. The wind was fierce in the aftermath of the storms, blowing our tall vans all over the place. The speed limit on Route 66 was 65 mph, but we didn’t feel comfortable going much faster than 50 to make sure we could stay on the road. Fortunately, trips like this aren’t about making good time, and there were plenty of wide-open spaces for faster traffic to pass us.
The Carthage town square was beautiful, especially the courthouse at the center of it. It was the wrong time of day to see a movie, but we paused at the 66 Drive-In Theatre, another famous landmark. Unlike many such places on Route 66, this one is still open today and had current movie showings listed on their sign.
Jaunt to Joplin
The speed limit dropped from here, and it was a much easier drive to Joplin, a town named after my travel companions’ cat. (Not really, but they do share a name.) We visited the small Route 66 park, which has another mural of the entire road. We’d seen so much, yet only covered about a quarter of the distance so far.
Joplin was a popular gangster hideout back in the day. Nearby Oklahoma had been a dry, alcohol-free state since its establishment in 1907, while Missouri was a wet state, enabling easy bootlegger runs across the border. The crime wasn’t limited to illegal booze, either. None other than Bonnie and Clyde stayed in Joplin for several weeks in 1933, committing a few robberies in town while they were there. Police tried to arrest them but instead, there was a shootout that left two officers dead while the couple escaped. They left most of their possessions behind, though, including a camera containing what has become some of the most famous pictures of them. It seemed fitting that I visited their temporary residence in a Ford V8, a much-evolved form of Clyde’s favorite getaway car.
Thirteen Miles in Kansas
Although Kansas has the shortest mileage of Route 66, a whopping 13 miles, they are probably the state most proud of being included on the route. Galena, the only major place Route 66 visits in Kansas, was the inspiration for the town of Radiator Springs in the movie Cars.
When entering Galena from Missouri, Sheriff is there to greet you — perhaps another case of revenue enhancement speed traps. Luigi’s Pit Stop is there, too, complete with an old Fiat 500 ready to give your tires a quick change.
To see Mater and some of the others, visit Cars on the Route. It started as a service station that four women restored, which led to the original name of Four Women on the Route. Later it renamed and rebranded itself with a Cars theme and remains in business today.
Besides the center of Galena, the other famous Route 66 sight in Kansas is the Rainbow Bridge, officially known as the Bush Creek Bridge. Once a popular style, this is the last remaining example of a concrete Marsh Rainbow Arch bridge on all of Route 66. The main road now goes around it, widened to accommodate modern vehicles, but you can take a short side trip and drive over the old bridge if you want — which, of course, we did.
Then, before we knew it, we crossed another state line into Oklahoma. But that’s a story for another day.
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.